Faith and Reason: Why Tony, Bill and Helmut can't ignore the chain gang

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Politicians and archbishops must not turn their back on the scandal of Third World debt says Paul Handley, editor of the Church Times

THE Jubilee 2000 protesters who plan to form the six-mile-long human chain round the G8 summit in Birmingham at 3 o'clock this afternoon will have to stretch their arms just that little bit longer. Sadly, two of their supporters, George Carey and Basil Hume, have somebody else to support at precisely the same time. I hope Arsenal and Newcastle United are grateful. I don't suppose Malawi, Bangladesh, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Bolivia and the rest of the teams at the bottom of the global division will be.

In one sense, it won't matter. The two church leaders have said enough about Third World debt to show that their hearts are in the right place, and the Jubilee 2000 organisers need the Churches' support too much to start publicly knocking their leaders. And clearly, the human chain is, in the end, just a bit of symbolism. Still, what a missed opportunity to show the country what real sacrifice means.

So, the Jubilee 2000 campaign starts the afternoon two-nil down. Or rather, ten-nil down, since the G8 leaders aren't actually going to be inside the Birmingham International Convention Centre today.

Security considerations have made the Foreign Office a bit cagey, but it looks as if Bill Clinton, Helmut Kohl et al will have departed earlier for a retreat in a stately home in Shropshire, returning to Birmingham late in the day, just in time not to hear Nigel Kennedy play for them.

It will be like a gigantic game of "The farmer's in his den", with one exception: the farmer won't be in his den. Talk about symbolic: it's an experience that will be familiar to the nations which bear the burden of the heaviest debt - calling on their creditors to ask for leniency and finding them out for the day.

Despite all this, the protesters who do turn up need not worry unduly. If the numbers expected turn up, the final score will be 35,000-10. And they have already had their effect. The matter of Third World debt is now firmly on the summit agenda, due, in large part, to their efforts (and not, as the Guardian put it yesterday, Tony Blair's). Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, this week called it "good politics".

Don't expect a revolution, Short was hinting: the matrix of international agreements surrounding IMF and World Bank debt repayments was too complex to dismantle without a big upset; but, encouraged by the campaign, Britain would be pressing for a serious relaxation of the conditions including, for instance, special treatment for countries recovering from war. If agreed, these proposals would, in effect, turn a 400m hurdles into a 100m hurdles: helpful, positive, reasonable - but not yet the Millennium gesture the campaigners are calling for. So, how do we explain the discrepancy? Were the politics not, in the end, good enough?

Partly, of course, it comes down to the protesters' need to oversimplify in order to gather support.

Ending debt by the year 2000 is just such a strong concept; suggesting a reasonable improvement in the IMF/ World Bank requirements for debtor countries isn't. Imagine the campaigners taking to the street "What do we want? Gradual improvements. When do we want them? In due course."

Turning debt into a black and white (or black and red) issue has meant that politicians interested only in keeping their electors happy have had to take notice, and they, in turn, have put pressure on the financiers.

But if we admit to over-simplification, we ought also to acknowledge the corresponding process of obfuscation that went on before. High infant mortality, poor education, low investment and absent infrastructures in the poorest nations have been blamed, variously, on poor government, corruption, natural disasters, over- population, and just plain poverty.

To rub salt into the wounds, the Western creditors have, in the past, demanded that some or all of these be put right before rescheduling (not cancelling, mind) those countries' debt.

The idea that the servicing of this debt might itself be the chief reason for some of these troubles seems genuinely not to have occurred to anyone until relatively recently - except, of course, to the debtor countries themselves, but who listened to them?

We were told, or we assumed, that the debt was just a natural part of world economics; we were told that the poorer countries were being helped by the rescheduling programmes; we were told that the sums involved might destabilise the high street banks. We weren't told about the blossoming interest; nor about the 21 million children who will die before 2000 from preventable diseases or famine.

This is why people in the West are angry.

We feel we've been duped: that while we were congratulating ourselves on how much we raised for charity, somebody somewhere was siphoning back nine times as much, in our names. Without realising it, we have been guilty of injustice towards the most vulnerable peoples in the world. We find ourselves in need of forgiveness; and as our Lord taught us, our own forgiveness is linked (chained) to our readiness to forgive our debtors. Half the world in physical peril, the other half in peril spiritually: seen in this light, spending a dull afternoon in Birmingham is a small price to pay.

This is what the world leaders - and maybe one or two church leaders - still have to appreciate.

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