The Archbishop of Kenya, the Most Revd David Gitari, led a small group to Japan recently in an attempt to persuade the Japanese government to cancel the debt owed by governments in Africa to overseas banks. The Archbishop was accompanied by David Zak from Uganda and Joseph Ngereza from Tanzania.
"I think [the Japanese government] sent quite a strong delegation to meet us," said Archbishop David in an interview with Cedric Pulford of the Ecumenical News Agency. "Our disappointment is mainly that they are just repeating the official policy of the government of Japan concerning cancellation of debt."
Japan has taken the chair of the G8 group of the world's most advanced economies, and is hosting a summit in July 2000. The Japanese government agreed in principle at the meeting in Cologne in 1999 to cancel third world debt, but unlike other nations, such as the USA, United Kingdom and Canada, Japan is proposing to reschedule the cancellation over 40 years. While they have already cancelled $400 million of debt, more that $500 million is still owed by countries such as Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Burma and the Philippines.
"There was irresponsibility on both sides," the Archbishop stated, explaining why banks and governments should cancel the loans that had been entered into freely at the time. "On the side of the banks, they loaned recklessly, even without knowing how it would be repaid. On the side of the debtors, the money did not reach the poor because of mismanagement and corruption. So we are arguing on the question of justice."
According to Archbishop David Gitari, the government in Tanzania spends more on debt servicing than it does on health and education combined. In Kenya, foreign debt is equivalent to 70% of gross domestic product. "As a result, diseases which have been eradicated are beginning to come back, like tuberculosis. In sub-Saharan Africa primary school enrolment was still only 75% in 1995 and actually decreased since 1980."
At the recent Primates' Meeting in Portugal, Clare Short MP, the British cabinet minister with responsibility for overseas development had addressed the primates on the subject of third world debt and action against poverty. A target of reducing poverty in Africa by 50% by 2015 had been set, but according to the Archbishop this was unattainable in present conditions, where hospitals were overwhelmed by the spread of AIDS and have no money for medicines.
"People are dying of diseases which can be cured," the Archbishop said. "I was reading a story of a Zambian woman who went to a doctor with her two children who were sick and the doctor gave her a prescription. A few weeks later the doctor met her and asked her 'how are your children?' And she said 'well I could only afford medicine for one so the other one died.' That is the kind of story you get."
In an interview with Pat Ashworth of the Church Times, Archbishop David Gitari repeated his concern about the worsening health and education services in African countries, pointing out the effect that conflicts had on poverty.
"I think that one of the things which African countries must do is to stop conflicts," said the Archbishop, "because when there is war it is very difficult to work together. For instance, the war in southern Sudan makes it very difficult even for aid organisations to send food, though they try to."
The Kenyan Archbishop sees an important role for the people and the church to ensure that the government of each country is answerable to its people.
"I think the church has got the moral authority [to act] and the fact that church leaders are not [there] to be politicians [means] people trust them more. If there is a strong movement against corruption, and against injustice, it sometimes works."