The Scope of the Debt

One of the great sleeper issues on the planet is how so many poor and developing countries continue to have their growth crippled due to international debts that were acquired by their grand parents decades ago.

A few years ago I was on a Church World Service delegation to Honduras, one of the countries slated to receive a portion of its debts canceled by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. We were in a remote village up in the mountains called Dominguez.

One of our purposes there was to establish a library in the local school. CWS was in partnership with another fine Non-Governmental Organization called “AlphaLit” that runs literacy programs all over the world. The arrangement was that CWS would donate the books and AlphaLit would teach the literacy classes.

It was all a fine presentation and there were smiles all around, but when the festivities had ended one person in our group asked about the underlying issue of why we were even there. Why, she said, are we way up here setting up a library and literacy program in a school? Isn’t this something that, well, that schools do? Why isn’t there a library here already? Why aren’t there teachers teaching literacy here? Isn’t this redundant?

The answer from our host was revealing. Oh, he said, the government can’t afford teachers. These schools were built years ago, but we can only staff them with teachers for two or three months out of the year, sometimes less. Someone else then asked, well, why doesn’t the government have money for schools? They’re pretty basic aren’t they?

He laughed and said that Honduras has such an overwhelming outstanding external debt that the annual payments on just the interest owed on it literally drained the country of the finances needed for what you and I would believe to be the most basic human services like education and health. Until finally receiving debt relief from the Inter-American Development Bank in November of 2006, Honduras spent more of its national income on its loans, than it did on health care and education combined.

This summer Congress has introduced a “Jubilee Act” that would cancel all of the debts owed to the US by these poor countries, plus encourage the international lending institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF to do the same. You can influence the outcome of that debate. Call your member of congress and ask if he or she has co-sponsored the act and if not would they do so. There are children in Honduras who may be going to school next year with your help.

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