Today's date:
FALL 2001


Be Generous to the Poor

Civil and human rights advocate Coretta Scott King is the founder of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

Atlanta-When my husband, Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his Nobel peace prize lecture in Oslo, Norway, back in 1964, he issued a great challenge to the developed nations of the world. "In the ?nal analysis," he said, "the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied together in a single garment of destiny. All life is interrelated, and all men are interdependent. The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich. We are inevitably our brother's keeper because of the interrelated structure of reality."

I am reminded of Martin's challenge, which seems even more relevant to our times than it was when he delivered it more than 35 years ago.

The 2000 G-8 Global Poverty Report estimated that 1.2 billion people around the world were living on less than $1 per day, and 3 billion were living on less than $2 per day. Most of these people live in countries that are deeply indebted to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United States and other wealthy nations. The finance ministers of the G-8 have pledged their intentions to reduce world poverty by half by 2015. This is a good start, but surely they can do better.

A growing community of economists and human rights advocates is calling for cancellation of the burdensome debt of the poorest nations to Western industrialized nations as the essential first step toward eradicating poverty. The critical condition for debt cancellation is that debtor nations honor commitments to spend the savings on improving the health, education and human needs of their citizens.

The countries of sub-Saharan Africa, which include 33 of the 41 countries classified as "highly indebted," now owe more than $350 billion in foreign debt. Some of these countries pay as much as 40 percent of their collective annual budgets just for interest on the debt. The poorest countries spend more paying interest on their debts than on primary health care or education. In Zambia, for example, interest payments on this debt now exceed the national budget for health and education combined. In South America, Bolivia spends three times the amount of its health-care budget on servicing the debt. It is estimated that 19,000 children worldwide die every day as a direct result of the debt crisis, according to Christian Aid, 2000, a humanitarian relief group based in the United Kingdom.

The debt is arguably the greatest obstacle in addressing the AIDS pandemic, as it spreads throughout sub-Saharan Africa, where 80 percent of the world's 3 million AIDS victims died last year. The G-8 Summit estimates that the new Global AIDS Fund will require $15 billion to mount an effective fight against AIDS, and accelerated debt relief is an essential part of this effort.

The G-8 nations have made commitments to total debt cancellation, but the timetable must be speeded up to save lives. The IMF and the World Bank, however, have only agreed to cancel one-third of the debts owed by poor countries. The G-8 nations hold nearly half of the board seats on these two organizations.

Clearly, the wealthy nations must do more to alleviate the debt. As former South African President Nelson Mandela said, "Debt cancellation must go deeper and be delivered more quickly."

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