DEBT BURDEN, RIGHTS TO LIVE AND LIBERATION MILLENNIUM:
AN ETHICAL REVIEW
by Ref. Josef Purnama Widyatmadja
Debt as a Threat to Life
Entering the third millennium the third world's debt is expected to
reach over one trillion US dollars. The issue on the reduction or the elimination of
foreign debt began to surface in the mid 80's. Susan George (1992) in her book "The
Debt Boomerang" pointed out six boomerangs, i.e.: environment; drugs; how the tax
payers in the North redeem their bank loans; losing jobs and markets; immigration;
conflicts and wars. The demands for debt reduction voiced by the government, religious
leaders, and NGO leaders both in the third world and in the North are almost neglected by
bankers and North countries. Debt is debt and it must be paid because of its economic
rule. Morally and legally every debtor has his/her obligation to pay the debt to the
creditor. None can deny such morality and law. The refusal to pay the debt, of course,
cannot be tolerated by all religions and moral norms.
However, when debt is to be compared to the right to live of children
and infants and those unborn, the problem is different. The right to live for all God's
creatures should be respected and valued. Nothing is more valuable than humans lives and
souls. Material loss and sacrifice cannot be compared to the value of life.
Every religion focuses its teaching on advocating life, and championing
the rights of the poor, widows, and orphans rather than emphasizing material accumulation
to unleash the greediness and selfishness. The poor people and countries asking for debt
reduction and elimination have to protect themselves from lusts and cheats. The debt
reduction and elimination are not only for the sake of the debtors but also for the
The debt of the third world entering the third millennium has
approached a critical point. The burden to pay the debt has caused millions of infants to
die or suffer from malnutrition. The destruction of environment in order to pay the debt
is unavoidable. The Structural Adjustment Policy has created unemployment, underpayment
and the violation of human rights. For more than two decades of the development era, the
development aid from developed countries has not reduced the gap between the poor and the
rich countries. The result is the contrary. The rich countries pour tens of billion
dollars into the poor countries in the form of humanitarian and development aid, but at
the same time suck hundreds of billion dollars from these countries and put them into
their pockets. In general the debt providers are Western countries and Japan, while the
debtors are the poor countries of the third world.
The Impacts of Debt
The burdens of poverty and debt of the third world can be a boomerang
to the rich countries if these problems are not solved well entering the third millennium.
The world has become a global village. Migration from one country to another is
unavoidable even with strict prevention and immigration regulation. The progress in
information and transportation technology can cause uncontrolled migration from the poor
to the prospective places. People can easily migrate illegally by air, sea or land. And
this has already happened. Human migration from the South to the North is not only caused
by economic and political reasons. Oppression by the authority, human rights violation and
ethnic as well as religious conflicts promote human migration. When the world becomes a
global village, there is an interrelatedness between the North and the South. The burden
of debt causes the governments of the third world to commit human rights violation and
give minimal wages to the laborers in order to maintain national stability. The world has
become one body. The West and North countries can no longer enjoy prosperity over the
cadaver and the poverty of the South people. A new balance, a new world, and a new
relationship between the North and the South are needed. Buddha's teaching carved at the
Borodubur temple in Central Java tells an interesting story.
"Once upon a time there was a bird with two heads. One head had a
long neck so its mouth could easily take the food it wanted. This first mouth could easily
reach all apples and oranges to eat for itself. On the other hand, the second head had a
short neck so it was difficult for its mouth to reach the fruits and food on the trees
high above. The second mouth could only see the oranges and apples but it could not reach
them. The second mouth said to the first: "Give me a few apples and oranges because I
am hungry. Please, give me some food". But The first answered:"No. All of the
oranges and apples are for me because I have a long neck. It is your own fault why you
don't have a long neck like me. All the oranges and apples are mine, not yours".
Listening to this, the short-necked head felt very sad. Being very hungry, the
short-necked head scraped the ground for food. It ate the poisonous tuber in the ground.
Consequently, the whole bird's body was poisoned and the bird died."
Sharing food to realize sharing a life within a global village should
become the foundation of the relationship among communities and nations in the world. The
lesson of the story at the Borobudur temple is the interelatedness between the strong and
the weak. The interdependent life between the long-neck and the short-neck head is true
because they have one body. Isn't it right that the world now can be pictured as a bird
with two heads? There are countries which can suck and acquire the worlds natural
resources because of their technology or because of the unfair international arrangement.
On the other hand, most of the countries represent the short-necked head. They can only
watch the long-necked one devour their natural resources and wealth. They cannot enjoy the
natural resources created by God. Gandhi, the Indian spiritual leader, has said that God
could satisfy the need of all people, but God could not satisfy the greediness of just one
The issue of debt reduction and elimination is not only a matter of
debt and credit. It is not merely an economic and political problem, either. The debt
reduction and elimination are a matter of humanslife and death as one family, one
global citizen. This also involves a matter of morality and rearrangement of the
interrelationship among people and countries. The debt reduction and elimination of poor
countries are for the sake of saving the world, our common future; saving the people who
live in the North as well as in the South and also in the universe. This constitutes an
effort to find the balance of life, to share the natural resources and life. It should not
be based on pity or the desire to preserve the status quo. It is just the beginning of
arranging a new world that is more fair and humane both economically and politically, the
beginning of finding an alternative for global capitalism.
Who to Blame and Who Takes Advantage of the Debt
The occurrence of debt-credit relationship between countries is
unavoidable as a consequence of the globalization in international trade. The accumulation
of the third world's debt and its inability to repay are a complicated problem. Several
factors cause this. Most third world countries have been caught in a debt trap during
their development decades. Neither the debtor or creditor countries can be blamed. There
is something wrong in the paradigm of development and debt ethics. So far the development
paradigm focuses on growth and mammon but neglects the life (of people and environment).
Susan George in her book "Faith and Credit" criticized the IMF and the
World Bank for using crazy accounting system and not environmental
Many experts point out that a large proportion of the debt of the third
world governments flows to the creditor countries through their businessmen and
contractors who win the tenders. Others go to their state officers and their cronies
in the third world. Often the policy and management of debt do not empower the rural
farmers but on the contrary, give benefits and advantages to the businesses of
conglomerates and bureaucrats. Only a little reaches the small people. The personal saving
accounts of Asian dictators' families and cronies in foreign countries amount to hundreds
of million dollars. We know the case of Marcos' treasures in the Philippines. In Korea we
know Chun Do Hwan and Roh Tae Woo who have hundreds of million US dollars worth of saving
accounts. And in Indonesia we know Haji Moh. Thahir's wealth, the officer of Pertamina Oil
state corporation, who was sued in Singapore.
The Debt Reduction and The Jubilee 2000
In June 1999, the G8 Summit Conference was held in Cologne, Germany.
One of the items in the agenda was to discuss the elimination or reduction of debt of the
Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC). Those countries included in HIPC are the ones whose
capital income was below $700. Some parallel meetings attended by NGOs and chuches across
the world accompanied the Cologne G8 Summit Conference. It was estimated that 2000
activists working on the debt elimination attended the meetings from June 18 to 21, 1999.
Various organizations both secular, such as Euro Debt, and religious, such as Kairos
Europe and Jubilee 2000, also attended those parallel meetings. Several concepts or
alternatives and methods of the debt elimination and reduction were examined there. The
World Council of Churches (WCC) in its Plenary Meeting in Harare in December 1998 also
issued a resolution concerning the debt and adopted the spirit of the Jubilee theme.
What is The Jubilee?
The word jubilee comes from the Hebrew yobel which means the
fiftieth anniversary. From the word jubilee we also know the word jubileum or the gold
anniversary. The Israelite tradition and the Old Testament (Leviticus 25) have the
celebration of seven Sabbath years (once in seven years). Both the Sabbath year and the
jubilee bear the spirit of eliminating debt and preserving the environment. Briefly, the
spirit of the Jubilee (the fiftieth year) as written in Leviticus 25 and the Old Testament
tradition is as follows:
- Releasing the debt for the poor (economic transformation)
- Liberating the slaves (political transformation/human rights enforcement)
- Giving back the pawned land to the heir (social/culture)
- Resting the land (environment preservation)
We can see clearly that the Jubilee spirit bears a message of restoring
social justice. In the present context debt elimination means a transformation in the
global financial system. Global capitalism, especially global finance, contributes to
encourage debt accumulation in the third world. Liberating the slaves means political
transformation and the appreciation of the principles of human rights. Giving back the
mortgaged land means social transformation and the recognition of the farmers' right to
posses their heritage. And the last item refers to the appreciation of environment in
order to prevent the ecological destruction.
It is clear that the impact of debt has caused millions of people to
die. The spirit of jubilee, of course, could help the debt campaign movement to demand for
the abolition of debt of indebted poor countries. It will help indebted countries avoid
further tragedy. But debt cancellation will not guarantee that indebted countries will not
incurr new debts again. It is not enough to reduce debt through the jubilee approach. The
jubilee message should be understood as broader than debt cancellation. The economic
context of jubilee is very different from the present global economic situation. The
spirit of jubilee and justice should be understood as the manifestation of the economics
of sharing, the kindom of God (shalom). The Jubilee spirit is against greediness and the
economics of mammon. Therefore, debt and jubilee campaign is not limited to debt
cancellation but should include the deeper struggle for economic justice and to look for
alternative societies. In line with the Jubilee tradition, the 8th General Assembly of the
World Council of Churches in Harare (1998), urged the G8 Nations to:
Cancel the debt of poorest countries to enable them enter the new
millenium with fresh start.
Achieve substantial eradication of debts of the middle income
countries within the same time frame.
Introduce a new, independent and transparent arbitration process for
negotiating and agreement on international debt cancellation.
Accept that tough conditions should be imposed on debtor governments,
but that these conditions must not be prerequisite for debt cancellation. They must be
determined and monitored by local community organizations, including churches and other
representative organizations of the civil society.
Use their powers to ensure that funds illegitimately transferred to
secret bank accounts are returned to debtor nations.
Engage, in consultation with civil society, in a process of global
economic reform toward a just distribution of wealth and preventing new cycles of debt.
The jubilee campaigns (Jubilee 2000 and Jubilee South) cannot be
limited only to cancellation of debts of poorest countries, which are mostly from Africa.
It must go into a broader agenda. Most of the indebted countries in Asia were ignored by
the G7 summit in Cologne in June 1999. So far, the debt cancellation only gives
"benefit" to Latin America and Africa. The struggle of the debt and jubilee
campaign in Asia must go beyond the debt cancellation. The debt and jubilee campaign is
not only a matter of economics. It is a matter of faith, a matter for integrated global
social transformation. The debt and jubilee campaign cannot be restricted to Christians
and church activities only. It must include the whole community and humankind. In Asia,
where the majority people are not Christians, the largest group of people affected by debt
are non-Christians. Therefore, the gospel of salvation in Asia today and the message of
"Good news to the poor" should include a message of debt cancellation and
jubilee. Our theological language on jubilee and debt campaign should take into
consideration the Asia reality, its culture, tradition and religion. The task and
challanges of the debt and jubilee campaign are not for Christian alone, but also for the
whole creation of God. Therefore, we need new languages and new terminologies on jubilee
that is relevant to our contexts.
The spirit of jubilee in Leviticus 25 is not a matter of economics
restoration or "transformation", but also social, political and ecological
restoration. Jubilee is a matter of faith for the people of God. Cultural, political,
social and ecological rights of the poor and powerless are the main messages of jubilee.
We need to go beyond the narrow message and tradition of jubilee. The goal of jubilee and
debt campaign is utopia and hope for all believers - hope for a new heaven and a new
earth. The task for believers is how to make utopia and hope come true.