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The Rock Star, the Pope and the World's Poor

A behind-the-scenes look at the efforts of an unlikely cast of characters to persuade wealthy countries to forgive impoverished countries' debts.

January 07, 2001|JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Old as the Bible yet with a modern twist, the idea was simple, outlandish, ambitious in the absurd: The world's richest countries should forgive many billions of dollars of debt owed them by the world's poorest countries--with a deadline of the dawning millennium.

The unlikely assortment of true believers included a British professor who moonlights as a peacekeeper for an African tribe, an Irish rock superstar, the pope, a tarnished president in search of redemption, a Los Angeles member of the Kennedy clan, a devoted cadre of conservatives and a global flock of activists who equated modern debt with ancient slavery.

It was a matter of life and death, they proclaimed, a simple question of justice. Have-not nations were struggling with horrific social problems while rich lenders basked in plenty.

Blocking the way: many of the world's political and financial leaders, buttressed by apathy and time-honored beliefs that debts should be repaid.

Yet in November, in a moment of rare triumph, champions of the quest known as Jubilee 2000 gathered in the White House to celebrate America's latest, $435-million installment on a global effort to help wipe out as much as $90 billion in debt owed by more than 30 countries.

"It was a fluke--or a mercy of God--that it happened," said Martin Dent, 75, a retired professor who envisioned the jubilee movement 10 years ago at a pub in Oxford, England.

The world's wealthiest industrial democracies, ultimately pushed by the United States, had reversed course and embraced a coordinated, long-term strategy to reduce the debts of the poorest countries, a goal long opposed by financial leaders. As part of the plan, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank scrapped their own slow-moving debt-relief efforts and eased payment demands on 22 nations.

As a result, impoverished countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia have begun steering savings on debt payments toward health care, nutrition, schools and housing.

"I never expected this to happen," said James L. McDonald, a Presbyterian minister and vice president of Bread for the World, a Christian citizens' group. "I don't think any of us did."

Not that it happened easily. In the badly split U.S. Congress, debt relief was branded as a liberal, Democratic cause. In the end, however, partisan stereotypes were shattered. Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina became teary-eyed in a meeting with U2's lead singer, Bono. Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Budget Committee, defused concerns of GOP leaders.

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The story of Jubilee 2000 is a striking tale of politics and faith. It arose from a grass-roots backlash against the unequal rewards of the global economy. But unlike wild protests against the World Trade Organization and the IMF, the debt-relief cause became a cry for justice that world leaders found impossible to ignore in a time of untold prosperity.

It was a cry that first resounded across the Atlantic, where Dent, great-great-great-grandson of a British abolitionist, believed that the world was witnessing a new form of slavery.

A friendly, rumpled former official of Britain's Colonial Service, Dent had been exposed to Third World problems before. In 1960, he helped defuse riots in central Nigeria, later being named an honorary chief by the Tiv people.

He became increasingly concerned during the 1980s as the neediest nations struggled with rising payments, often for loans made to corrupt regimes during the Cold War and from banks that were less than cautious about how much was lent to Third World nations.

By the 1990s, Honduras was spending more on debt bills than on health and schools. In Zambia, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Uganda and dozens of other countries, the tale was the same: Like tapped-out consumers, borrower nations were paying more and more on interest as they plunged ever deeper into debt.

Dent knew that the Old Testament calls for a jubilee every 50 years, a fresh start for slaves and debtors. Linking that Leviticus teaching to the coming millennium, he figured, might goad politicians and galvanize the public. "It combined a practical, attainable objective with a radical vision," he said in an interview.

Others were thinking along parallel lines. In his November 1994 apostolic letter on the millennium, Pope John Paul II linked the biblical jubilee to the present, declaring that it was "time to give thought . . . to reducing substantially, if not canceling outright, the international debt which seriously threatens the future of many nations."

In 1996, Dent and Bill Peters, a retired British ambassador, dubbed the quest Jubilee 2000 and set up shop. In America, however, the ambitious vision was greeted with doubt. U.S. activists had focused on the problem since the 1970s but had failed to generate much support.

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