Bankers and Prophets: Reflecting on the Jubilee Campaign

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By Katherine Marshall – Washington Post, On Faith

October 4, 2010


The Jubilee campaign took inspiration from the Biblical notion of the super Sabbath. It argued that the year 2000 and the turn of the millennium offered, indeed demanded, extraordinary measures: above all the forgiveness of poor country’s debts. It mobilized millions of people, congregations, students, politicians, and citizens, in at least 60 countries. It certainly changed many minds, goaded action from reluctant and willing politicians and helped to shape new approaches to international finance. But above all it transformed an extraordinarily technical matter – it’s hard to think of a more esoteric topic than debt sustainability ratios – dominated by entrenched interests and habits, where the fates of indebted nations were discussed in closed, incomprehensible meetings like the Paris Club. The message of debt forgiveness was one everyone who has ever borrowed money could understand, and the basic ethical argument of fairness and justice blew away the technocratic fog that had previously enveloped the debate. Discussion of debt restricting moved to congregations and the streets.


CGD scholar David Roodnam, who is researching the movement, describes it as an important chapter in a larger story of international financial reforms. He traces at least three distinct paths to Jubilee, with the initial idea probably launched by an evangelical Christian, Isabel Carter, another focal point from the Vatican, with Pope John Paul taking a leading role, and movement founders Anglicans Bill Peters and Martin Dent. Officials in the UK Government and the US Treasury, as well as the World Bank and the IMF were also central players.


A transparent but complex system led to today’s far clearer debt slate. Several contrasted the picture for private and public sectors. The commercial bank debt crisis came first and, in a painful process, the institutions concerned came to terms with the fact that the money was not there and would not be, so within a decade the problem was resolved. Public debt was another story. The Cold War political environment encouraged much unwise lending and made it difficult for politicians to admit the system’s failures. New lending staved off immediate crisis but also delayed solutions. As each nation’s debt problems reflected the circumstances in each country, systemwide solutions were impossible and undesirable. So, 25 years after the early signs of crisis, efforts to fix the problems continue.


But the fundamental lessons of the Jubilee campaign: that messages that focus on ethical responsibility resonate, that fairness is the best focus, and that alliances driven by these concerns, however improbable, can work, are still fresh and important today.


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