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
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
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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