Podium: The huge debt we owe to the poorest on earth

From a presentation by the Christian Aid campaigner to officials at the World Bank-IMF summit in Washington
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
EVERYTHING ABOUT the debt story is big. It brings together the biggest problem - a threat to the atmosphere we depend on; the biggest economies - meeting together here in Washington; and the biggest nonsense - the idea that the poorest countries on earth should be forced to perform economic gymnastics in order to be relieved of debts which, on a global scale, are grains of sand on a vast private beach of resources controlled by the world's biggest minority - the rich.

But what is debt? Rich countries pursue highly indebted poor countries to service their foreign financial debts at great cost to the millions who subsequently go without vital health and education services.

Those same rich countries, however, may be responsible for a much larger and more threatening debt to the global community, which is being ignored.

Their reckless use of fossil fuels has helped create the spectre of climate change - a storm cloud that hangs over everyone's future. Geological history shows the earth gripped by natural cycles of cooling and warming. Whatever the distant future holds for our climate is hard to predict. But today, and looking ahead into the next century, the lives and livelihoods of billions are threatened by global warming. Some 80 per cent of the world's population will live in developing countries by 2025, and more than half of these will be "highly vulnerable" to floods and storms.

Climate change can be vicious. The weather phenomenon El Nino is old, but has been increasing in frequency and severity. When it recently hit Indonesia it created a domino effect. "The rice crops failed, the price of imported rice quadrupled, food riots erupted in the capital, Jakarta, and in the countryside massive forest fires burned out of control, paralysing parts of the country with a toxic layer of smoke," said the 1999 World Disasters Report.

The story is similar in Bangladesh, victim of increasingly severe floods; in Bolivia and Kenya, also hit by El Nino; and in Central America, devastated in 1998 by Hurricane Mitch. To solve the problem of global warming, or at least to mitigate its worst effects - Klaus Topfer, head of the UN Environment Programme, has said that it is too late to stop the process - we shall have to live within our environmental budget. Topfer called for a cut of 90 per cent in rich countries' consumption.

A groundbreaking lawsuit from the US Attorney General against big tobacco companies could give poor countries buffeted by global warming an idea of what to do next. The tobacco industry has been free-riding on the public health budget, encouraging people to puff away without a care, and the government wants to recoup these "ill-gotten" profits.

The whole US economy is puffing away, putting, per person, more than 12 times the minimum sustainable greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. At a press conference of Commonwealth finance ministers at the World Batik meetings, Canada's minister Paul Martin thought that the responsibility of rich countries was "factual" and beyond question. Sooner or later the poorest countries, who both pollute less and use their fossil fuels with greater economic efficiency, may feel that it is time for compensation. Or, at the very least, they may begin to think it is time for rich countries to live up to their commitments on technology transfer, debt relief and aid-giving.

Currently the North demands that indebted countries adopt neo-liberal economic policy packages known as "structural adjustment programmes", as a precondition for debt relief.

The time has come, perhaps, for developing countries to impose sustainability adjustment programmes in reverse, in the light of rich countries' carbon debts.

Our climate is owned by no one and yet needed by everyone, rich and poor. As we struggle to act to save it, we come across a devastating idea. Forget the moral arguments; our survival in fact depends on equity. Would the real debtors please stand up?