A Belfast tradition worth maintaining, by Cllr Naomi Long MLA

Just a few weeks ago there was a major conference in London to discuss international trade. This may not seem the most likely place to find exciting developments which could help improve the lives of tens of millions of the people; however, the Finance Ministers of the seven leading industrialised nations (G7), did just that, backing plans to write off up to 100% of the unpayable debts of some of the world’s poorest countries.

Thirty-seven countries could benefit and, whilst there continues to be division on how debt cancellation will be managed, with the USA, in particular, dragging its feet, the summit was a welcome step in the right direction for campaigners who want to see an end to the downward spiral of Third World debt. However, much work still needs to be done.

Alliance supported the Jubilee 2000 Campaign, calling for the cancellation of unpayable Third World debt for the Millennium, and signed up over 1000 people to the Northern Ireland campaign. Nevertheless, cancellation of debt was only partially achieved and to date, less than half of the $100 billion promised at that time in debt relief has actually been delivered. There is now a new push to make 2005 the year in which we finally address the debt of Third World countries.

It has long been recognised by economists that many of these debts, created when interest rates soared and the value of exports fell, can never be repaid, yet each year developing nations spend vast sums, not paying the debt but servicing the interest and, thanks to economic controls by the IMF and World Bank, their governments are prevented from developing resources for their own people such as health and education, and even from growing food crops, in favour of growing cash crops for the West.

For every $1 in grants to developing nations, they return $13 in debt repayments to the West. Africa receives nearly $10 billion in aid from the West each year, yet has to pay back at least the same amount in debt repayments.

Four years ago, I had the opportunity to see first hand the kind of poverty which exists in debt-burdened countries whilst working for a short time in an orphanage in Uganda, which mainly housed children whose parents had been lost to AIDS. Ugandans survive on less than a dollar a day, often with little or no food, education or health provision, and yet millions were being spent by that nation servicing debt to rich Western countries.

However, Uganda has shown what can be achieved if these debts are is cancelled and the money spent on improving the lives of the local people. One of the first countries to have its international debt cancelled, 2.2 million people have gained a clean water supply as a direct result.

Debt relief works. In Tanzania, it enabled the government to abolish primary school fees, leading to a 66% increase in attendance, and Mozambique was able to offer all children free immunisation against childhood diseases. Many of these things we take for granted and yet debt had prevented the world’s poorest people from benefiting from them.

Rather than feeling helpless when watching images such as those in the Live Aid videos at Christmas, we can each help by calling on those attending the G8 summit in Gleneagles this summer to cancel the remaining unpayable debt. That way in 20 years time we may not see the same horrific images again, visited on a new generation.

We can also help individually by supporting FairTrade products, which guarantee producers in the developing world not charity, but a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, and ensure safe working conditions. These goods, ranging from tea and coffee to mangoes and muesli, are carried by all the major supermarkets and although they may cost a few pence more, they make a real difference to the lives of the growers and workers. 3 billion people earn less than $2 per day and without fair-trade arrangements, they will never be able to escape the poverty trap.

Our Government is currently leading the way in dealing with the legacy of debt and promoting ethical trading with the Third World; however, even centuries ago, groups of people in Belfast refused to use sugar because the industry was based on slavery. Today Belfast City Council is carrying on that tradition of equity and social justice by working with local charities, businesses and campaigners on a bid to gain FairTrade City status.

As an MLA, I see the distress unmanageable debt causes to individuals in our community. I work to ensure that local people have the opportunity to earn a fair day’s pay for a day’s work, that they have adequate social support in times of need, that they get good quality health care, services and education.

But we must also look beyond our own problems, at the global picture, and encourage our Government and other Western leaders not only to make promises but to deliver on them in Scotland this summer.

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