A billion people go to bed hungry each night. Finally, Britain is doing something

FINALLY, THE British government has put its money where its mouth is. For years British chancellors - from Nigel Lawson and John Major to Kenneth Clarke and then Gordon Brown - have exhorted the international community to do something about the burden of Third World debt. For years poor nations and British aid agencies have told those same chancellors that exhortation was not enough; action was needed. And for years, on the advice of Treasury officials, politicians have adopted a stance of "if everyone won't do it, we can't do it alone".

And now, finally, a British chancellor has had the courage of his convictions and insisted that, whatever anybody else did, it was the time for Britain to do the right thing.

Mr Brown has announced that he is prepared to discuss writing off - entirely - debts owed to the British government by 25 of the world's poorest countries. It is a step of immense totemic importance.

Third World debt is one of those subjects which seems technical and arcane. It belongs to a world of impenetrable financial jargon. The arguments which surround it are a mixture of high moral tone and unfathomable fiscal complexity.

And yet the fact is that debt is a significant component in the equation which sends a billion people needlessly hungry to bed at night. Debt is what has closed schools throughout Africa, or determined that they operate without books or pencils, let alone desks. It has shut down clinics, or deprived them of drugs. It has meant that tens of thousands of additional children die each year as illnesses which were once in decline in the Third World have taken a new grip on the poorest people in the world.

All this has come about because the financial conditions imposed on developing countries on behalf of the world's richest nations by their financial policeman - the International Monetary Fund - have hampered the ability of poor governments to respond to the deteriorating economic conditions which globalisation has imposed upon the world's poorest people. In the name of restoring fiscal rectitude and economic stability to Third World nations, the consensus of the international financial institutions - such as the IMF, World Bank and regional development banks - have choked off the economies of Africa and of the poorer countries in Asia and Latin America.

In recent years a sense has emerged, first within poor countries, then in Western agencies, then in the World Bank, and finally even within the IMF, that the old approach was not working. In medical terms it was like trying to cure an ill patient by shutting off their metabolism and putting them in a coma.

More than anywhere else this had been seen in the work of the anti-debt movement Jubilee 2000, which formed a coalition of activists throughout the world to lobby for forgiveness of Third World debt.

Gradually the politicians have taken notice. Nigel Lawson and John Major made significant contributions at the highest level with various proposals to alleviate the onerous burden of commercial debt - monies owed by poor countries to commercial banks.

In more recent years the onus has shifted from the private sector to the public sphere. Money owed by poor nations to government - known as bilateral debt - and to international institutions such as the IMF and World Bank - known as multilateral debt - has been the focus of concern.

In all this, politicians have always said that any forgiveness had to be undertaken by all the rich nations at once. Debate within the rich nations' club, the OECD, and at the summits of the industrialised countries, the G7, was always constrained by these considerations. What one nation did, everyone would have to do.

In the early days, a call for unilateral action by individual countries was seen as hopelessly utopian. But, thanks to the powerful moral agenda articulated by Jubilee 2000 - a potent coalition of churches, trade unions, environmentalists and development agencies - the ground of the argument has shifted.

Until now successive British governments - though they have done well to keep the issue high on the international agenda - have not been in the vanguard of that shift towards unilateral action. At meetings of international leaders in Edinburgh, Birmingham and, last year, in Cologne, the British pushed for debt relief - but only on the basis that all the industrialised nations would have to jump together. Without that, the nations who responded generously would be disadvantaged compared with those who hung back.

But, the Jubilee 2000 coalition insisted, there was a moral imperative which demanded a different response. They called for leadership.

Then, earlier this year, President Bill Clinton responded. He announced that the US would, in certain circumstances, be offering a 100 per cent write-off of poor countries' debts.

At first, Britain felt wrong-footed. After all, the US - along with Japan and Germany - had been the chief foot-draggers on debt at international summits. The British International Development Secretary, Clare Short, gave a rather graceless interview on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 the morning after Mr Clinton's announcement. We thought of it first, she said, in a rather pained way.

Perhaps so. But Mr Clinton had done it first. The fact that he had to get the measure through a Congress that was notoriously niggardly on such matters was overlooked by the media. To date, the US initiative has not added up to much.

Which is why the news of Mr Brown's new initiative is so welcome. Details of the scheme will not be available until Mr Brown and Ms Short brief a seminar of aid agencies and church leaders at Number 11 Downing Street on Tuesday. But the news must be good for those countries that qualify for the recently revised international Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative.

The lobbyists will have hard questions to ask - about cut-off dates and the degree of conditionality (the extent to which recipients are expected to adhere to old-style IMF programmes which hold back poverty reduction in an attempt to open up their economies to the mixed blessing which is Western multinationals). But their overall response will be clear-cut.

In the world of international finance, actions speak louder than words. And what Gordon Brown has announced will be a more powerful moral persuasion than all the previous exhortations could ever be.

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