Jubilee, Debt Relief, and Poverty Reduction

June 16, 1999

Statement for the United States House Committee on Banking and Financial Services

The Presiding Bishop was asked by Episcopalian U.S. Congressman Jim Leach (R-Iowa) to testify in front of the House Committee on Banking and Financial Services in support of debt relief for the world's poorest countries. The Presiding Bishop was unable to appear in person, because the hearing conflicted with the meeting of the Executive Council; however, he submitted the following statement which Chairman Leach quoted prominently during the hearing.

Introduction

Mr. Chairman and other distinguished members of the Committee, I am very pleased to offer this testimony in support of debt relief for the world's poorest countries. My name is Frank Griswold. As the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, I am one of 38 heads of Episcopal and Anglican churches throughout the world. Together, these churches form the Anglican Communion, with nearly 70 million communicants in 164 countries.

Once a decade, all bishops of the Anglican Communion - nearly 750, including the 38 heads - meet at what is known as the "Lambeth Conference" to share common worship and celebrate the diversity of backgrounds, cultures, and thought represented by our Communion. At our most recent gathering last summer, debt relief for the poorest countries was a chief topic of concern.

For the first time, there were more bishops from Africa than from any other continent. Those of us from rich nations, like the U.S., Britain, and Canada, were challenged to look at the effect of debt on the people of Africa and poor countries elsewhere. Bishops from poor countries were challenged to consider how debt relief could be used in productive ways, benefiting the poorest of society, not squandered. We all had to recognize that both bad lending and bad borrowing contributed to the current crisis. Surely you, as a body of 435 individual members representing diverse interests in this country, can appreciate how difficult it was for 750 bishops from around the world to arrive at a common statement.

Despite these challenges, we adopted without dissention a bold statement for the cancellation of unpayable debts to poor countries and for responsible action from debtor and creditor countries, governments and NGOs, to use debt relief to benefit the poorest members of society.

Year of Jubilee

I believe two concerns undergird our statement in support of debt relief - the biblical call for Jubilee, and our ministry to the poor. First, the worldwide movement for debt relief - Jubilee 2000 - draws its inspiration from the biblical texts in Leviticus 25. God speaks to Moses on Mount Sinai of keeping a Sabbatical Year, working the fields and vineyards for six years, and then letting the ground rest, recuperate, on the seventh year. (Lev. 25:1-7) Many in academia, religious vocations, and others continue this cycle today, with sabbaticals every seven years. From this context of Sabbath, God then commands that after seven years times seven, there be a Year of Jubilee on the fiftieth year. "And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants." (Lev. 25: 10) In the Jubilee Year, God calls his children to allow the land to lie fallow, to set slaves free, to return land to its original owners, and to cancel debts. (Lev. 25: 8-55)

The essence of Jubilee is related to suspending patterns - patterns of work, patterns of domination, patterns of acquisition. It recognizes the need for things to rest, to restore "right relationships," and recover equilibrium in the world. There is little doubt that the Jubilee Year, as described in scripture, eluded Israel as a historical reality. Nonetheless, this notion of suspending the usual patterns, particularly restoring relationships among people and with the earth, remained an important element of early teaching and shaped Jesus' ministry in his time and beyond. It remains a challenge for us today.

Combating Poverty

The second concern, combating poverty, is of course another great challenge to us as people of faith. For me, for the Anglican bishops, and for most advocates for debt relief, the reality that overwhelming debts push the poorest members of our earth deeper and deeper into poverty is cause to take action. These poor countries are caught in a cycle of debt they cannot escape, borrowing more money to make payments on old debts. Sometimes countries cannot service all of their debt. But largely, they do, and at tremendous human cost. In some cases, paying debt service takes 30-40% of their budgets, shifting money away from investments in human development, agriculture, clean water, and protecting the environment to pay back rich donor nations. Fewer children are educated because their governments have had to charge families unaffordable school fees. More people die of preventable diseases because there is no money for medicines or hospitals. Crops wither in their fields because government supports for pesticides are gone.

Should these governments make better spending decisions? Yes, they probably could better prioritize what little they have. But, while we can spend time finding out who is to blame, and plenty of blame can go around, we must recognize that it is the poorest people, mostly without a voice, who end up paying the price for debts taken on without their input or concerns. I know no one will write off my credit card or mortgage. But I have chosen these debts and reap benefits from them. They are not forced upon me by previous generations and government elites for purposes I do not see. While we should consider carefully how this situation happened in order to prevent it from happening again, we also must act to help the victims.

And, of course, I believe we should pay our debts as a rule. But, again, that standard must be weighed against the cost of human suffering. In these poorest countries, the abject poverty and human toll is almost unimaginable by U.S. standards. Nearly one billion people live on $1 a day. One in five children die before their fifth birthday from preventable disease. Yes, we have poverty in the United States. But imagine the homeless person you see in the streets of Washington, and then imagine that 80% of Washington was in or near that same condition. Such suffering cannot be ignored.

Something must be done.

Legislation - Debt Relief for Poverty Reduction Act

Fortunately, we can take concrete steps to address the debt crisis, and begin to create conditions in which many of these countries can lift themselves from poverty. I applaud Chairman Leach, a new friend and fellow Episcopalian, and Congressman LaFalce and many others for their introduction of H.R. 1095, the "Debt Relief for Poverty Reduction Act." This bill is carefully crafted to provide substantial debt relief to those countries that are committed to poverty reduction and good governance.

The bill would (1) write off most debt owed to the U.S. by heavily-indebted poor countries, (2) make a substantial contribution from the U.S. to the HIPC Initiative, the official debt relief mechanism of the World Bank and IMF, (3) call for significant reforms of the HIPC Initiative, including providing greater debt relief, faster, for more countries, with greater transparency and civil participation, and (4) create a mechanism by which the money realized from debt relief would be used for poverty reduction, such as education, health care, and water sanitation.

I believe this bill fulfills a difficult task. It offers a Jubilee vision of debt relief, moving the United States into a position of world leadership on this issue. At the same time, it lifts up Lambeth's call for debt relief to genuinely benefit the poor by creating sophisticated mechanisms for poverty reduction, accountability, and good governance. The bill mandates that any country receiving debt relief must create a Human Development Fund, into which the money that would otherwise have gone to servicing debt is directed for programs to combat poverty and protect the environment. Civil society, including representatives of NGOs and churches, must be part of the establishment, administration, and monitoring of this fund. This approach is modeled on the education fund developed in Uganda where debt relief money has been committed to education. Tanzania has set up a similar education fund, and Zambia proposes directing debt relief to HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention.

These developments are cause for celebration. But the aims of these and other countries cannot be realized without the financial commitment from creditor nations. Without funding, debt relief will not happen. I ask you, our Congress, to support H.R. 1095, to create the U.S. policy and mechanisms for responsible debt relief . . . and then I ask you to fund the U.S. share.

Estimates of the cost of this proposal are hard to solidify. But I am encouraged by the fact that the U.S. can purchase back the debts at a fraction of the face value of the original loan, at sometimes as low as 7-10 percent. This means for a relatively small expenditure we can provide a large amount of relief. Rarely are such bargains found that can help so many. Also, through congressional support for H.R. 1095, the U.S. will be able to pressure other G7 countries to provide relief, multiplying the benefit many times over. At a time of U.S. budget surpluses and unprecedented economic strength, we must seize this opportunity to help the poorest members of our world, giving them a helping hand into the next millennium.

I thank you for the opportunity to share these thoughts and would be pleased to answer any questions.

The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA