Third World Debt: It'll take more than this to beat poverty

Cancelling some debt is a fine start. But the West needs to rethink its whole attitude to the world's poorest people

Agnes Chibile of Lusaka, Zambia, had eaten nothing the day before we met last month. She stood wringing her hands, wondering where to get food for her eight children, aged 12 to 21.

The family is struggling to survive. Mrs Chibile's husband died after losing his job in one of the rounds of "retrenchment" intended to reform the economy. Her two eldest boys are disabled and cannot work. None of the others go to school, because she cannot afford the fees. One was sick with malnutrition. "At most, in a week, we eat once or twice," she said.

The rent on her run-down home in the Chunga district is about pounds 1.40 a month, but she can't afford it. She faces being made homeless on New Year's Eve, because the government is selling its council houses to raise money and there is no way she can take up the offer to buy the one she lives in.

Debt relief is a question of life or death for Mrs Chibile who lives in a country that spends more on servicing debts than on its healthcare and education services combined.

When Gordon Brown announced this weekend that he would write off hundreds of millions of pounds owed to Britain by the world's poorest nations, Mrs Chibile was the human face of the misery that pressure groups have been campaigning to alleviate.

What Mr Brown promised was that at least two-thirds of the world's 41 poorest nations will receive help with their debt burdens during the next year.

The aim, the Chancellor said, was to get the ball rolling. "We have got to get the debt relief process moving," he said. "I have reason to believe that our action will be followed by other countries. We have an enormous opportunity here."

The campaigners' delight was genuine. Sir Bob Geldof, organiser of the Live Aid concert for the Ethiopian famines, said: "I think future generations will remember a very simple and confident gesture like this."

For Christian Aid, it was the millennium gesture they wanted, a kickstart to the process. Yet it is only the start.

The debt to individual governments - known as bilateral debt - is only part of the overall debt burden faced by the poorest countries. Some of the wealthiest nations of the world, including Germany and Japan, have resisted moves to co-operate on cancelling the multilateral debt owed to international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

They will be the focus of the next stage of the debt relief campaign, spearheaded by the Jubilee 2000 coalition of aid agencies, churches and development movements, in the run-up to the G8 summit in Japan in July.

Promises have been made for the last 30 years. Robert McNamara, president of the World Bank, said he would provide assistance where it would contribute most to "removing the roadblocks to development". That was in 1969.

Besides, the devil remains in the detail. Gordon Brown has said that the money will be freed up only when money saved on the forgiven debt is used "productively", on education and health and anti-poverty programmes.

To qualify, it is understood that the poor countries will still have to meet conditions laid down by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) under the "Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility".

"Conditionality" has been a principle of debt relief for years. But the effect of conditions laid down in the past can be seen clearly in the plight of people such as Agnes Chibile.

The West, through the auspices of the World Bank and IMF, has promoted neo-liberal policies in the Third World. For nations to qualify for debt relief, we have demanded civil service reform in the form of massive job cuts, wage freezes, privatisation of services and tight economic control. The combination has squeezed the social sector in countries such as Mali and Zambia to devastating effect.

In Uganda, for example, Dr Bakera of the Ministry of Health admitted that immunisation rates fell because they did not have the staff on the ground to carry them out.

Wage freezes and appalling working conditions have led to almost half of Zambia's physicians working abroad. One who stayed told me of his alarm at their lack of drugs and equipment: "We have seen things go from being fairly acceptable, where we could admit virtually anybody and be happy to look after them, to being actually scared to look after a patient, because you can't even do the very basic things."

In most countries, we have encouraged American models of healthcare where the people pay a "user fee", a charge for medical treatment. The sums are, to Western eyes, tiny. But the effect, as even the World Bank's internal assessments acknowledge, has been a deterrent to people seeking help.

In households living on less than a dollar a day, user fees are an insuperable obstacle to accessing healthcare. George Alberti, president of the UK's Royal College of Physicians, who has worked in Africa, says: "User fees have been a catastrophe."

For the first time in generations, the life chances of children being born in many countries in Africa are worse than for their parents. Infant mortality rates have stopped declining and, in some nations, are actually beginning to rise.

The policies the West has promoted have contributed. It is arguable we are culpable to a degree that those laying down the rules for the poorest governments have failed to acknowledge.

There are problems with corruption and bad governance in a number of the poorest nations, but many campaigners believe denying them help - or delaying it until conditions are met - is not the answer. In the words of one Unicef official, the scale of the suffering is too great for that. Thirteen children are dying every minute, many from preventable conditions, including diarrhoea and malnutrition.

The Chancellor stressed that debt relief was only a start to eradicating poverty in the Third World. "It's not about debt relief for its own sake, it's about poverty reduction as a result of debt relief, and then it's about ... getting economic development so that these countries are able to grow themselves."

But as Gary Streeter, the shadow spokesman on international development, adds: "The most important thing now is to cut through the red tape." Actions speak louder than words.

Louise Jury is the co-author with Matthew Lockwood of `Millennium Lottery: Who lives, who dies, in an age of Third World debt?' published tomorrow by Christian Aid.

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

    £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

    C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

    C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

    £60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

    Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

    £75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?