World churches' chief backs Haiti debt cancellation call

By staff writers
January 26, 2010

The General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, has added his name to a growing chorus of calls from around the globe for the cancellation of quake-hit Haiti's crippling foreign debt.

An "immediate and full cancellation" of Haiti's foreign debt would be "only an initial step", as the quake-stricken country needs a broader "plan to support recovery, poverty eradication and sustainable development", Tveit said in a statement on 25 January 2010.

Such a plan "must be developed with the full ownership of the people of Haiti and with the support of the international community under the coordination of the United Nations", Tveit said.

In addition to debt cancellation and short-term emergency relief, Haiti needs "reconstruction and sustainable development in the medium and long term." But "any financial assistance should come in the shape of grants, not loans that would burden the country with more debt", the WCC statement says.

Tveit's statement coincided with a one-day conference hosted by the Canadian government to discuss Haiti's reconstruction. Foreign ministers from more than a dozen countries, notably the United States and France, along with eight international bodies including banks and six major non-governmental organisations attended the gathering in Montreal. A broader conference on Haiti's long-term reconstruction is expected in the coming months.

Tveit intends to bring the message that Haiti's recovery needs to be based on "a genuine spirit of justice and caring" to the meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, which he is attending this week. The forum has set aside a time to discuss the situation in Haiti.

Haiti, the most impoverished nation in the western hemisphere, is also a heavily indebted country. In spite of having had some 1.2 billion US dollars of foreign debt written off last June by international financial institutions, the country still owes 641 million US dollars to multilateral banks and countries. This year, Haiti is scheduled to pay around 10 million US dollars to the International Monetary Fund.

"The bulk of the debt accumulated by Haiti is patently onerous and odious", said Tveit, as more than half of it "stemmed from loans extended to the brutal father-son dictatorship of Francois (‘Papa Doc’) and Jean-Claude Duvalier", and "did not benefit the people of Haiti".

"Obliging Haiti to make debt payments at the expense of health care, education and other critical social programmes is illegitimate. Exacting payment during this time of incredible hardship and destruction is morally untenable", said Tveit.

"Justice and care: the situation in Haiti demands nothing less", the WCC chief concluded.

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