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Why Bono and co won't break the chains

The star-studded 'Drop the debt' campaign is not actually calling on the West to write off the third world's debts. Why not? asks John Pender of Africa Direct

'We have a once-in-a-millennium chance to change the world', cried Bono at the Brit Awards, launching Jubilee 2000's campaign for debt relief for the world's poorest countries. As Robbie Williams, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston and David Bowie performed on stage wearing Jubilee 2000's chain logo, Prince Naseem Hamed gave 'respect to Jubilee 2000' and said it was the best night of his life. The Jubilee 2000 logo and 'Drop the debt' slogan are to appear on CDs, Jubilee 2000 petitions and lapel badges are due to hit record stores, and Prodigy's Keith Flint has even had 'Drop the debt' tattooed on his back.

The powerful campaigning appeal of Jubilee 2000 has united the Pope, Jarvis Cocker, the World Development Movement and the Dalai Lama. The campaign's commitment to 'breaking the chains' captures the way that the world's poorest countries are enslaved by the need to service their massive debts. The drain of resources caused by the debt burden results in terrible hardship. Who could possibly oppose writing off all the debts and wiping the slate clean?

But before we lend our support to Jubilee 2000 and its 'Drop the debt' campaign, it is worth examining what it actually stands for.

The frankest and most detailed exposition of Jubilee 2000's objectives were given by its director Ann Pettifor, in evidence to the Select Committee on International Development ('Debt relief', 1998-99 session). Confusingly, it emerges that the campaign's notion of a 'debt-free start for the new millennium' does not mean eliminating all debt by the year 2000. Evidently many of Jubilee 2000's own paid-up supporters are oblivious to this. As one MP quizzed Ann Pettifor, 'What is coming back to us, from our own constituents, is that you are in favour of simply writing off all debt, which is not what you are saying, as I understand it?'. 'Not at all; yes', replied Ann Pettifor.

Instead, Jubilee 2000 favours the cancellation of a proportion of debt. 'We want that portion of debt written off, which everyone knows will not be repaid', says Pettifor. This portion is known as 'unpayable debt'. It is accepted, even by the principal creditors - the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund - that the poorest countries' debt arrears are so large in comparison to national income that there is no realistic possibility of repayment. So Jubilee 2000 is campaigning to cancel debts which everybody knows will never be repaid anyway.

More questionably still, Jubilee 2000 only wants this already unpayable debt cancelled if strict conditions are met - conditions which seem likely to make the economies of some of the poorest countries on Earth subject to even closer control by their international creditors.

Jubilee 2000 suggests that, in order to qualify for having their unpayable debt cancelled, governments should be required to concentrate resources on 'basic needs' such as local water provision, basic education, basic healthcare. Jubilee 2000 is suspicious of more ambitious projects like dams (which 'disrupt the environment') and roads (allegedly built only for the use of the local MPs and armed forces).

It seems the campaign has a pretty comprehensive plan about how these societies should be run, and only believes debt relief should be granted if its plans are adopted. But doesn't this constitute a 'chain' of Jubilee 2000's own making?

Although Jubilee 2000 has a crusading, youthful image, its approach bears a striking similarity to the official outlook of the British government. Clare Short, governor of the World Bank and British secretary of state for international development, argues that 'sometimes people talk as though debt relief is a good thing in itself. It is not. It is a means to an end. It is a means to countries being able to do better in reducing poverty'.

British government policy for the world's poorest countries aims to encourage third world states to 'do better' in 'basic needs development' - the provision of basic healthcare, basic education and clean water. This might sound sensible enough, until you look at what forms of development are likely to be abandoned in pursuit of this strategy. Projects that could make a real difference to less developed societies - like dams, roads, and even big hospitals - are often considered to use too many resources, and not to provide enough direct benefits to the poorest of a community. In demanding that resources are focused on the very poorest minority in the third world, the danger is that the more widespread problems of everyday poverty that affect so many in these societies, such as inadequate transport and infrastructure and the absence of telephones and computers, will be ignored.

The British government does not just want to 'encourage' basic needs development, but to enforce it. Clare Short argues that the demand to concentrate on 'basic needs' should be more firmly embedded in the highly prescriptive structural adjustment programmes, to which the IMF and World Bank already make the poorest countries sign up before they can receive debt relief. Clare Short's Department for International Development has a seat on the Export Licences Committee where, she says, 'we are allowed to object to export credits for projects that are not undesirable but would throw off a country's development programmes and expenditure on more fundamental needs of the poor'. Her example of a 'not undesirable' project in a third world country which her department could object to is a hospital.

Pressed to justify the priority given to basic education in the British aid programme, Clare Short reluctantly concedes that 'every country needs some highly trained and highly skilled people'. Still, never mind, there may not be any new hospitals or higher education left in the poorest countries, but Clare Short has generously offered them the benefit of British technical assistance 'to take charge of their debt affairs'. The government also seems to have offered to take charge of the strategy of the Jubilee 2000 campaign. As Ann Pettifor revealed in her evidence to the Select Committee, 'The Treasury advised us some time ago to expand our movement, and we have taken that advice very seriously and done it'.

What business is it of Clare Short, Ann Pettifor or Bono to try to dictate the way in which poor societies invest their scarce resources? Why should any country in Africa, Asia or Latin America have to tailor their development to suit the kind of slogans that go down well in Whitehall or at the Brits?

Jubilee 2000's star-studded 'Drop the debt' campaign is not seeking to abolish, but simply to modify the restrictions which the West imposes on the poorest countries in the world. It seems to be not so much in favour of breaking the chains of debt as replacing them by a straightjacket of basic needs development. What kind of 'relief' is that?

Reproduced from LM issue 119, April 1999



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