Keep Hope Alive

February 18, 1999

Mark Weisbrot
San Francisco Examiner, February 18, 1999

Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, February 12, 1999

Who says one person can’t make a difference? Jesse Jackson, Jr. has shaken things up in Congress by taking on the establishment and offering a bold alternative to our shameful foreign economic policy in Africa. It’s a nice object lesson for those who think that progress is only made by those who “go along to get along,” begging for crumbs and then settling for “reforms” that actually make things worse.

Here’s the story: the Orwellian-named “Africa Growth and Opportunity Act” would require African countries to submit to a host of onerous conditions in order to qualify for trade preferences, including some which they already have under current U.S. law.

Backed by the Clinton administration and sponsored by Phil Crane (R-IL), the bill passed the House last year but died in the Senate. Now it is back. Many of those who voted for the bill last year thought it was a bad bill, but felt they had no alternative. So Jesse Jackson, Jr., representing Illinois’ 2nd Congressional district, came back with an alternative: the Human Rights, Opportunity, Partnership and Empowerment (HOPE) Act for Africa.

The contrast between the two bills could hardly be more striking. The Crane bill would impose conditions such as lower corporate taxes, market access, and other privileges for foreign corporations, regardless of the impact on African economies. It would also require compliance with IMF mandates. For those who are not familiar with the destructive impact of IMF policies in sub-Saharan Africa– these countries rarely make the news here– just think about what this international economic wrecking ball has done to Indonesia, South Korea, Russia, and Brazil over the last year and a half.

Jackson’s HOPE act would provide trade preferences, but without the nasty conditions. It would also take more serious measures to ensure that the goods exported to the U.S. are actually produced in Africa, rather than just transhipped through Africa from elsewhere. And to make sure that ordinary Africans actually get something out of this trade, Jackson’s bill would add the kinds of conditions that give multinational corporations indigestion: internationally recognized labor standards, such as the right to organize a labor union.

Perhaps most importantly, the HOPE bill calls for the cancellation of Sub-Saharan Africa’s crushing $230 billion debt burden. These countries spend four times as much on debt service than they do on health care, and hundreds of thousands of people die each year as a result. Children go without schooling, and crops rot in the fields because there is no money for roads that could transport them to markets. This debt is unconscionable and unpayable, and current levels of payment are a guarantee of poverty for generations to come.

Jackson’s strategy has already proven successful, regardless of the outcome. He has forced the issue of debt relief onto the political agenda. “When you have a man or a woman laboring under this kind of debt and then you say to them, these are the rules of trade . . . it doesn’t work,” he said at a press conference last week.

The Old Testament declared that it was wrong for a creditor to seize the tools that a person needed to make a living, in payment of a debt. But Washington’s money mandarins are bound by no such moral constraints. They are bleeding Africa dry.

Interestingly, even the editorialists of the Wall Street Journal European edition, a conservative voice that certainly respects the sanctity of contracts, have recently endorsed a bankruptcy procedure by which poor countries could get out from under unpayable debt.

Only among Washington’s elite– and their proxies such as the IMF– does the logic of debt relief fail to register. That’s because, as the Journal suggested, this massive debt burden is a powerful lever by which the architects of the global economy can dictate economic policy to most of the world’s poorer countries.

These modern day colonialists can and will be increasingly isolated. That’s why the voice of just one young Congressman has made such a difference: no one can rise to defend the indefensible. There is no personal or political gain for Jackson in taking the lead on this issue. In fact he will almost certainly be punished by some of the nation’s most powerful corporate and financial interests, and their friends in the Administration and Congress. He’s just doing the right thing. The voters of Illinois’ 2nd district have reason to be proud: they have a representative who is not only standing up for their interests, but for the rest of humanity as well.

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