Being Debt Campaigners in a World Preoccupied with Debt

This blog post first appeared on Bright Green Scotland

By Alys Mumford DISCLAIMER: I work for Jubilee Scotland but am writing in my own capacity.

The world is changing: debt and deficit are front page news, the general public is becoming educated in the language of financiers, and the relative virtues of IMF policies are being discussed down the pub. Well..maybe that’s just the pubs I go to. But the fact cannot be escaped that debt is dominating the global mindset in a way which has not been seen before by my generation.

Traditional discourse around debt cancellation has focused predominantly around poor countries (those formerly known as ‘third-world’) in Africa and South America. Where debt cancellation has occurred, it has done so after adherence to certain conditions pushed by lenders; privatisation of healthcare, say, or the hiring of a foreign firm to complete infrastructure projects. The growing ‘debt crisis’ in the West forces us to change the way we speak about debt and its legitimacy.

As a campaigner working for the cancellation of unfair and unpayable debt, where does this leave me? Is the increased knowledge of the wider issues around money-lending a positive thing for our message, or is it merely a distraction, reinforcing the common response to any development work of ‘charity starts at home’. The global Jubilee movement needs to consider these questions.

I think we must see this, the public perception of the debt crisis, as a positive. To ignore it, or worse, to attempt to use the situation in Europe as a way to highlight how much worst things are for Africa and South America can only lead to a perceived irrelevance of the Jubilee movement. Yes, the Western debt crisis is replicating a situation which has raged for generations in poorer countries, but to suggest that this means we should ignore all debt issues which do not relate to the world’s poorest countries is short-sighted and morally questionable. It does, however. leave us with the question of whose debt are we talking about? Which debt are we trying to cancel? How do we classify an unfair debt? And, taken to it’s logical confusion, should the Jubilee movement be calling for an end to all debt, to the very concept of interest, and lending for profit?

Debt campaigning, though much of it has been led by a desire for poverty irradication and atonement for colonial sins, must at its heart focus on justice. This means fighting both for the cancellation of debt which was created via dictators such as Marcos in the Philippines, or money lost through corruption, but also debt whereby the paying of it will restrict access to healthcare, education and basic infrastructure. This used to mean countries such as Malawi (one of the 40 countries who qualified for debt cancellation under the Heavily Indebted Poor Counties Initiative) where the deprivation was easily recognisable and the public was appalled by the nonsensical system which led to $5 flowing out of the country in debt repayments for every $1 that flowed in as aid.

Now this classification can be applied to Greece, where the International Monetary Fund have enforced such strict austerity measures that the people of Greece have repeatedly taken to the streets in protest. A shocking statistic which features in the recent documentary Debtocracy (watch it free here http://www.debtocracy.gr/indexen.html) is that in every country where IMF policies have been followed over a protracted period of time, average life expectancy has fallen by 5-10 years. Where debts are leading to deprivation and death, that debt must be deemed unpayable, and countries must have the autonomy to refuse to pay where their citizens are at risk.

This is a harder fight to win – it has always been easier to talk about debt in terms of poverty eradication, development, and the traditional language of aid. But fights should always be big enough to be worth fighting for.

Campaigning should be about finding alternatives. Not just cancelling old debts, but calling for an international financial system which doesn’t function by fleecing the poor and making money whatever the consequences. Where responsibility sits squarely with both lender and borrower, and where future generations are not held responsible for the crimes that went before them.

Both the Eurozone crisis and the events of the Arab Spring have highlighted the flaws at the centre of our current system. We must make the most of this – not by using it to show how a few very specific debt should be cancelled, but by using it to ask broader questions about the morality behind money.

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