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Give the poorest of the poor a new start

The Catholic bishops of Great Britain today publish a comprehensive statement calling far the remission of the unpayable debts of the world's poorest countries. The 3,000-word document, 'Life, Debt and Jubilee', is launched in advance of the G8 Summit in Cologne in June, and on the eve of the 'Great Jubilee' of the year 2000.

In their statement, the bishops say that debt remission has become a "practical necessity in order to tackle global poverty". Recent increases in British aid are welcomed, but commitment to poverty elimination of all governments, both debtor and creditor, is called for.

The statement is to be published by CAFOD (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development) and SCIAF (Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund), and made available in Catholic parishes across the country.

An executive summary of `Life, Debt and Jubilee' - prepared by CAFOD - follows.

On the eve of the Great Jubilee remission of the unpayable debt of the poorest and most indebted countries has become an achievable and practical necessity (1). Such remission requires commitment on the part of governments - to carry it out and to find the necessary resources.

Remission of unpayable debt should be our way of honouring the Old Testament promises of Jubilee and fulfilling Christ's proclamation of good news to the poor and "the year of the Lord's favour" (2). The gap between the rich and the poor is widening and the terms on which the poorest nations compete in the global market are deteriorating. We live in a world of extreme inequality - where the combined income of the 225 richest people is equal to the annual income of the poorest 47 percent and where more than one billion people will go hungry for most of their lives (3).

Remission of debt is an essential precondition for the achievement of the international poverty target of halving the numbers living in extreme poverty by 2015 (4). Commitment to the targets on the part of rich governments will be measured not only by debt reduction but also by increased development assistance in the years to come.

Private citizens have a role to play alongside governments and have been directly challenged to increase voluntary giving by the Chancellor (5). Commitment on the part of debtor governments lies in ensuring that additional resources are targeted to the poorest and used with efficiency (6).

The 2015 poverty targets underline the urgency of using the unique opportunity offered by the approaching millennium - the Great Jubilee - to remit the unpayable debt of the poorest countries (7). The Pope has called for the substantial reduction "if not outright cancellation of international debt which seriously threatens the future of many nations" and has urged Christians to take action (8).

Action on debt is required because the burden of unpayable debt falls most heavily on the poor (9). Debt service payments undermine education and health services and prospects of future development. The present Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, relying as it does on a track record of six years of stringent financial management, ignores the backlog of poverty and neglect accumulated over the years, a backlog that must be addressed through investment and improved services if the poor are to face the new millennium with any degree of hope for development (11).

Debt reduction should be a forward-looking measure (13). The proceeds of debt reduction should be allocated to agreed programmes of health, education and investment. Such programmes, together with new lending, should be rigorously monitored by means of mechanisms involving civil society, both to prevent the accumulation of unpayable debt in the future and to ensure that funds are not diverted from their agreed purpose.

The churches and Jubilee 2000 have sent a strong message to governments and finance ministers in the North that they should find the resources needed to remit debt on the scale required to give the poorest and most indebted countries a new beginning, thus giving the dawning of the new millennium a strong ethical dimension and to ensure that this Jubilee is proclaimed for the poor and will be celebrated by the poor (14).

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