Debt protest swamps summit

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The Independent Online
THE WORLD paid a visit to the leaders of its seven richest nations yesterday, urging them to write off the debts of the poorest countries on the planet. Tens of thousands of people linked hands along the banks of the Rhine in Cologne, and blew whistles, beat tin cans and rattled cow-bells in a demonstration of solidarity with the Third World.

The leaders of the G7 had already wiped at least $70bn (pounds 44bn) off the slate, over dinner on Friday night. That left the poorest 36 nations groaning under half their previous debt, according to the donors - or two thirds, in the estimation of aid agencies.

The protesters thought that was a good start, but wondered whether the magnanimous gesture would be carried through. "Let's see some of these things happening," said Pat Rogers, who had brought 200 activists from Birmingham to the shores of the Rhine.

"All we know is that there are still billions of very poor people in the world," she added. "And they're dying. The whole life of their countries is deadened by debt."

The offer of debt relief comes with strings attached, and its effects certainly will not be felt before this millennium is out, as had been the intention of the star-studded campaign group, Jubilee 2000, which is calling for the debt to be written off by the New Year.

Assuming, which not many people are prepared to do, that the package will be delivered, countries wishing to be rid of some of their debt burden will have to meet strict criteria. Apart from attaining certain democratic standards, they must submit themselves to rigorous "cures" imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Many of the non-governmental organisations championing the cause of the poor are not sure this is such a good idea. "Debt relief is being used as a sugar lump to force countries to swallow poisonous IMF programmes," declared the World Development Movement. Where the IMF goes, it argues, the first "costs" to be eradicated are minimal social, health and education provisions.

"This is colonialism by other means," said Herbert Bottcher, a Christian activist from Koblenz. "The IMF wields the cudgel of restructuring, and the poor have no choice but to submit." Mr Bottcher thought all Third World debt should be written off, because "there is no moral ground for it".

But there was never any prospect of all leading rich countries agreeing to such a radical step. Japan, one of the biggest creditors, was vehemently opposed to letting any country off the hook, lest it should encourage others to go on a credit-backed shopping spree. The United States held out almost to the end for a probationary period of six years for applicants. And Germany's government recoiled at the proposal to sell some of the IMF's gold to bankroll the debt write-offs.

Friday night's deal is therefore a compromise. The IMF will be allowed to sell 10m ounces of gold, raising around $2bn. The qualifying period will be three years, and, to placate Japan, the measure will be extended to only the most serious cases.

It makes good sense for the rich. Caught in the spiral of interest compounding year by year, many of these countries were never going to settle the bill in full. The bankers, hardly in a position to foreclose on a country, had a problem. As Gerhard Schroder, the German Chancellor, admitted, the package "is not so much an act of generosity - although it is that as well - it's just common sense".

Britain was in the forefront of getting this deal through, and now wants to see speedy implementation, because while international bureaucracies grapple with the technicalities, the debt mountain is still growing. The British government is urging the IMF and World Bank to turn the package into concrete proposals by October.

London also has high hopes of its brainchild, the Millennium Trust Fund, collecting as much as pounds 1.25bn from a wide variety of sources, including large corporations with a conscience. And, recognising that the IMF is not the easiest organisation to deal with, the British government will be coaching Third World countries on how to fill out IMF proposal forms. That should not put too great a burden on the tax-payer.