Monday, February 15, 2010


Haiti's Debt Cancellation: Justice or Grace?

On Friday, February 5, US Treasury Secretary Geithner announced, “Today, we are voicing our support for what Haiti needs and deserves – comprehensive multilateral debt relief.” On Saturday the G7 finance ministers declared their agreement with Geithner--Haiti would not have to pay back its debt. In light of the terrible loss and the indescribable pain taking place in that Caribbean nation, such an act is understandable and appropriate. But is it "just"?

Sojourners believes that this move constitutes "a matter of justice," and the only "just" approach to Haiti's billion dollar debt. Hayley Hathaway, in an article published online February 8, made that very case. Here is the heart of her case.

"This is also a win for debt campaigners and people of faith and conscience around the world. Fifteen years ago, the U.S. Treasury Secretary never would have uttered what Geithner said on Friday. It would have been considered crazy to cancel Haiti’s debts to help it recover. Debt was sacred; countries had to pay their debts before anything else — before clean water, education, or health. Yet thanks to a growing call from people of faith around the world who believed in scripture’s vision of debt cancellation and restoration of right relations between nations, the Jubilee movement was born."

All of this sounds very fine and it tugs at our heart strings, especially in light of the terrible suffering we see chronicled on television screens every night. And I mean that! I am not being sarcastic. But there are a couple of issues that arise from Ms. Hathaway's article that give me pause.

First, she appeals to the Jubilee Law of Leviticus 25:8-12 in making her case. The Jubilee Movement, a movement founded in 2000 for the purpose of "seeking to cancel the
debts of impoverished countries" (from their website), has argued that the Jubilee of the OT entails that poor countries ought not to have to pay back their loans. I argue that the Jubilee law does not mean that at all. The problem here is hermeneutical. The Jubilee law was instituted so that families would not permanently lose their land because of poverty. During the Jubilee year all lands that had been lost as a result of collateral for loans had to be returned to the families from which they had been taken. Land in Israel was a zero-sum game. Once lost, it would likely never be returned. That family would be cursed to perpetual poverty. Hence the Jubilee year. Every family could recover from its losses if it could just be patient. But it was a matter of land. The Jubilee reminded that Israelites that everything came from the hand of the Lord, and that all wealth had to be held with a loose grip.

That is not the same situation with reference to the debt of poor countries. They have borrowed money from lending institutions and from countries that have capital to lend to extricate themselves from poverty, to build infrastructures and businesses to help bring themselves out of debt. And there has been great success in many places in the world, especially among the "Asian Tigers" in doing just that, though hardship still exists in many places throughout the world. But that fact is also worthy of exploration. With all the capital out there, why have many countries, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, had such a difficult time pulling themselves up by the bootstraps? The answer to that is vast, but among answers would be: political corruption in nations receiving help so that only the few in power receive the benefice (can you say, "Haiti"?), lack of incentive to do work on the part of many when handouts are coming their way, and legal and environmental restrictions placed on them by the lending nations. Malaria kills more Africans every year than AIDS, and that malaria could be destroyed in a few years by the application of DDT, but Rachel Carson's famous book (and other arguments by environmentalists) has caused Western nations to refuse to apply DDT. If malaria were wiped out, many African nations would have a real "leg up" to finding their way to productivity. But leftists do not want that.

In my opinion many leftist intellectuals are the modern incarnation of plantation owners. They decry the loss of American manufacturing jobs to third world countries, even though those losses have dramatically increased the productivity of those nations. At the same time they issue their calls to give donations of cash, goods, and debt forgiveness to those very countries. They want governments to be charitable to poor countries, but they do not want them to find their own productivity in a global economy.

The second issue that bothers me about Hathaway's article is her use of the word "justice." That is the catch-word for leftists on the global poverty issue. It is "just" to forgive their debts. It is "just" to transfer Western wealth to them by transfer payments of one kind or another. If Copenhagen is instituted, that is exactly what will happen. Governments will levy taxes against productive Westerners and transfer that money to the Third World countries, where, again, it can be stolen by corrupt politicians and just given to people without any expectations that such funds will ever eventually enable them to stand on their own two feet. Is that "justice"? Not in my opinion. It might be "grace" at some level (though likely a misbegotten and mishandled version of grace), but it is not "justice." The left is currently trying co-opt that word for their own purposes, but thinking Americans will not let them do that. Justice and generosity are not the same thing.

What apparently is being forgotten here is that those loans given to third world countries came from somebody's pocket. They came from me, and from you, and from hard-working auto workers in Oslo, and from farmers in Spain, and from waitresses in Toronto--"eh?" They came from these people because they came from taxes levied by Western nations and from banks where people like this have their savings accounts and 401K's. But people like Hathaway would have you think that these monies came from evil bankers and heads of corporations. Therefore, the loans just have to be "forgiven"and then evil will pass out of this world like the smoke from fireworks rises up and passes out of sight. What is "just" about that? It is not that easy, especially when those same poor nations will need other funds again and not very long from now. What then?

This is a complex issue. I am not trying to mitigate that. And I do believe in generosity. I am a Christian--I believe very much in generosity. But generosity does not consist in giving away someone else's money. What should we do? We should do Jubilee--real Jubilee--and in most cases we already have. Western colonial powers decolonialized in the 1940's through the 1970's. The land was given back to the people. That really was Jubilee. Some debt should be written off. In other cases, interest payments ought to be reduced. But what we really need is for Western governments to stop taxing their people in "unjust" ways, and allow people of faith who are skilled in building businesses and in making money to go to these places and help them build businesses that will enable them to compete in a global market--yes even compete with American businesses.

Here's my point: don't let leftist Christian organizations try to manipulate you into believing that the problems of the world lie with the West. The problems of the world are a result of sin--Western sin, Southern sin, and all kinds of sin. The solution is not another government program--whether a Democratic one or a Republican one. The solution, insofar as there is any solution in this age, lies in the application of atonement to every situation--even the problem of global poverty.

I pray for Haiti every day. I also pray that both grace and justice will prevail so that the earth shall be filled with His knowledge and glory as water that covers the sea.

Chad Owen Brand

1 comment:

  1. As much as federal spending gets talked about, it does seem so odd that it rarely gets tied to the individual earnings of taxpayers. My pastor connected the dot in a sermon on Sunday exhorting people who were subsisting on gov't aid b/c they weren't willing to work harder to earn more by pressing home the fact that every dollar they accept from the gov't is a dollar someone else earned. We need more of this understanding... but with the federal budget so high, I don't know how anyone can imagine their meager thousands they pay in taxes really ends up getting moved around.