Mark Weisbrot
Miami Herald, July 27, 2000

Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, July 25, 2000


Two-thousand was supposed to be the Jubilee year, named after the biblical concept in which debts are cancelled and slaves freed every 50 years. Last summer the leaders of the world's richest nations announced with great fanfare that there would finally be serious relief for the world's poorest, debt-ridden countries.

That was then, this is now. The G-8 leaders last year were responding to public protests and organizing by advocates of debt cancellation, including the international coalition of Jubilee 2000 organizations, religious groups, the Pope, and other celebrities.

This time around they held their meetings-- with of heads of state from the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada, and Russia--on the remote island of Okinawa, Japan. The bill for last weekend's get-together was a staggering $750 million dollars-- enough to write off the entire foreign debt of Equatorial Guinea or Gambia. The inaccessible location kept the number of protesters down-- except for the tens of thousands of local residents who turned out to demand the removal of US military bases, which occupy a fifth of Okinawa.

A year after the G-8's pledges, and four years since the beginning of their "Highly Indebted Poor Countries" debt relief program, only one of the 41 targeted poor countries-- Uganda, has actually seen any debt cancellation. Meanwhile, the rest are spending more on debt service than on health care or education.

Talk is cheap, and so are the leaders of the rich countries. They want to make it through the Jubilee year with the least amount of debt relief they can get away with. But they are interested in the helping out with technologies that can provide new marketing opportunities for their own corporations. The big new initiative to come out of this year's meetings was a "dot-force" program to spread internet service to the developing world. "Let them eat laptops," was the rallying cry of the rich leaders, and it was music to the ears of corporations like Cisco Systems that sent executives to the summit.

The failure to provide meaningful debt relief makes a mockery out of any Western proposals to help alleviate the AIDS epidemic in poor countries. Sub-Saharan Africa has an estimated 24 million people with HIV/AIDS, and accounts for 83 percent of the world's total AIDS deaths. What good is the $300 million now contributed from international sources to fight AIDS-- a small fraction of what is needed in any case-- when these countries are losing 50 times that much in debt service each year?

Last week the Clinton administration offered a one billion dollar loan program to help African countries buy US anti-AIDS drugs. This is pathetic: a loan, at seven percent interest, to poor countries already buried under a mountain of debt. So that American pharmaceutical companies can sell their drugs at a profit to countries where 20 percent or more of adults are infected with the AIDS virus.

Here are the principles behind our policies: (1) the maximum amount of debt service must be extracted, even if the loans were originally made to corrupt dictators who funneled the money to Swiss bank accounts and (2) generic versions of currently patented drugs (as manufactured, for example, in Brazil) must not be allowed, no matter how many lives could be saved.

It seems that one has to go back to the slave trade to find a policy toward Africa that exceeds this level of greed and callous indifference to human life.

The only bright spots in the last week came from grass roots organizing on the home front. At the prodding of public interest groups, the US House of Representatives passed a bill requiring the World Bank to stop forcing countries to adopt "user fees." These are fees that people have to pay for previously free public services, such as primary education and health care. As expected, these policies have resulted in reduced access to these services in poor nations, including African countries.

And the city of Oakland, California pledged not to buy World Bank bonds, joining an international effort designed to curb the abuses of the Bank and the IMF, and to pressure them for real debt cancellation. The movement, with organizations in 35 countries, is modeled on the successful boycott that helped bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa.

It's going to take some more stirring at the bottom before the world's poor get anything other than empty promises from the politicians at the top.