Leading Article: Mr Flint has a point: it is time to 'drop debt'

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The Independent Culture
CONSIDERING THE physical abuse which the front man of Prodigy has perpetrated on the rest of his body, an additional tattoo may not seem much of a mark of seriousness. And yet the news that Keith Flint is having the words "Drop the Debt" needled across his back for tonight's Brit Pop Awards is, in its way, a significant event.

Flint is in good company. The Pope is of like mind (on the issue of cancelling Third World debt; not, so far as we know, on the matter of tattooing). John Paul II had it high on the agenda of his private conversations with the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Vatican at the weekend. And the notion that the debts are unpayable is shared by increasing numbers of economists and politicians.

There will be plenty who dismiss the Jubilee 2000 campaign - and its backing by music industry luminaries from David Bowie to Robbie Williams, and from Luciano Pavarotti to Catatonia - as simplistic idealism. If the call were to cancel all debt, that might be so. But the appeal is radically to extend the consideration of debt relief on a country-by-country basis, so that conditions remain tough for corrupt places such as Nigeria, but are eased substantially for poor countries, such as Uganda and Mozambique, which are struggling under burdens that are contrary to natural justice.

All this is eminently realistic, especially since the change of government in Germany has ousted the old intransigents in Bonn. For the problem has always been one of political will rather than economic feasibility - and campaigns by pop stars have an important part to play in creating the kind of public will which politicians cannot ignore. They will then have the impetus to overcome the over-cautious reservations of those bureaucrats in the Bundesbank. If that can be done the other main objectors, the Japanese, will fall into line, since they hate being isolated within the G8.

More than that, a suitable mechanism exists in the Highly Indebted Poor Country Initiative. This was introduced by the rich nations three years ago and was the first comprehensive debt relief scheme. But the levels set were niggardly, and hedged around with unnecessarily restrictive conditions and thresholds. These need to be relaxed substantially to produce relief that is far faster and much greater than at present. A shift is also needed in the strategy of the IMF and the World Bank, which currently encourage Third World economies to shrink and stagnate whereas they need to be helped to grow and diversify.

Done properly, this would go a long way towards meeting the levels of poverty alleviation that the rich nations have said should be achieved by 2015. That might be a bit later than the millennium cancellation which Keith Flint and his fellows are calling for. But at least he would get a bit more mileage out of the tattoo.