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Debt Relief and Progress

Shoppers in Harrods and other fine London stores sometimes see a few Africans in colorful native clothing loading up on expensive goods.

Where, cynics ask themselves, did these people from desperately poor countries get the money? Was it corruption, bribes, dishonesty?

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Such suspicions may be unfair. There are, of course, legitimate business people making honest money in mid-African nations. But some of these countries have justly earned reputations for corruption. And their economic policies have often been foolish and wasteful.

So when their governments plead for relief or forgiveness of their debts to rich countries and the institutions they control, such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, the response has been tough: Yes, but only if you carry out economic reforms, has been the creditors' basic answer.

But to an international coalition of faith-based organizations, Jubilee 2000, the terms are just too tough. They are calling for more and faster debt relief for the world's poorest nations in Africa and elsewhere.

Up to now, only seven of 41 "Heavily Indebted Poor Countries" have qualified for a debt-reduction initiative the World Bank launched in 1996. It takes up to six years or more to get actual debt relief.

The tough guys in Germany, Japan, Italy, and the United States worry that debt forgiveness will just reward bad government and lead to piling on more debts in the expectation of future relief.

Some debts piled up as the US or its allies supported corrupt, anticommunist dictators during the cold war. And sometimes rich countries stirred up business for their own companies, even though the debt-financed projects made little economic sense.

The servicing of debts totaling about $220 billion leads to skimping on education, health measures, and other key needs in these desperately poor countries.

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Yet ignorance and poor education tend to perpetuate poverty, corruption, and bad government. This cycle must be broken. There must be a way to steer more money to antipoverty efforts without the naiveté that results in large chunks of the money being siphoned off by corrupt officials lining their own pockets.

When the Group of Eight industrialized nations meet next June in Cologne, Germany, they should write a realistic plan to ease the debt burdens of more poor nations faster.

Many of today's rich nations were assisted to their prosperity by the generosity and flexibility of the US, through the Marshall Plan, and of other creditors after World War II. A similar spirit could help the world's poor nations progress today.

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