Ten years ago I was part of a movement called Jubilee 2000, which changed the way people think about debt. It challenged a deeply held principle that “debts must always be repaid” by showing how, in the case of many debts owed by impoverished countries, the consequences of repayments were creating nearly unimaginable suffering.
We were not calling for an act of charity, but a realisation that the economy we had created was structured in a way that was deeply unfair, exaggerating inequality and poverty in many parts of the world. We didn’t want donations, but a change in the rules of engagement.
The change in values that the jubilee movement effected forced decision-makers to enact policies that went some way to redressing this injustice. About $125bn of debt was wiped out, and governments were able to start spending money in ways that benefited their people.
Yet only 10 years later we find ourselves at the centre of a debt crisis that suggests we were not as successful as we’d hoped. Certainly many were freed from “debt slavery”, but globally debt boomed, as it was used as a means of papering over the cracks of inequality created by our ever-more global economy.
Today, the poorest in our own societies are paying a very high price for a crisis created by reckless lending by banks and over-the-top borrowing. Little has been done to reform a system based on greed and speculation which is creating an even greater chasm between the haves and the have-nots.
Of course there is no question that poverty in Europe, even post-crisis, is nowhere near as widespread as it was, and is, in some African countries. However, people in the most indebted European countries such as Greece are suffering rapidly rising poverty, homelessness, unemployment, violence and levels of inequality. For example, six months ago medical researchers reported a sharp rise in rates of suicide, murder and HIV/Aids in Greece as a result of the response to the economic crisis there.
Ten years ago, we convinced people of the need for a different approach to debt by bringing to mind a very ancient concept – a jubilee, recognising the damage that very large debts can do to society. The Hebrew scriptures speak of a jubilee year in which debts are cancelled. They also call for restitution to be made for the damage done by debts – freeing those sold into slavery to help repay debts, returning lands that had been handed to financiers of debt.
The importance of what might be called “debt justice” to a wider notion of fairness is not limited to Christianity and Judaism. The Qur’an condemns usury and requires zakah (almsgiving) as an essential duty to prevent wealth being accumulated only among the rich. Dharmic faiths from the Indian sub-continent teach similar principles, teaching that wealth is held not for oneself but on behalf of all human beings.
In very different times, all of these faiths have tried to create solutions and to repair the damage that deep inequality can cause to our communities and societies. We would do well to adapt their solutions to the present day.
Secondly, although debts can be just, when taken out in a democratic fashion for productive investment, they are not the only way for governments to raise funds. Taxes can ensure companies and investors in a country pay a fair share for being there. It provides a means of redistributing wealth in a global economy which, it is almost universally acknowledged, is too unequal. Progressive taxation is an important element of solving the problems of economic injustice.
Finally, we must introduce rules to ensure financial markets work for people. Regulating flows of money will help move us away from an economy based on speculation and “making money from money”. It will help control the lenders and will remove the control that financial markets have over every aspect of our lives. Returning money to its original purpose: a means of exchanging goods.
Such a jubilee, then, goes well beyond cancelling some debt. Unjust debt is at the heart of our global economy; at the heart of deep inequality between rich and poor, as well as between rich and poor countries. If a jubilee is a call for justice, it must consist of far-reaching changes in the global economy to build a society based on justice, mutual support and community; an economic and political as well as spiritual renewal in our society.