Bank president responds sharply to debt video
by Alan Reeder
World Bank President James Wolfensohn did not mince words after viewing the video which opened Friday's plenary on international debt. The video, ``Chains of Debt'', focused on the debt problems of Tanzania and Jamaica. It was created by Christian Aid, associated with Jubilee 2000, a coalition of agencies campaigning for debt cancellation. Mr Wolfensohn said the tape ``would have you believe that I rather like children dying, that I have no faith, that my interest is to collect debts, that I have no understanding of education or health, that I know nothing about the impact of payments imposed by governments.
``And all I can say to you is that I believe each of those assertions is wrong.''
The video told stories from the developing world of a dying baby, children denied an education, and a cholera epidemic in Tanzania caused by the lack of clean drinking water. According to the video, the government could not afford to create a sanitary water system because ``30 percent of its annual revenue goes for debt repayment.''
A woman in the video called on the World Bank to visit the Jamaican slums to see the local impact of government debt repayments. But Mr Wolfensohn responded that he had already been to the slums himself, visiting ``the worst sections and segments of Jamaica and of Kingston.'' He said: ``I met with gang leaders who were armed, where I sat by the roadside... talking about how we could alleviate poverty, and where we as a bank have put $200 million into Jamaica to try and make life more tolerable.'' Mr Wolfensohn claimed that the World Bank is at the front line of tackling international social issues: ``The highest item on our agenda on which we're putting $3 billion this year is education and health.'' Programmes initiated by the World Bank ``have nearly eradicated River Blindness in Africa for 30 million people,'' he said.``We're the major fighter in the world against AIDS. We're the major fighter in the world against malaria. None of that is in your film. None of it.
``I am not angry about the film. I'm upset. I'm upset because it paints a picture of our institution which is quite simply wrong. ``I work with 10,000 people in the bank who are committed to poverty eradication. We do not get up every morning and think what we can do to ruin the world.'' He outlined the limits to the World Bank's capacity to cancel debt. Even if the 180 countries participating in the bank ``want me to forgive debt,'' despite a ``balance sheet of $150 billion, I can forgive $23 billion,'' he said. ``Why? Because the only capital I have is $23 billion.''
Since the amount that the bank can borrow to assist countries is restricted by the bank's capital, he appealed to the bishops: ``Look at the realities of what you are suggesting.'' If he used his balance to cancel debt,``I cannot do $75 billion worth of business because I cannot borrow the money because the money I can borrow depends on the capital I have.'' He also reminded the bishops that the World Bank is only one player in a complex network of international development loans. He said he constantly tries to convince governments to spend more to alleviate poverty. ``They are not giving the money for either debt relief or for overseas development assistance at the rate that it should be done,'' he said.
Mr Wolfensohn said the Conference should emphasise cooperation, not accusation. ``The reason that I have come to admire the Archbishop of Canterbury to such an enormous extent is that he has shown to me an openness to say, `We're both fighting poverty. Let's see what we can do together,''' MrWolfensohn said. ``The more positive thing that I would suggest is that, instead of fighting each other and levelling accusations, we focus on the kids that are dying, and on the children who are not being educated and on the horrors of poverty together,'' he said.
``Together we can do a lot. We have expertise. You have expertise.We know a lot about development. You know a lot about people and communities.You have the best distribution system of any NGO in the world.You are out there in the field with your flocks, you and other religions,'' he said. ``And we can both service the poor better together and we can influence governments better together and I believe we can make a real possibility that our children will have a better chance of living in peace and prosperity if we work together.''
Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of South Africa, who spoke after Mr Wolfensohn, said the bishops had not come to Lambeth ``to cast stones...'' but to reason together and to find solutions at the dawn of this millennium.'' Other bishops said Mr Wolfensohn had over-reacted.
``(His) response to a rather tame film shows a level of intolerance and insensitivity which surprised even someone like me who did not expect much,'' said Bishop Alfred Reid (Montego Bay, Jamaica). Bishop Reid, a member of the subsection on international debt, added:``It is not lost on me that the President devoted only five to seven minutes of his 25-minute speech to the actual subject of debt---the rest being nothing more than a defensive diatribe against the Christian Aid film. He left before the responsive speech by the Archbishop of Cape Town.'' Archbishop David Gitari of Kenya said Mr Wolfensohn ``should not have reacted all that bitterly against the film. After all, the film was meant for educating people, not for criticising the World Bank.''
Bishop Sergio Carranza-Gomez (Mexico) said:``I understand part of his reaction but he over-reacted. We cannot deny the fact that the bank and the IMF are really squeezing life from many of our countries.'' Dr Roger Williamson of Christian Aid told a news conference after the plenary that his organisation stood by the video.
Bishop Peter Selby (Worcester, England), chair of the subsection dealing with international debt, publicly endorsed the video in the plenary's last address. ``Copies of the video are on the way for all the bishops,'' Bishop Selby said. ``It is a gift from Christians in this country.They see it as a resource. I see it as an honouring of our Conference and an honouring of the subject.'' The video took particular aim at the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative of the World Bank and the IMF, claiming that it was too small.
``Europe spends on ice cream alone twice as much as HIPC,'' a United Nations Development Programme official said.
by Nan Cobbey, Katie Sherrod, David Skidmore, Lisa Barrowclough and James Thrall.