More voices join call for cancellation of debt

by Pilar Franco

Mexico City, 21 Sep 99 (IPS) -- Mexico's Roman Catholic bishops launched a petition drive Tuesday as part of the international effort lobbying for debt relief for the world's poorest countries.

The aim is to collect 10 million signatures beseeching the industrialised North and multilateral lending institutions to totally or partially forgive the debt held by the world's poorest nations.

World-famous musicians like Britain's David Bowie, Puerto Rico's Willie Coln and Ireland's Bono, meanwhile, announced a plan to ask Pope John Paul II to deliver to the World Bank and wealthy countries their request for debt relief for poor countries.

The request "might sound ingenuous, but perhaps Christian faith and the Pope's moral influence will be able to move mountains in 2000," Coln told the Mexican daily La Jornada.

"People are tired of political and diplomatic talk. I believe we artists can help win time" in the search for solutions to this serious problem, he added. The foreign debt held by poor countries has accumulated as "a truly immoral business: profiting from poverty. Money was never lent to help the people, but rather to tie them to interest payments for life," said the popular salsa singer.

The group of singers and songwriters, which includes U.S. show business personality Quincy Jones, proposes that highly indebted governments invest the amount owed in social services, said Coln.

He did not specify, however, when the group's request would be delivered to the Pope.

Mexico, a country "which is not considered poor, but which nevertheless has areas where people live in the same conditions as in the world's most marginalised regions," has joined the efforts for a partial or total writing off of debt, said Catholic priest Alberto Athi.

Mexico, whose foreign debt stands at $165.3 billion, was admitted to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) - which groups the world's 29 most powerful countries - in 1994.

Latin America owes a combined total of $706 billion to rich countries and multilateral bodies, according to Jubilee 2000, an international Catholic Church-based group lobbying for debt relief for poor countries.

Athi, the secretary of the Episcopate's Social Pastoral Commission, said the signature drive undertaken by Mexico's more than 100 Catholic bishops was pushing for an at least five percent reduction of the foreign debt owed by poor countries.

Like the musicians, the bishops recommend that the funds each country saves from the partial cancellation of its debt be channelled into social works.

Athi said the Mexican bishops' campaign would include national and international days of "reflection" on the problem of the debt and its social repercussions. The petition drive will end Oct 17, and the first National Social Week is scheduled for Oct 25-28.

The Week is part of the preparations for the celebration of the Catholic Church's Jubilee 2000, and will draw representatives of the Vatican and the Latin American Episcopal Council to Mexico City, said Athi.

The Christian precepts promoted in the Jubilee specifically condemn usury and profiteering. Jubilee, celebrated every 50 years, is considered a year of rest for the earth and of freedom for human beings, when debts are to be cancelled, slaves released, and property returned to its rightful owner.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for the elimination of the "catastrophic burden" that the foreign debt imposes on children and families in the world's poorest nations.

The lives of at least seven million children could be saved annually if the debt of the 20 poorest countries were written off, according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP). The region which bears the heaviest burden is sub-Saharan Africa, whose combined debt (excluding South Africa) totals 108% of gross domestic product (GDP). That proportion climbs to 366% in the case of Guinea-Bissau, says the UNDP.

Mexico's Episcopal Conference is investigating the pockets of hunger and extreme poverty in this country, said Athi, who added that the results would be released shortly. Poverty affects 70% of Mexico's 98 million inhabitants, compared to 60% in the 1970s, according to non-governmental studies.

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS) .