The Progress of Nations

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Commentary:  Debt Relief Essential

Debt Has a Child's Face

By Shridath Ramphal *

For nearly two decades, the debt crisis has had a crippling impact on some of the world's poorest countries, hobbling economic growth and draining scarce resources from health, education and other vital services. Can the campaign for debt relief be translated into effective action, ensuring that children of the new millennium are freed from the chains of debt and poverty?

Inscribed on the pinnacle of the Sun Yat-sen Memorial, in the Purple-Gold Mountains overlooking Nanjing in eastern China, are the words: "Tien xia wei gong" (What is under heaven is for all). Sun Yat-sen took these words from an ancient Chinese text as the guiding principle for the movement that liberated his country from feudalism.

Feudalism — part of the history of most nations, East and West, North and South — held people in permanent dependence, dividing them into powerful and powerless, haves and have-nots, those who made rules and those who had to obey them. To human society's great credit, we have moved to systems less unequal and unjust, in which the earth's bounty and the fruits of human toil are shared somewhat more fairly. But if the concepts of sharing and of fairness have evolved, they have done so only within States, and hardly among them.   
Copyright© UNICEF/98-0254/Chalasani
More than a third of children in the heavily indebted poor countries have not been immunized, and about half the people in those countries are illiterate

The words on the memorial still have meaning for the world, especially for our modern global society: What is under heaven has not been, and still is not, for all on earth.

The debt bondage that ensnares hundreds of millions of the world's poorest people, particularly in Africa, provides clear evidence. As though bound to feudal lords, their lives and labour have been mortgaged to rich country banks and governments, often by leaders they did not choose, to finance projects that did not benefit them. Debt, like an oppressive political system, strips them of their rights. And its tyranny is particularly painful now, with sub-Saharan Africa in the grip of an unprecedented calamity as AIDS spreads remorselessly.

In the cool corridors of financial power, the plight of the debt-ridden may be spoken of in terms of capital flows, debt-service ratios and credit ratings. In the heat and dust of real life, however, debt is about lives, people's lives and — above all — children's lives.

 

* Sir Shridath Ramphal, Co-Chairman of the Commission on Global Governance, is Chief Negotiator for the Caribbean on International Economic Issues. He is former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Secretariat and Foreign Minister of Guyana.

 

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