Bankers and prophets: reflecting on the Jubilee campaign
By Katherine Marshall
FAITH IN ACTION
In Biblical Israel, as in many agrarian societies, a family or community hit by a catastrophe like bad rains or illness would borrow to make it through, then find themselves forced to sell land because they could not repay the loans; many ended as de facto slaves with nothing to live on but their labor. Biblical teachings called for a periodic cleansing of the slates, a rebalancing, with forgiveness of debts every seven years. The Book of Leviticus called for a "Sabbath of Sabbaths" after 49 years, when all debts were forgiven and land was returned to its original owners.
The 1980s were tough years for many countries, especially in Africa and Latin America, and their burden of debt mounted, contributing to a deepening ineffectiveness of states and to misery felt widely across populations. These were also times of deep concern about the unfairness of the social, economic and financial systems, starting from the Apartheid regime in South Africa, and including poverty in its many dimensions.
Last week at the Center for Global Development (CGD) in Washington, a motley crew of campaigners and policy gurus reflected, from a vantage point ten years later, on the role that the Jubilee 2000 campaign played in changing both the rules of the game and the way people look at poverty and justice.
The Jubilee campaign took inspiration from the Biblical notion of the super Sabbath. It argued that the year 2000 and the turn of the millennium offered, indeed demanded, extraordinary measures: above all the forgiveness of poor country's debts. It mobilized millions of people, congregations, students, politicians, and citizens, in at least 60 countries. It certainly changed many minds, goaded action from reluctant and willing politicians and helped to shape new approaches to international finance. But above all it transformed an extraordinarily technical matter - it's hard to think of a more esoteric topic than debt sustainability ratios - dominated by entrenched interests and habits, where the fates of indebted nations were discussed in closed, incomprehensible meetings like the Paris Club. The message of debt forgiveness was one everyone who has ever borrowed money could understand, and the basic ethical argument of fairness and justice blew away the technocratic fog that had previously enveloped the debate. Discussion of debt restricting moved to congregations and the streets.
Several of the stars at the September 29 CGD event said that they had prepared remarks suited to the rather wonkish event they expected, but were carried away by the depth and emotion of the recollections about how Jubilee 2000 emerged and the roles the campaign played. It was grainy television images of Africans caught in the devastating mangle of unpayable debts that inspired Ed Scott (CGD founder) from his then Silicon Valley base to look to new ways to address the problems. Jamie Drummond recalled the path from the 1985 Live Aid concert with Bob Geldorf and the growing engagement of committed celebrities, especially Bono. Seamus Finn saw a path that led from the work of the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility on Apartheid to new ways of looking at responsible borrowing and lending.
CGD scholar David Roodnam, who is researching the movement, describes it as an important chapter in a larger story of international financial reforms. He traces at least three distinct paths to Jubilee, with the initial idea probably launched by an evangelical Christian, Isabel Carter, another focal point from the Vatican, with Pope John Paul taking a leading role, and movement founders Anglicans Bill Peters and Martin Dent. Officials in the UK Government and the US Treasury, as well as the World Bank and the IMF were also central players.
A transparent but complex system led to today's far clearer debt slate. Several contrasted the picture for private and public sectors. The commercial bank debt crisis came first and, in a painful process, the institutions concerned came to terms with the fact that the money was not there and would not be, so within a decade the problem was resolved. Public debt was another story. The Cold War political environment encouraged much unwise lending and made it difficult for politicians to admit the system's failures. New lending staved off immediate crisis but also delayed solutions. As each nation's debt problems reflected the circumstances in each country, systemwide solutions were impossible and undesirable. So, 25 years after the early signs of crisis, efforts to fix the problems continue.
But the fundamental lessons of the Jubilee campaign: that messages that focus on ethical responsibility resonate, that fairness is the best focus, and that alliances driven by these concerns, however improbable, can work, are still fresh and important today.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.
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