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Pope John Paul II’s Dream of Debt Forgiveness Partially Fulfilled

For decades, as financial policies were imposed upon countries around the world with strict control by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank the people were told that this neoliberal economic system will raise all boats, eventually. Each year, however, the yachts of the rich countries have become bigger and more elegant, and the small boats of the poor around the world have been slowly sinking.

In a message to the “Make Poverty History” rally held in Scotland in July 2005 around the G-8 meetings (the Group of Eight wealthy nations which decide the financial fate of countries of the world), Pope Benedict XVI encouraged world leaders to do their part in ensuring a “more just distri-bution of the world’s goods” by accepting the burden of debt reduction and fulfilling pledges made to reduce world poverty.

In the years before the Jubilee of the year 2000, Pope John Paul II campaigned for cancellation of the foreign debt for the poorest countries. His dream was partially fulfilled when in June of this year G-8 finance ministers agreed to cancel more than $40 billion dollars in debts owed to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other lenders by some of the world’s poorest nations.

The majority of countries whose debts will be forgiven are in Africa: Benin, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. Four others include Bolivia, Guyana, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Several archbishops were key players in bringing about this agreement. The Catholic Information Service for Africa reported that Cardinals from India and Honduras and three African archbishops met with European leaders to push for debt cancellation for the poorest countries as part of a campaign for greater global justice prior to the G-8 conference.

At the same time Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor was urging Catholics in England and Wales to join him at the Make Poverty History rally in Edinburgh on July 2. Together with Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Scotland, Murphy-O’Connor led the rally, which thousands of people attended. Parishes sent busloads of parishioners Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor was quoted on BBC Radio:

“The followers of Christ cannot be deaf to the call of the poor because the agonies of Africa, and of so many other parts of the world, are also our agonies. To Catholics, and to everyone of good will, I want to say this: ‘Come and help us send a message to the G-8 leaders on behalf of the world’s poor.’ It is a message which says to the wealthy of this world: ‘Please, once and for all, unshackle your brothers and sisters.”

Cancelling the debts of a very few countries was only a small beginning, however. CAFOD (the Caritas agency of England and Wales) described the actions as very disappointing after the huge campaign in favor of the poor. Trade barriers still favor the US and wealthy nations and multinational corporations.

The experience of the past decades shows that the hope for the world’s poor lies in small businesses in their countries and micro-credit for the smallest businesses, the distributism advocated by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. 25, No. 5, July-August 2005.