Staying In: Dying for debt

In a hard-hitting film, Maggie O'Kane looks at the people who are suffering to pay off a crippling World Bank loan

The journalist Maggie O'Kane is an expert at eliciting reaction. When she broadcast a report on Channel 4 News last year about the effect debt is having on the people of Niger, Gordon Brown's office phoned immediately asking if the Chancellor could come on the following day to discuss the issue.

Whether she is in Africa, the Gulf or Bosnia, O'Kane has that rare ability to put a human face on apparently overwhelming global tragedies. She has done it again with The Face of Debt, a shocking contribution to Channel 4's "Films of Fire" series. Here she returns to Niger, the world's poorest country, to place in a human context the suffering being caused by the $1.4bn debt that is owed to the IMF and the World Bank.

Because of the lack of health care - three-quarters of Niger's tax revenues go towards servicing the debt - the country's children die at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world. Many of them are afflicted with Noma, a horrific disease which can eat a child's face up within 10 days of the bacterium taking hold. Up to 120,000 children will be killed by it this year alone. A mouthwash costing a mere pounds 2 can stave off the condition.

In the documentary, O'Kane rails against the World Bank representative who says the government of Niger must "get their act together". "Isn't it time for us to stop hiding behind the bankers' jargon?" she asks. " `Austerity programmes that rationalise, privatise, economise' - nice, clean words for policies that kill, that are destroying a country and their children. We've made them our slaves with debt."

O'Kane homes in on the case of Hamsatou (above), a poverty-striken 13- year-old girl with a hole in her face brought on by Noma. Her father has sold his most valuable possession, his camel, in an attempt to find medical help for her. "We're not presenting you with `starving black Africa', we're presenting you with people," says O'Kane. "We want people to think `that could be me carrying my daughter to hospital'. It's about creating an empathy, because in the end we're all mothers or fathers or children."

The efforts of Jubilee 2000, the worldwide campaign to lessen debt, have been highlighted recently - notably at the Brit Awards. Organisers hope to present a 22-million-signature petition to the world leaders at the G8 summit in June. The campaign is being called the biggest political movement since the struggle against apartheid.

With all this activity going on, The Face of Debt rings a topical note. O'Kane believes it has struck such a chord because "when people see wars and famines, it can seem hopeless, but this campaign isn't. It can bring about big changes. For the first time, people realise something can be done. The German government has recently been shamed by Jubilee 2000 into changing its attitude and agreeing to a weakening of the conditions imposed on highly indebted countries. Even the World Bank and the IMF now realise that these economies won't exist unless they're given debt relief. We feel we're powerless most of the time, but in fact we're not."

O'Kane continues to be driven by an admirable passion. "Maybe it's because I'm a good Catholic girl from a convent school," she laughs. "Sometimes you get angry about things, and you're right to. The thing about Niger that is most difficult to accept is that it's not a God-given situation, but something decided by people in New York who think your country borrowed irresponsibly 20 years ago. What's going on? Niger is a country where one-in-three children will die before the age of five. The fact that it's been decided that is an acceptable level of agony to rectify a bank balance is obscene. I'm tired of watching funerals."

O'Kane is not alone in feeling moved. On Start the Week on Radio 4 last Monday, Jeremy Paxman said he thought The Face of Debt should be shown to all the heads of government attending the G8 summit. There are few higher recommendations than that.

`The Face of Debt' is on C4 at 8pm tomorrow

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