Las Am��_��_ricas

Debt Relief?

Originally, the root of the word “jubilee” meant “ram’s horn,” but it later came to be confused with a similar Latin word meaning “to shout.” Ultimately, the expression apparently came to mean “to shout through a ram’s horn,” or figuratively, to make a lot of noise.

For the past few years, a loose coalition of non-governmental organizations called Jubilee 2000 has lobbied the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to forgive Third World debt–and made a lot of noise in the process. The coalition got looser, larger, and louder until it was hard to resist. This year, the coalition–now including the Dalai Lama, Whitney Houston, Muhammad Ali, Desmond Tutu, the Spice Girls, and the Pope–has finally pushed debt relief onto the public agenda and into the United States Congress.

“Jubilee” also refers to an ancient religious custom, in which tribal high priests forgave the debts and the sins of the masses once every 50 years or so, when a Jubilee Year was declared. In naming 2000 a Jubilee Year, the coalition focused world attention on the injustice of forcing countries such as Honduras and Haiti to make regular interest payments to the World Bank and the IMF (the high priests of the global economy), since both institutions are already awash in cash collected for decades from the peasants of the world, not to mention sizable amounts scammed from the taxpayers of industrial nations. For Latin America and the Caribbean, the interest payments alone are enormous. The regional debt to the Bank and the Fund equals about $300 billion, an amount roughly equivalent to the annual defense budget of the United States, and therefore quite a lot.

In late October, amidst much shouting and jubilation, the United States Congress finally agreed to provide some measure of debt relief to the world’s poorest countries. The amount agreed to, $435 million, was outrageously tightfisted when compared to, say, the $720 million earmark that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott put in the defense appropriations bill last year, for a ship the Navy didn’t want. But still, it was something. For their part, the Bank and the Fund, already shamed into formally writing off some of the debt bondage of the poorest countries, prepared to scoop up and distribute this mean little sum as well. But we must never underestimate the power of the purse. If the World Bank, the IMF, and their buddies in the United States Congress are going to give away money, they’re going to get something for it, by God. For this purpose, they employ the debt forgiveness program for Heavily Indebted Poor Countries, or HIPC, developed in 1996. This acronym is pronounced in Washington more or less like the involuntary sound you make when you’ve had too much to drink (hip-pic). And like almost everything else in our nation’s capital, it has transmogrified into a grotesque caricature of its original intentions. The emerging outlines of HIPC bear little resemblance to the festive practice of old, when the powerful selflessly granted financial and spiritual indulgences to the damned and the indebted. Far from it.

First, the Bankers hatched a complex formula to determine which countries among the many seeking relief were truly heavily indebted and unmistakably poor. No one understands quite how they did this, but we are told that it was through completely objective and precise calculations. Our sources say that to meet the criteria established, a country had to have half of its population a) living in houses made entirely of cardboard and Glad Wrap, and b) deriving its nutrients from a diet consisting largely of infectious microbes. Worldwide, only 41 countries qualified, which left quite a few debtor nations out in the cold. In Latin America, the lucky winners were Honduras, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Guyana. Once recognized as officially indigent, under HIPC these countries are then required to adopt the fiscal practices recommended by the Bank and the Fund, which means, of course, cutting their national budgets. As a result, in the selected countries, there will be even less cardboard available for public housing than there was before HIPC, not to mention less money for health care, wage supports, farm subsidies, and other frivolous expenditures.

Having duly complied with the stipulations, supplicant countries then submit to their creditors (the Bank and the Fund) convincing evidence to that effect, after which they are invited to sit down with the Bankers and develop a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP), a document representing their supervised plan for misery alleviation. When the entire exercise is completed, the country reaches its “Decision Point,” where it can officially apply for funds from the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF), with which to pay a portion of its debt. The money thus saved in the national budget must be used for education, health, and social services–but it must be used according to the prescriptions of the Bankers, because, as economists, they are the experts on health care, schooling, housing, and you name it.

In other words, the debt relief program has furtively become yet another stealth weapon used by the multinational banks to take control of the public services of poor countries. Inevitably, these services will be scaled back and privatized. They will reappear as profit centers in the hands of government ministers, who will dole out lucrative operating contracts to their cronies or sell systems outright to multinational firms like Bechtel, which recently acquired a municipal water system in Bolivia.

Welcome to debt relief, the theory and the practice. Regardless of what they choose to call them, the salient fact about the Bankers’ poverty reduction plans is that they must be based primarily on promoting private sector growth, which has become an all-too-familiar refrain in the World Bank’s checkered history in the development trade. Just to give you an idea about the suspect origins of the program known as the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility, it used to be the Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility. Before that it was the Structural Adjustment Facility. Two things about this. One, the fiscal austerity packages euphemistically referred to as “structural adjustment” are what created the real poverty horrors to begin with; and two, whenever the multinational banks refer to something as “enhanced,” you should know that it is extremely dangerous, and your mother would not want you to touch it.

Not surprisingly, the plans the Bankers cooked up to fight poverty have resulted in an epidemic of corruption, ineptitude, and destitution. But that’s okay, they tell us, because the Bankers “learn by doing.” As Bruce Rich pointed out in Mortgaging the Earth, this is because they are incapable of learning by remembering, which is how the rest of us do it. For example, the new poverty reduction plans for Honduras and Nicaragua foresee “macroeconomic and sectoral reforms that promote labor-intensive, broad-based growth and benefit the poor.” In particular, the Bankers bestow their blessings on projects that “encourage the role and growth of the private sector.” Together, these prescriptions for poverty reduction equal, on the one hand, immense assembly lines operated by sixteen-year-old girls in hairnets making $2 a day, and on the other, bogus new private enterprises with close connections to ruling parties operating what used to be the national health system and the public schools. In Nicaragua, to cite just one example, 30 of 41 new publicly-funded private health care enterprises could not produce proof in 1999 that they had actually delivered the health services the government paid them to provide. Twenty-three of them continue their operations with public funding anyway.

We suspect that the IMF’s poverty reduction plans include maquilas and contract labor in the former civil service because of a number of suspicious omissions from the HIPC strategy papers. Nowhere in the policy document does any commitment to national labor laws or international labor standards appear, and the priority area that the World Bank describes as “good governance” focuses principally on property rights, with no explicit reference at all to human, civil, or labor rights. Less formally, although World Bank President James Wolfensohn is officially opposed to slavery and child labor, he has been known to refer to the right to form a labor union as a “gray area” in legal terms. Of course, if you’re reasonably intelligent, you know that forming labor unions is a fairly effective way to reduce poverty. That’s how it was accomplished in the United States and Europe, for example. But if the Bankers adopted that approach, the country might develop independently, and the Bank would not be able to make borrowing nations jump through endless coils of bureaucratic hoops in order to get some handouts.

So here is how debt relief will work. Let’s suppose that you are Guyana and, all told, you are having a bad time. El Niño washed away a hunk of your exports, and the international prices for them weren’t too good to start with. These developments “undermined the confidence of the business sector,” which means that rich people took their money away and put it somewhere else–like, say, outside Guyana. Now you have no rice, no sugar, and no money. The civil service, which hasn’t been paid decently for decades, has had just about enough. The only big, nice hotel you have in your capital burned down, so no one wants to come there anymore. Plus, the major industry of selling illegal visas to would-be immigrants to the United States, through a complicated process involving the American Embassy and the best Chinese restaurant in the capital, was recently shut down.

You are going to have to go to the IMF. This could work out nicely, however, because you do have a fairly large public sector, so you still have a lot of people to fire, and the Fund seems to be willing to pay for that. You also have priceless ranges of tropical hardwoods to chop and ship. Well, almost priceless. Plus, gold. Sure enough, together with the Bankers, you churn out a poverty plan that specifies “reducing tariff protection” and “controlling the growth of the wage bill.” In real terms, this means making what’s left of Guyanese industries compete internationally and therefore forcing them almost immediately into bankruptcy, while freezing the salaries of the people still lucky enough to have jobs after that.

There’s more. The Guyanese government must also enhance its revenue collection by imposing a value-added tax, a regressive tax that penalizes the poor. The Finance Minister and the President readily agree to the plan because it means that the people who really run the country–themselves–don’t have to ante up.

Now, let’s concentrate on exports to, as we say, enhance income generation. Here, under HIPC, Guyana will become a smoking ruin. The Bankers want traditional exports to grow at 4 percent per year. More sugar, more rice, and more timber. This plan is what the Bankers call “integrated rural development.” It all fits together nicely–as you cut more timber, you plant more rice and sugar. What a good idea. Unfortunately, the timber to be cut is tropical rain forest, some of the most ecologically sensitive areas in the Americas. And, if we could learn by remembering, we would recall that soil in tropical forests is poor. When denuded, it turns to clay and supports only sparse grasses and inedible weeds. We should have learned this in Brazil after our colossal and disastrous colonization projects.

These are just the broad outlines of debt relief. The particulars are more incriminating, but the blueprint is pretty much the same for all beneficiaries. The Bankers have worked hard at this–poverty reduction is their primary goal, they tell us every chance they get. They will reach it by firing people, freezing salaries, busting unions, and imposing sales taxes. Then they will provide broad-based, labor-intensive growth by financing low-wage, union-free, and duty-free export processing zones and selling off everything in sight. In my drinking days, I could usually get rid of a bad case of HIPCs by having someone scare me. These days, reading an IMF Poverty Reduction Paper will pretty much do the trick.

Gabriela Bocagrande files her sober dispatches from a small chapel within the Church of the Global Economy.

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Published at 12:00 am CST