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 creditors' interests.

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 world’s 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 single person.

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 humans’life 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 accounting system’.

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:

  1. Releasing the debt for the poor (economic transformation)
  2. Liberating the slaves (political transformation/human rights enforcement)
  3. Giving back the pawned land to the heir (social/culture)
  4. 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:

  1. Cancel the debt of poorest countries to enable them enter the new millenium with fresh start.

  2. Achieve substantial eradication of debts of the middle income countries within the same time frame.

  3. Introduce a new, independent and transparent arbitration process for negotiating and agreement on international debt cancellation.

  4. 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.

  5. Use their powers to ensure that funds illegitimately transferred to secret bank accounts are returned to debtor nations.

  6. 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.