Debt, Poverty and Trade: A matter of life and death


When a child is shot in Palestine, or a woman dies of hunger in Africa, the whole of Creation bleeds. Yet in these days of information overload we have developed a survival tactic of tuning out any such information that drives us out of our comfort zones. The issues of our day - debt, poverty, injustice and AIDS - have become catchphrases. They roll too easily off our tongues, but the concepts they represent are often extremely difficult to grasp.

If you want peace", the saying goes, "work for justice."

Peace is not the absence of war or conflict, but the presence of those conditions in society that ensure that everyone has all that is basic for human living: things like food, shelter, clothing, access to health care, clean water and education.

Peacemakers are those who want to ensure that there is good governance founded on principles that embrace fundamental human rights, inclusivity, fairness and equity. As God's stewards we all have a responsibility for the equitable sharing of the earth's resources, which God has placed at our disposal. In turn, governments have a moral duty to co-ordinate those resources for the common good and the general well-being of citizens.

Yet there is great inequality, poverty and uneven development in the world. Some statistics demonstrate this point.

The income gap between the poorest fifth of the world's people and the richest fifth has in 30 years increased from 32:1 to 90:1.

Approximately 1.3 billion people survive - or fail to survive - on $l a day. 3 billion people survive on $2 a day, and 2 billion people have no access to electricity.

If you deconstruct these figures, you find women and vulnerable groups are most adversely affected. More than 800 million people go hungry.

In Africa, malaria and TB kill as many as 4.5 million people a year but the world's pharmaceutical giants do not spend money on research and development for these diseases because there is no profit in it. The fact is poor people cannot pay for drugs. The implications of this approach are even more horrific when we consider the AIDS pandemic.

All this in a world in which the net worth of the world's three richest people is greater than the combined Gross Domestic Product of the 48 poorest (least developed) countries and their 600 million people. In fact, only 26 countries in the world have a Gross Domestic Product greater than the total revenue of General Motors.


We are all familiar with the United Nations Development Programme's figures which show that the top 20% of humanity now captures 86% of all wealth, while the bottom 20% has seen its already meagre portion of this wealth reduced to just 1.3%.

It is a world in which Americans spend more than 8 billion dollars a year on cosmetics - 2 billion dollars more than the estimated annual total needed to provide basic education for everyone in the world. In 1996, Ethiopia had a total foreign debt of 10 billion dollars, whilst in the same year Europe spent 11 billion dollars on ice cream alone.

Clem Sunter, the economist, author and futurist, writes in his book Never Mind the Millennium: What About the Next 24 Hours, that despite all the poverty statistics we live in a world permanently in surplus. Our lives are ruled by the economics of surplus, not by the economics of scarcity.

This is a total contradiction of predictions that there would not be sufficient food to feed an overpopulated world. Today we have a surplus of just about any commodity including cotton, oil, gold, steel, copper, nickel, aluminium and coal. Even if the entire production capacity of North American car manufacturers were wiped out overnight, there would still be a surplus of cars.

34,000 children die daily from malnutrition in a world that could feed more than its current population.

It may come as a surprise to you that poor people aren't poor because of the scarcity of resources and products. They are poor because they are denied the opportunity to make money for themselves.


Vast sums of money are pouring out of impoverished African countries into the coffers of those in the so-called 'First World'. The direct result is that the governments of impoverished countries have wholly inadequate funds to address basic human needs for food, clean water, health and education. The debt crisis is a matter of life and death. African children, women and men are dying while old debts to wealthy lenders are being repaid. This is a human rights emergency!

These debts have accumulated over four decades, and they have become a monster. Poor indebted countries are transferring their inadequate resources to rich countries. Interest payments mount to terrifying proportions, so that over time countries have repaid the principle amount many times over without retiring the loans.

For every $1 that rich countries lend to developing countries $8 comes straight back in the form of repayment on debts owed to those rich countries. So wealth is not trickling down from the rich to the poor, as people like to think. Wealth is actually flowing up from the South to the North.

Countries of the South find themselves giving away, virtually free, earnings from their precious commodities like coffee, copper, tea and sugar. This is a form of economics that denies us our humanity, rich and poor alike.

A typical example of the iniquities that exist is that of Zambia, where eight out of ten households live in extreme poverty. Although Zambia was recently granted some debt relief, the cost of servicing the remaining debt has risen so sharply that the country is paying more than it was before.


God has created a world in which we are bound together in a common humanity - in which each person has equal dignity and value. God has generously given to the nations immense resources, which are to be held in trust and used for the well being of all.

The healthy pattern for relationships is one of mutual giving and receiving of God's gifts. (Borrowing has its place only in as much as it releases growth for human well-being.) When we ignore this healthy pattern for relationships, money becomes a force that destroys human community and God's creation.

On the environmental front, we see serious threats emerging from frenetic commercial and industrial globalisation. For example, scientists posit that extreme weather patterns - caused in part by global warming - are responsible for the unprecedented range of droughts and floods that have been ravaging Africa.

Toxic dumping continues unabated and if the Kyoto Protocol is any indication, we can expect the world's only superpower to ignore its international environmental obligations on matters like carbon emissions.

While globalisation has positive aspects as a reflection of humanity - nevertheless there are serious questions as to whether developing states will be able to survive the processes of globalisation. Poor countries face the danger of permanent marginalisation. In economic terms they find themselves consistently 'out-competed' in international markets by the wealthy and powerful.

Global recession and generally depressed international markets for primary export products continue to stifle the export-oriented development drive of most Third World nations. Less developed countries have been forced to accept worsening terms of trade for fear of complete exclusion from international economic activity.

For the wealthy, continents such as Africa remain the source of oil and scarce, non-renewable resources. The late Nobel Prize winner Jonas Salk said: "We are the first generation in human history in which large numbers of people are taking personal responsibility for the entire species."


Prophetic voices in many progressive popular movements around the world are calling for the resolution of today's unsustainable economic situation that binds debtor to creditor, that starves the children, that destroys nature, that oppresses women, that keeps people with dark skins at the bottom of the global ladder.

In order for us to deal effectively with the challenges of globalisation we need to work towards a world in which human values take precedence over material ones. We need to embark on initiatives that will bring about social justice in the world.

That great American economist Jeffrey Sachs, writing in The Economist, made four interesting proposals:

1 Rich and poor need to learn to talk together and develop a common plan of action.

2 Rich and poor countries should direct their urgent attention to the mobilisation of science and technology for poor country problems. To this end he proposes the creation of a Millennium Vaccine Fund that guarantees future markets for malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS vaccines.

3 The global regime on intellectual property rights needs to be revised. At present so-called 'First World' institutions and international corporations are busy taking out patents on every new intellectual idea and discovery possible. The poor are being excluded once again, and they will continue to be unless some sense of global responsibility is introduced. The ongoing debate over access to AIDS medication is an indication of this. Incentives for innovations that will benefit the whole of humanity - not just the rich - must be provided with no more delay. This is the global responsibility of all those in power.

4 The need for a serious discussion about long term finances for the international public goods necessary for the highly indebted poor countries to break through to prosperity.

More and more frequently, leading economists are recognising that the Washington Consensus - which provides the framework for international financial systems - is flawed. What is needed is for us to put into place new economic systems: economic systems that put people, not profits, first.

All the more tragic then, that with the collapse of communism the free enterprise capitalists have jumped on the bandwagon of excessive profit and rampant greed. The failure of communism does not make unrestrained capitalism right. Communism arose in the first place because of the injustices within capitalism.

The law of profit cannot put food in the bellies of the millions who hunger and starve on the African continent, in Latin America and in Asia. The law of profit will not allow them the drugs they need to treat the most stressful and appalling diseases known to humanity: HIV/AIDS, malaria, hepatitis and tuberculosis. The law of profit will not help the majority in the world to climb out of the deep well of poverty into which they have been plunged by a ruthless economic system whose main driving force is profit and greed.

Nobel Peace Laureate, Professor Amartya Sen, emphasises that the validity of any economic policy should be judged on whether it takes into account its impact on people who are on the downside of the economy. He says that it is necessary to bring social deprivation into the domain of public discussion and create systems for social opportunities.


God has provided for our need, not our greed. In the very first chapter of Genesis, we hear God telling us to look after and care for this world. This does not mean, as many have interpreted it, that we should selfishly exploit his gift.

In being given 'rule', we are to look after, nurture and care for what God has given us so that this world will be a better place for us and for our children, for "we have not inherited this world from our parents, we have borrowed it from our children."

The inequalities of the world are increasing at an alarming rate. The rich are getting far too rich and the poor are becoming desperately poorer. The Old Testament prophets called long ago for justice and righteousness in our dealings with one another and our care of God's created order.

The rich nations, and the multinational corporations, must recognise that they cannot continue on the present course of economic growth and exploitation which disregards the consequences upon fellow human beings and the natural world. The rich must recognise that the purpose of life is not just the acquisition of wealth but the development of the world for the good of its inhabitants and the world itself for future generations. Such a change of attitude would have enormous repercussions.

While we allow the injustices to continue, social unrest will increase, drug trafficking and political turmoil will be the order of the day, while the natural world becomes a barren wasteland, less and less able to support the demand humans place on it.


There is a particular African concept we call Ubuntu. Professor C L S Nyembezi has described Ubuntu as:

· Living and caring for others

· Acting kindly towards others

· Being hospitable

· Being just and fair

· Being compassionate

· Assisting those in distress

· Being trustworthy and honest, and

· Having good morals.

My hope is that the values of Ubuntu will come to govern the way we deal with each other. We need to hold each other's hands as we step forward and make the world a secure environment for ourselves, our children and our children's children.

In the exercise of responsible stewardship we need to co-operate with one another for the common good. Morally righteous people in the world fought against slavery and won. Morally righteous people in the world fought against apartheid and won. In our time the challenge for us is to make a world where human values take priority.

Morally righteous people must now combat the scourges of poverty, which Mahatma Gandhi called the deadliest form of violence. Seldom has the church been so challenged in terms of prophetic ministry - its obligation to nurture and nourish a consciousness and perception different from the dominant culture. We are called, as that great theologian Walter Brueggemann so aptly puts it, "to energise change".


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