Jubilee 2000: The Movement America Missed

Three days before Christmas, the United States and its fellow G7 members announced they had agreed to forgive loans to 22 of the world's poorest countries, amounting to $20 billion with another $90 billion to come.

The New York Times printed an 800-word story about this on its sixth page. Otherwise, there was no major coverage -- not on television or in national newspapers -- of a pinnacle moment in a debt relief effort that had mobilized millions of people and claimed center stage in a debate about the World Bank and International Monetary Fund's culpability in third world economies.

What's surprising about this journalistic omission was that there was even some panache to the story. The debt forgiveness initiative was not just a tale of bureaucrats at little known, poorly understood lending agencies. It involved celebrity superstars like Muhammad Ali and U2's Bono. It had a nice Biblical tie-in to the Jubilee concept of forgiving debt and freeing slaves. It had resulted in a Guinness Book of World Records record: over 24 million people in 166 countries had signed a "Jubilee 2000" petition demanding debt relief for impoverished nations. Essentially, according to the British press, the millennial debt relief movement was a grassroots effort with the size and scope of the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s. But that was not true in the United States.

Sure, the American press produced the occasional story on the debt issue. "Can Bono Save the Third World?" was the title of a January 2000 Newsweek article; "The Rock Star, the Pope and the World's Poor" was the Los Angeles Times' January 2001 contribution. And PBS' NewsHour with Jim Lehrer ran a short program in April 2000 with the usual talking heads.

But American news organizations generally remained mum on the subject. Not sexy, you could hear the TV producers mumbling. Too complicated, grunted the newspaper editors.

Isolationism -- geographic and historic -- has long been the rationale for American's lack of interest in foreign affairs. Yet there is something more profound in Americans' ignorance about countries whose prosperity they directly affect and could ostensibly improve. The story of Jubilee 2000 illustrates this well, and gives an object lesson in how activist movements succeed or fail in the most economically powerful, inward-looking country in the world.

Victories Abroad

The concept of debt relief had been circulating for many years among a small world of academics, economists and aid workers. The general public, however, "was completely unaware of the problem," said Ann Pettifor, the plucky director of Jubilee 2000 UK. Pettifor was recruited in 1996 by a group of aid agencies in England to, in her words, "help write off the debt for the poorest countries." But the aid agencies thought that her chief proposal -- a public media campaign to educate and engage the public about debt relief -- was ridiculous. The reasons for third world debt were too arcane, they reasoned, beyond the understanding of ordinary people.

Nevertheless, Pettifor forged ahead with the help of two 70-something Christian politicos, Martin Dent and Bill Peters. Six years before, over drinks in an Oxford pub, Dent and Peters had come up with an idea to connect third world debt cancellation to the Old Testament idea of Jubilee -- a tradition of erasing all debts and freeing slaves once every 50 years.

Peters was a retired British ambassador. Dent, a retired professor. Both had worked on relief projects in Africa, with varying degrees of dismay. They also had ridden the failed wave of the 1980s debt reform movement.

Yet they believed that a Jubilee 2000 campaign, as they dubbed it, could become a 21st century equivalent of the 19th century's abolitionist movement. The reason was simple: third world indebtedness was the new form of slavery. When people understood that 52 countries like Zambia, Uganda and Honduras owe $365 billion dollars to Western institutions, and that the loans were often incurred by military dictatorships, they would realize the logic of Jubilee remission.

With that in mind, the founders of Jubilee 2000 launched a campaign that was part religious crusade, part telecommunications war. To gain popular support for debt forgiveness, they drew first on the strength of world church organizations -- and the "idea spread like wildfire," said Pettifor, "because the evangelical movement is global." Then came third world aid organizations, human rights groups, labor unions and all manner of religious groups and nonprofits, all of which had thousands of members connected by e-mail.

Easiest to convince were citizens of poor nations. According to Liana Cisneros, Jubilee 2000 UK's Latin American and Caribbean coordinator, people in Southern countries need no education on the economic repercussions of indebtedness.

"To them all this is obvious," she said. "During the last 20 years, they have lost access to free health care and education, thanks to IMF-directed budget cuts. The most illiterate peasant in Bolivia knows this." In Peru, Cisneros and her colleagues gathered 1,850,000 signatures for the Jubilee 2000 petition in five short months.

Similar waves of support were found around the globe. Within three years, Jubilee 2000 offices were set up in Ghana, Peru, West Africa, Germany, India, Italy and the U.S. At the May 1998 G8 Summit in Birmingham, England, 70,000 people formed a six-mile-long human chain symbolizing the chains of debt. The European press was there to film protesters holding signs that read, "Sauda is one day old: She already owes 30 times more than she will earn in her lifetime."

With a growing grassroots movement behind them, the Jubilee 2000 campaign could no longer be ignored by the world's financial leaders. Though the IMF and World Bank had announced in April 1996 a plan to speed up debt relief for "Heavily Indebted Poor Countries," Jubilee and nonprofits like Oxfam argued that the HIPC Initiative was too little, too late. And, most of all, that the "structural adjustment" conditions attached to HIPC debt relief -- such as privatizing state industry, devaluing local currency and cutting social services -- would further imperil third world economies.

The structural adjustment debate has, for decades, been the thorn in the side of debt relief activists. Lending officials have long cried "moral hazard" -- i.e., that being soft on indebted countries leads to corruption and further economic backwardness -- and that the best cure for crumbling economies was to follow the Bank and Fund's belt-tightening prescriptions.

But suddenly that argument was losing water. Influential economists like Jeffrey Sachs of the Center for Economic Development at Harvard and Alfred Stiglitz, a former World Bank chief economist, were accusing the Fund and Bank of foul play: of causing the 1997 Asian financial crisis to spin out of control and of putting third world countries in an economic straightjacket that ran counter to basic theories of economic development.

"When push comes to shove, the IMF and World Bank side with the creditor interests of the rich countries, even when such policies violate the basic precepts of market economics," argued Sachs in a September 25, 2000 op-ed in The Financial Times. "Under the IMF deal, the creditor governments forced Korea to guarantee the repayment of bad debts owed by private Korean banks to private US, European and Japanese banks. The Korean people are paying billions of dollars in taxes so that their government can make good on bad private loans."

Bono Brings the Star Power

However much clout Sachs brought to the Jubilee 2000 coalition, the most influential debt relief activist turned out to be an Irish rocker with a penchant for black clothes and social justice. Bono of the rock band U2 became, in the words of Jubilee 2000 organizer Jamie Drummond, "a very brilliant political lobbyist. He got meetings with people we couldn't meet with."

It's a testament to the power of celebrity that Bono, who just won Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the Grammies, spent the next two years rubbing shoulders with world leaders. He had tea and sympathy with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, talked R& B and poverty with US Senator Orin Hatch and paid a visit to the Vatican where he exchanged sunglasses for white rosary beads with the Pope.

Of course, where Bono went, the media followed. And when the media followed, politicians wanted in. According to Tim Atwater of Jubilee 2000 US, Clinton found out about the debt relief movement from the European press. He certainly wasn't responding to public protests in America like those that were raging through Europe. So when the G8 met in July 1999 and decided to speed up the HIPC process, providing $100 billion in debt cancellation by the end of 2000, few Americans understood the meeting's significance.

The American Blindspot

Why didn't the Jubilee 2000 campaign take off in the US? Some blame the American media, which every year devotes less and less time to international news stories. Others, like David Bryden, the former head of Jubilee 2000 US, believe Europeans feel more responsibility for countries they once colonized. Bryden adds that "The kind of mass movements we've seen in this country have generally been things that affect Americans directly: the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the No Nukes movement." In other words, there was nothing in the debt relief movement that attracted American self-interest.

Oddly, however, the Jubilee 2000 campaign coincided with the greatest surge of activism about international issues in several decades. At the November 1999 WTO meetings in Seattle, thousands protested in the name of unfair trade and corporate globalization. Representatives of Jubilee 2000 were there as well, but unlike the black-clad anarchists and Greens carrying paper-mache turtles, they got lost in the media glare. Moreover, as the protests against globalization ricocheted from Washington, DC to Philadelphia and Los Angeles in 2000, organizers of Jubilee kept their distance for fear of being tainted by "us ragamuffins," as Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange facetiously called the coalition of anti-globalization protesters.

Such comments may say much about the fissures within the American activist community, yet they also point to the complexity of building a movement with genuine grassroots support. According to Ann Pettifor, this is where Jubilee 2000 US failed. She argues the campaign never took off in the US because it never left the beltway.

"The people in NGOs in Washington are completely fixated on Capitol Hill," said Pettifor of Jubilee 2000's supporters in DC. "What we learned [in the UK] is that you had to ignore the institutions of power and go to the streets and the churches and the trade unions and community organizations, and you had to teach them about international finance and debt, which takes a lot of hard work. It requires traipsing up and down the country, making speeches, talking to people, educating them really."

Although Bryden believes this a somewhat misinformed analysis, since organizations like Bread for the World and the Presbyterian and Methodist churches were able to get thousands of members activated on the debt issue, he does admit that "Our task in the US was to convince, first and foremost, Congress to go along with the idea because that's the way the system works in the US."

In that sense, Jubilee 2000 US was successful. By the fall of 2000 enough pressure from government insiders such as televangelist Pat Robertson and Arnold Schwarzenegger had made debt relief look imperative. In November, the powerful House budget chairman John Kasich (a friend of Schwarzenneger's as well as a rock 'n roll fan) teamed up with Bono and made a sweep through Republican offices. Republican Senator Jesse Helms signed onto the same plan as Democratic Senator Maxine Waters, as did then governor George W. Bush. And within weeks, a bill that was expected to sink passed. Congress agreed to provide $435 million toward writing off debts, the US share required by the HIPC Initiative.

So the subject seemed closed. David Bryden believes "Many reporters think all the debt has been cancelled." In fact, only $20 billion of debt has been forgiven, and the total $110 billion slated to be cleared is only a third of what debt activists say should be written off.

Many in the movement are doubtful this will happen. The Jubilee 2000 UK group, the strongest link of the coalition, has closed up shop and dispersed its resources into two short-term campaigns: preparations for the July G8 Summit in Genoa, and Jubilee Plus, an effort that will analyze and tackle the causes of the debt itself.

Meanwhile, the US group, renamed the Jubilee USA Network, hopes to keep the momentum of the campaign going by arguing for full debt cancellation separate from structural adjustment programs. Yet it remains unclear how they will do this. According to April Selenskikh, a Jubilee USA Network member who works for the African Services Committee in New York, "The biggest problem is most Americans don't understand anything about the issue."

Europeans don't seem to have this problem as much anymore. Last month in England, for example, the British government was prevented from loaning money to President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe for refurbishing military jets because of public outcry. "When the papers reported on this, all hell broke loose," said Pettifor. "Five years ago there would have been no fuss. But today people are outraged because one day everybody is reading what a wicked man Mugabe is, and the next they find out their government is financing him."

Of course, almost nothing of this sort happens in the US. According to Pettifor, it must. She and other activists say changing American public opinion vis-à-vis international issues is imperative, as the US has the greatest influence in the IMF, the World Bank and the G8. Indeed, Pettifor and Sachs are talking about using this public opinion angle to help alleviate the African AIDS crisis, which is expected to take 24 million lives this decade. They believe that if Americans' self-interest is at stake, they will force politicians and pharmaceutical companies to act.

"It would be a bad thing for the United States, for example, if untreatable TB arrived in the US and became an epidemic," said Pettifor, who reasons such a catastrophe could force Americans to "think globally and act globally."

If Pettifor is right -- and can compel enough Americans to care about the health crisis in Africa -- she may prove herself the Joan of Arc of 21st-century activist movements. For the moment, what remains clear is that most Americans leave international issues to their government, and that the government's moments of altruism are few and far between.

To learn more about Jubilee 2000 or find out how you can get involved, visit www.j2000usa.org or www.dropthedebt.org


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ post.roar_specific_data.api_data.analytics }}