Faith & Economics— Number 35—Spring 2000—Pages 8–19.
P. J. Hill, Wheaton College (IL) and ACE President
t the annual meeting of the ASSA in Boston, January
7, 2000, the Association of Christian Economists
sponsored a panel entitled Christian Ethics and the
Forgiveness of Third World Debt. Christopher Barrett
(Cornell University), Daniel Finn (St. John’s Univer-
sity-Minnesota), Roland Hoksbergen (Calvin College), and
Stephen L.S. Smith (Gordon College) were the panel mem-
bers, and they each gave a formal presentation summarizing
their perspective on the intersection of a Christian world-
view and the forgiveness of third world debt. A lively
discussion ensued among the panel members and between
the panel and the audience. I chaired the session and I found
both the presentations and the discussion informative and
felt it would be useful for the readers of Faith & Economics
to have access to the ideas presented there. Therefore I
suggested that we use the comments of Stephen Smith as a
basis for an ongoing dialogue on the issue and then have the
other panel participants write short comments on Smith’s
paper. The following represents that effort: Smith’s paper
followed by responses by the other panel members.
Christian Ethics and the Forgiveness of
Third World Debt
Stephen L. S. Smith, Gordon College (MA)
Our convener P. J. Hill has asked us to do something
rather difficult this morning. Thinking about Christian
ethics and debt forgiveness is difficult because in the
popular mind—certainly among lay Christians who have
stayed abreast of the Jubilee 2000 proposals—the debate is
essentially over. Debt forgiveness is a Good Thing. After
all, one of the world’s most prominent economists, Jeffrey
Sachs, has endorsed it. And the world’s most prominent
Christian thinker, the Pope, has also endorsed it. What’s left
to say.
Our topic also is challenging because it would be rela-
tively straightforward for any of us on this panel to rehearse
for you our views on the economics of debt forgiveness.
Relating Christian ethics and norms to this question is much
more difficult, especially for economists, who tend not to be
well trained in social ethics (well, I’ll speak for myself at
least). There are vexing issues here. Are Old Testament
(OT) law and New Testament (NT) ethics applicable to
contemporary societies which are neither Christian nor
theocracies. What’s the status of the nation before God as
opposed to God’s claims on individuals’ behavior.
Nevertheless we’ll plunge ahead. In my view the Bible
does provide a useful set of norms to govern thinking about
economic policy matters. The work of Oxford’s Donald
Hay and, closer to home, of John Mason and Kurt Schaefer
(whose 1990 article in CSR deserves to be more widely read
by Christian economists), among many others, provide
compelling expositions of this view. These authors don’t
recommend that the US establish Christianity as the official
religion, nor that OT law be applied literally—there’s no
danger of Muslim-style sharia here—but they do argue that
Scripture reveals basic norms against which all economies
and policies can be measured. They also argue that the
social and natural sciences provide insight about creation,
on the basis of natural revelation, and therefore have a vital
role to play in informing Christian thinking. Mason and
Schaefer, in particular, argue that the “foundations of
Scripture’s social, political and economic ethics all are laid
in the Pentateuch, and are intended to inform all peoples”
(Gen. 18:18). “The Mosaic law-code” is “the foundation for
normative Biblical insight” from which moral principles
are to be induced and held up as “light before the nations,”
though the application “should be in paradigm rather than
What might these Biblical norms be. Justice, righteous-
© Association of Christian Economists
Smith, Barrett, Finn, Hoksbergen
ness and stewardship in all relationships and behavior are,
at bottom, the traditional Christian answers. To go from
these bedrock Biblical norms to specific policy recommen-
dations requires some kind of intermediate set of norms,
about which there is a surprising amount of agreement
among Christian scholars. (Mason and Schaefer call these
“subsidiary norms” (p. 54); Hay calls them “derivative
social principles.”) Focusing only on those intermediate
norms which seem to have the most relevance for debt
forgiveness, I would highlight the following:
1. Concern for the poor. A just and righteous society
should display “a special concern for those who are
in need because of circumstances beyond their
control,” including at least “a level of assistance
sufficient for need” (Mason & Schaefer);
2. Concern for wealth creation. A just and righteous
society should display ample opportunity for the
application of individual talents in settings which
encourage stewardship and investment for long-
term prosperity, and which honor and reward work
(Mason & Schaefer; see also Schneider);
3. Concern for the sanctity of covenants, honoring
contracts, and not bearing false witness in any con-
text (Mason & Schaefer; see also Grinols).
As proponents of debt forgiveness have used the Bibli-
cal concept of jubilee as a crucial element of their argu-
ments, what the Bible says about forgiveness and jubilee is
also directly relevant to the debate. What’s striking about
the Biblical concept of forgiveness is that it is never under-
stood unconditionally. God’s love is unconditional, and
individuals are exhorted to love one another in that manner
as well. But forgiveness is always linked to repentance and
the restoration of right relationships between the parties
involved. As one source puts it, forgiveness requires “ . . .
the repentant response which receives love, reappropriates
relationship, and experiences restoration” (Atkinson &
Field). Likewise the jubilee concept—the release of slaves
from debt—has at its core the concept of restoration of right
relationships—among families, and between families and
the land—rather than redistribution for its own sake
(Atkinson & Field). Crucially, the debt remission implicit in
jubilee restores proper relationships among all households,
not just between (formerly) enslaved families and (former)
With all this said, I turn now to consider debt forgive-
ness. Large scale debt forgiveness is not unprecedented—
the US led the way in 1989 when the Brady Plan orches-
trated the “reduction” (i.e. straight-up forgiveness) of much
Latin American debt. If anything, the debt forgiveness
envisioned today by various plans might be easier to ar-
range. The debt involved is owed to governments, the
World Bank, and the IMF, so the forgiveness they offer
could be directly covered by subsidies from rich country
treasuries. It’s not, as in the Latin case, commercial debt
owed to private banks that needed complicated, expensive
inducements to be willing to write-off their loans.
Two basic plans for debt forgiveness are in play at
present, and it will be helpful in what follows to lay out their
basic features.
First, there’s the official World Bank and IMF Heavily
Indebted Poor Country initiative (HIPC) established in
1996 and revised in 1999. It is limited to the very poorest
countries (those eligible for International Development
Association concessional assistance) and requires three
years of successful implementation of Structural Adjust-
ment Programs (SAPs) and a “proven track record in
implementing strategies focused on reducing poverty”
(World Bank). Debt reduction is phased in: there’s a 67
percent reduction in bilateral debt after year three, and 80
percent after year six, if policy is appropriate and debt is still
officially judged to be “unsustainable.” (The criterion for
unsustainability for most countries is that the net present
value of debt be 150 percent or more of exports; the ratio
may be lower for highly-open economies.) At this time
seven countries have received debt reduction. For these
countries aggregate debt service is now 27 percent less than
actual payments over 1993–98 (World Bank); the reduction
is greater compared to scheduled payments over the same
Second, there are the more radical proposals of the
Jubilee 2000 campaign. The main Jubilee website (in the
UK, where the international collaborative movement origi-
nated), advocates a “one-off cancellation of the unpayable
debts of the world’s poorest countries by the year 2000,
under a fair and transparent process” (Jubilee). It advocates
a wider net of eligible countries—52—than the HIPC’s 41.
There is no mention of conditionality of any kind on this
website, though individual groups that are part of the
Jubilee coalition—especially US groups—have asked for
mechanisms to ensure that the benefits of debt reduction go
to the poor. In the US, the legislation (the “Debt Relief for
Poverty Reduction Act,” passed last October) pushed by
Oxfam-America, Bread for the World, and the Episcopal
Church among many, requires creation of a Human Devel-
opment Trust in each beneficiary, funded with debt reduc-
tion savings, to be supervised by country governments,
NGOs, business sector representatives and other civil soci-
ety institutions. The Trusts’ spending is to be dedicated to
micro-enterprise lending and basic social services. The
literature of the US groups—some of which is well-done
and informative—does not support economic policy condi-
tionality and is highly critical of SAPs of any kind (Hart &
Skipper). The US enabling legislation, however, does ex-
clude countries which “systematically violate human rights,
support terrorism, or have excessive military spending”
(Hart & Skipper). This kind of exclusion is not mentioned
in the main Jubilee website.
Now, in light of the Biblical principles articulated ear-
lier, what are we to make of the debt forgiveness envisioned
in these competing plans. I make several propositions.
First, it matters a lot for the Christian assessment of debt
forgiveness whether such a policy is necessary and/or
sufficient for improving the economic situation of the poor
in developing economies. If debt relief is necessary for
improving the lives of the desperately poor, then it can
legitimately be viewed as a moral imperative. Western
Christians would be obligated to encourage its adoption (in
the most efficient manner, of course). If it is only a sufficient
condition for reducing poverty we would nevertheless be
obligated to consider it. If, however, debt forgiveness is
neither necessary nor sufficient for poverty reduction, the
situation is much more ambiguous. Debt forgiveness would
need to be evaluated relative to other kinds of assistance to
the poor in terms of its efficiency, its externalities and the
moral hazard it engenders.
And, in point of fact and contrary to the claims of the
Jubilee 2000 campaign, it is not at all clear that debt
forgiveness is necessary and sufficient for improving the lot
of the poor in many or even most of these poorest countries.
It may not be necessary because it may not, in fact, be debt
which prevents poor-country governments from doing the
simple, inexpensive things that would most ameliorate the
lives of their poorest. The chronic shambles of rural Kenyan
elementary schools, for instance, has little to do with paying
off debt and a lot to do with the misplaced priorities of a
corrupt political regime over the past 30 years. Likewise,
Pakistan’s problems with disease have virtually nothing to
do with debt but arise from the government’s complete
unwillingness to spend money on the rural poor rather than
on, say, their atomic bomb program.
The domestic economic policies, government aims and
capabilities, and cultural and religious values of the poorest
countries are, in fact, the linchpins of development. If these
are conducive to growth and poverty reduction, debt for-
giveness will be for many countries a “second-order” con-
cern—the country will do well over the long haul with or
without it. If domestic policies are not wisely-chosen, or if
government is not at root concerned with fighting inequity,
debt relief may not make any difference for the poor.
One way to see this is to consider the surprising fact that
the actual debt in many poor countries is quite small. For the
HIPC countries the average net present value of total
external debt is 125 percent of annual income; on average,
interest payments as a share of exports of goods and services
are only 6 percent, while total debt service payments are
only 15 percent! (1995–1997 data, World Bank 1999). This
is well within what would normally be considered afford-
able limits if an economy is managed well. That debt of this
magnitude is considered intolerable means these economies
are deeply, deeply mismanaged or afflicted with other grave
problems. Thus, unless fundamental reforms are earnestly
pursued, debt relief today sets the stage for . . . requests for
debt relief tomorrow. This is probably not wise.
Neither is debt reduction a sufficient condition for
helping the poor. There’s little reason to trust that many of
the poorest country governments really will pass the fruits
of debt reduction to the poor unless compelled to do so.
(More on this point later.)
This line of reasoning is not an argument against provid-
ing debt relief. But it means that, on balance, the fundamen-
tal Christian normative concern for the poor requires us to
evaluate the details of debt forgiveness very carefully. Debt
forgiveness per se may or may not make sense—it will
depend upon the externalities and moral hazard inherent in
any particular plan, upon the cost and efficiency of other
available policy options, and upon the mechanisms in place
to shift the benefits of debt reduction to the poor.
My second proposition: debt forgiveness is not ruled out
by the OT emphasis on respect for contracts. As business
transactions they don’t have the nature of sacred covenants.
Lending governments (and, by implication, lending na-
tions’ citizens) should bear some of the cost of making
unwise financial decisions. Part of the contract between
debtor and lender involves the lender’s assumption of the
risk that a loan will not be repaid; as Mason and Schaefer
point out, to insist that a loan always be repaid is in effect to
not fully enforce the contract and may shift the cost of the
repayment onto innocent third parties.
Proposition three: if debt forgiveness is to be provided,
significant conditions on it are vital. These are necessary as
part of the repentance which should be intrinsic to forgive-
ness. Here Christian teaching dovetails with standard eco-
nomic analysis, which of course also emphasizes the wis-
dom of putting conditions on debt remission.
Three kinds of conditionality are relevant. First, condi-
tions need to be in place to ensure that the benefits of debt
reduction really do accrue to the poor. Because this point is
not insisted on by many elements of the Jubilee campaign,
its absence gravely undercuts their work, in my view. The
nebulous statement on the main Jubilee website asking for
monitoring of governments to ensure effectiveness, for
What’s striking about the Biblical concept of forgiveness
is that it is never understood unconditionally . . .
forgiveness is always linked to repentance and the
restoration of right relationships between the parties
instance, is patently inadequate (though, as noted earlier,
US Jubilee supporters seem to be more alert to this point).
It’s important to emphasize that this is not simply a
question of worrying about the corrupt diversion of funds
within poor country governments. It’s a question at root of
fungibility, the reality that cash-strapped governments use
the extra degree of fiscal freedom provided by official
development assistance—or, in this case, debt relief—to
fund other, perhaps less desirable, kinds of projects instead
of human and social services. Definitive studies on fungi-
bility by Dollar et al. (World Bank 1998) indicate that
fungibility is close to 100 percent on average across all
developing countries. This wouldn’t matter if country gov-
ernment priorities were the same as the priorities of creditor
nations, but that’s precisely the problem: country govern-
ment priorities in many of the HIPC nations have never been
in line with democratic, equity-oriented, and growth-friendly
principles. Sadly, even the Trust mandated in the US legis-
lation is vulnerable to this problem. What’s to enforce that
government social spending doesn’t fall one-for-one with
spending by the Trust. And for that matter, what’s to
enforce that the Trust is even funded, two or three years
hence, by the monies that would otherwise have been used
for debt repayment.
Furthermore, conditionality with respect to overall eco-
nomic policy is equally important. Appropriate policy re-
form is the prerequisite for long-term growth and eradicat-
ing both poverty and the conditions which make debt
unpayable. There is, I think, a definite moral hazard risk
here. Debt remission without stiff policy conditions will
encourage, on the margin, policies in the HIPCs which are
riskier and costlier than optimal. Some countries will be
more willing than before to put off difficult but necessary
domestic policy reforms. If anyone doubts this, simply
consider the virulence with which SAPs have been attacked,
and the half-hearted way in which they have been imple-
mented, if at all, in Africa and Latin America. (In Nicaragua,
even so seemingly sensible an IMF request as that the
government budget deficit be reduced is met with popular
cries that “neoliberalism is death.”) It is probably true that
rapid debt relief would free up some private capital flows to
the HIPCs, at least in the short run. But even here, long-term
access to private capital depends on a stable and inviting
policy environment. So on all counts it makes sense to use
the occasion of debt forgiveness as a lever for policy reform
that would not otherwise be forthcoming.
More subtly, over the long term, debt forgiveness may
make it more expensive for other poor countries to obtain
credit from official lenders like the World Bank, if these
lenders themselves must pay more for funds due to height-
ened uncertainly about HIPC’s willingness to pay. Here,
again, there may be a short-run benefit of forgiveness—new
lending would appear safer because of the elimination of
debt—but over the long haul, the World Bank and the
regional development banks—which borrow most dollars
they lend—may find themselves paying more for funds,
costs which would need to be passed on to developing
country borrowers. These problems are minimized with
heavily conditional debt forgiveness.
It is vital to emphasize that from a Christian point of
view jubilee isn’t simply about restoring relationships be-
tween debtor and creditor but about restoring relationship
across the wider economy as former debtors regain their
positions. As it is arguably policy reform which establishes
right relationships between the poor and their all-too-fre-
quently predatory state, debt remission without policy re-
form is not really a jubilee, but merely a one-time handout.
Thus the World Bank/IMF HIPC initiative, precisely be-
cause it requires a three-year upfront commitment to policy
reform and credible social safety nets, is arguably superior
on Christian ethical grounds to the Jubilee 2000 approach
which embodies no conditions on economic policy. And by
insisting on the three year performance requirement before
any debt reduction is authorized, the HIPC initiative
ameliorates somewhat the chronic problem in ordinary
structural adjustment programs of countries agreeing to
policy reforms without any intention of following through
with them.
A final kind of condition which makes sense is that no
relief be provided African countries presently at war
(peace-keeping duties excepted) or in a civil war. Sudan, in
particular, comes to mind. It is shocking that the main
Jubilee campaign website makes no explicit exception for
providing debt relief to this violent and repressive govern-
ment, or similar ones.
My fourth proposition: Christian understanding of for-
giveness and jubilee require that we in the West remain
concerned for the whole of the economic relationship be-
tween debtor and creditor nations. Thus debt forgiveness
cannot be the extent of US or G-7 policy initiative with
respect to Africa. The particular dangers to watch for here
are aid fatigue and the limited political capital G-7 govern-
ments have to spend on promoting assistance to the poor.
Because the US Congress has had specifically to authorize
forgiveness of bilateral debt—and will need to do so annu-
ally for the next three years to fulfill Clinton’s 1999 promise
to write-off all of Africa’s official debt—there could very
well be a compensating reduction in ODA disbursements.
Christian Ethics and Debt Forgiveness
. . . from a Christian point of view jubilee isn’t simply
about restoring relationships between debtor and
creditor but about restoring relationship across the
wider economy as former debtors regain their positions.
More broadly, the political debate about debt forgiveness
could crowd out concern for ratifying the now somewhat
stalled initiative to establish free trade between the US and
Africa, which would be a real loss, in my view. Finally,
concern for debt forgiveness should not divert the West
from framing a generous assistance plan to address AIDs in
Africa. Regrettably, it may be over-optimistic to assert that
the US and other G-7 nations are capable of pressing
initiatives on all of these fronts simultaneously.
To sum up: Christian teaching offers no support for
unconditional debt forgiveness. It does, however, offer
support for highly conditioned, prudentially-managed debt
forgiveness, in the context of overall economic policies
geared to promote growth and well-being. The devil is in the
details, so to speak. Economists, including Christian econo-
mists, are left with the important work of sorting out for
church members, citizens and policymakers alike the thorny
particulars of the way ahead.
Portions of these comments appeared first in the author’s
article “A Christian Economist Looks at Jubilee 2000” in
the Gordon College newspaper, The Tartan, February 24,
Atkinson, David J. and David H. Field, eds. 1995. New
Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology.
Leicester, UK: InterVarsity Press.
Grinols, Earl. 1991. “Directions for National Policy on
Foreign Trade: Revisionist Economics and the Applica-
tion of Biblical Principles” in Richard C. Chewning, ed.,
Biblical Principles & Public Policy: The Practice.
Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
Hart, Thomas H. and Jere M. Skipper. 1999. “Debt
Burden on Impoverished Countries” Washington, D.C.:
Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations.
Hay, Donald. 1989. Economics Today: A Christian Cri-
tique. Leicester, UK: InterVaristy Press.
Jubilee 2000 Coalition web site <http://www.
Mason, John D. and Kurt C. Schaefer. 1990. “The Bible,
the State, and the Economy: A Framework for Analysis”
Christian Scholar’s Review. XX:1, pp. 45–64.
Schneider, John. 1994. Godly Materialism. Downer’s
Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
World Bank. HIPC web site <http://www. worldbank.org/
_______. 1998. Assessing Aid: What Works, What Doesn’t,
and Why. New York: Oxford University Press.
_______. 1999. Global Development Finance, 1999 Wash-
ington, D.C.: The World Bank.
Debt Forgiveness and Poverty Reduction: Some
Thoughts from a Skeptical Supporter
Christopher B. Barrett, Cornell University (NY)
In the previous article, Stephen Smith offers thoughtful
arguments as to why “Christian teaching offers no support
for unconditional debt forgiveness,” but rather supports
“highly conditioned, prudentially-managed debt forgive-
ness.” In the brief thoughts that follow, I fully endorse
Stephen’s core point, even as I disagree with him on some
details of second-order importance. As appealing as the idea
of debt forgiveness may be to the Christian—indeed to
anyone espousing compassion for the poor—the connec-
tion between debt forgiveness and poverty reduction is
loose at best. As I have argued previously, the case for debt
forgiveness for the world’s poorest countries, particularly
those in sub-Saharan Africa, remains both economically
and ethically ambiguous (Barrett 1999).
Three key principles should inform Christian thinking
on this issue: (1) a preferential option for the poor, (2) the
role of mercy and extraordinary acts of grace, and (3) the
parable of the talents. The Jubilee 2000 coalition that has
spearheaded high-level pressure for radical, concerted debt
forgiveness draws heavily on the second of these, and I
applaud that movement’s courage to call for mercy. My
concern is that the most ardent supporters of radical debt
forgiveness spend insufficient time on the first or last
principles. How do we make sure the benefits of debt
forgiveness accrue disproportionately to the poor. How do
we know who will “bury” debt forgiveness funds, like the
third servant in the parable of the talents, and who will
employ them wisely, like the first servant.
Because of my own familiarity with various African
economies, I will refer particularly to the effects of debt and
the likely effects of debt forgiveness on that extraordinarily
impoverished continent. Perhaps the most essential point to
absorb is that the debt crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa is a
symptom of prolonged economic crisis, not its cause. One
must therefore beware of overselling debt forgiveness as a
stimulus for Africa. And one must use the opportunity of
debt forgiveness to tackle African poverty at its root, in
addressing the structural problems—weak education and
health systems, degraded or nonexistent infrastructure,
especially in rural areas, and underdeveloped financial
networks—that impede technology adoption, economic
growth and poverty reduction. Too many supporters of debt
forgiveness misunderstand it to be the end rather than the
start of an initiative to successfully reduce poverty.
One of the core points made in Barrett (1999) is that the
economic evidence for debt forgiveness for Sub-Saharan
African sovereign debtors is quite inconclusive. Paul
Smith, Barrett, Finn, Hoksbergen
Krugman’s celebrated “debt overhang” hypothesis
(Krugman 1988) finds no empirical support in Africa,
unlike in Latin America. Some rather crude regression
results using 1983–92 data, the most current available when
the analysis was originally done in 1995–6, found that in
African economies external debt did not seem to serve as a
tax on either investment or growth. So the empirical evi-
dence offers little reason to believe that a reduction in either
debt stock or servicing will provide significant growth or
investment stimulus in these low-income nations. Rather,
African debt appears primarily to tax current account re-
ceipts. As overseas development assistance funds flow in,
debt servicing increases, reducing the gross transfer by
about 20 percent on average. So the real macroeconomic
problem of external debt in Sub-Saharan Africa would seem
to revolve around relieving balance of payments constraints.
Will debt forgiveness really do that. It depends very
much on the extent to which debt forgiveness—which must
be appropriated by national legislatures and the executive
boards of the multilateral agencies—is “additional” to other
aid flows. If they just substitute for one another, then there’s
no marginal benefit from debt forgiveness. That’s a real risk
today, as real aid flows have fallen by a quarter over the past
decade—and by more than that in Africa—and donors are
increasingly caught in a “relief trap” in which diminishing
aid flows are increasingly tied to relief efforts in “complex
humanitarian emergencies.” This relief trap crowds out
efforts in agriculture, education, health and nutrition, and
public works to address underlying structural impediments
that create and perpetuate vulnerability (Barrett and Carter
1999b). The pattern of emergency, response and attempted
recovery has produced a vicious cycle in which vulnerabil-
ity begets reactive relief efforts that too often further under-
mine already-fragile market and social institutions, leaving
populations more vulnerable to the next adverse shock than
they were to the first. The pressing need is for reinvigorated
and retargeted development assistance to firm up factor
markets and crowd-in investment in poor communities.
None of the debt forgiveness proposals presently under
serious consideration offers a credible strategy for ap-
proaching that goal. Indeed, with all the hype surrounding
debt forgiveness there is a significant risk that OECD
country legislatures will think remission of bilateral debt
will suffice as their contribution to combating the
widespread, acute poverty that continues to disgrace
modern society.
The best approach to debt forgiveness would be an
indefinite moratorium on debt servicing for countries will-
ing to commit to serious efforts to relieve poverty. This
could involve a sequence of renewable four- year moratoria,
renewal of which would depend on externally verifiable
improvements in social indicators (child mortality, morbid-
ity from infectious diseases like malaria or polio, school
enrollment, especially of girls, access to clean water, etc.),
with a complete write-off after twenty years’ continuous
progress. Countries would agree to a plan involving the
conversion of programmed external debt servicing into
additional local currency appropriations for public services
provision with reasonable prospects for reducing human
suffering and for crowding-in private investment. The
additionality of such funding could be assured by employ-
ing a historical benchmark (e.g., 1995–98 annual average
expenditures as a percent of GDP) not subject to strategic
manipulation by a state intent on circumventing the spirit of
the arrangement. Such an approach would create incentives
for beneficiary states to seek and find effective means to
address the problems of the poor and to pursue this course
for an extended period. It would obviate the problem of the
fungibility of debt remission.
This is where I part company with Stephen Smith, who
calls for using “the occasion of debt forgiveness as a lever
for policy reform,” where “policy reform” appears a euphe-
mism for a particular suite of growth-oriented reforms
advocated by the IMF and World Bank. While economic
growth is a necessary condition for sustained poverty reduc-
tion, it is by no means sufficient, and the growth-oriented
policy reforms of the past decade in Africa have a poor track
record in reducing poverty. Indeed, there is some evidence
from both Africa and Latin America that more heterodox
approaches have been at least as successful as the dictates of
the “Washington Consensus” in assisting more vulnerable
populations (Barrett and Carter 1998). Our commitment
should be less to any particular ideology and its associated
prescriptions than to performance in assisting the poor. So
rather than mandating the particular approach to be taken,
conditionality should instead be associated with achieving
performance targets related to improvements in key social
indicators related to the well-being of the poor, of which per
capita income is but one.
By way of a brief digression, I should note that there is
a direct parallel to lessons learned over the past two decades
in environmental management. Governments once dictated
pollution abatement technologies to firms in an effort to
curb emissions. This offered no incentive to innovate, and
generated significant costs and relatively poor compliance
records. Now, more enlightened regulators instead specify
emissions performance criteria, strictly monitored and en-
forced. The effect has been a wave of corporate environ-
mental management innovations that have generally curbed
While economic growth is a necessary condition for
sustained poverty reduction, it is by no means sufficient,
and the growth-oriented policy reforms of the past
decade in Africa have a poor track record in reducing
compliance costs while reducing pollution. The important
policy lesson is to set standards, monitor, and enforce, but
give the responsible parties the freedom to innovate accord-
ing to the dictates of their local circumstances. The principle
needs to be applied to international efforts to reduce
unnecessary poverty and suffering.
Under the arrangement I propose, countries that failed to
achieve real improvements in social indicators would enjoy
few benefits. The moratorium on these nations would lift
and they would again be responsible for repayment. Effec-
tively, that would mean that states not serious about poverty
reduction would, through renewed net transfers to donors,
underwrite efforts by states that are (or become) committed
to reducing poverty among their citizens. This would create
substantive, dynamic incentives for states to pursue sustain-
able poverty alleviation policies, thereby addressing time
consistency and moral hazard problems that plague many
current proposals.
Any low- or middle-income country should be eligible
for this plan immediately if it can agree to a feasible poverty
reduction strategy and verifiable targets. The only states
that should be (temporarily) excluded are those at war, with
their neighbors or their own citizens. The poor suffer
disproportionately from violence and states at war are
highly likely to divert debt remission proceeds to defense
expenditures. States at war are bad bets for debt forgiveness.
Note that this criterion leads to very different patterns of
forgiveness than presently prevail. For example, Uganda,
the first beneficiary of the IMF/World Bank Heavily
Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, would be
ineligible at present if nonviolence were a condition. In
nations at war, assistance should flow only through
neutral charities demonstrably assisting vulnerable sub-
The problem with many current proposals—including
the legislation that passed the U.S. Congress in 1999—are
that they emphasize only the creation of “human develop-
ment funds” out of debt reduction proceeds, to be spent
ostensibly on poverty reduction. But one must appreciate
the ease with which African (and other governments) can
meet fiscal budgetary or expenditure targets without actu-
ally achieving the true, intended aim of poverty reduction.
As an example, Uganda, again, the first nation to benefit
from 1996 IMF/World Bank HIPC debt reduction initiative,
and a relatively progressive and competent state, routinely
circumvents the cap on its military spending by routing
defense funding through its police force. It would be a
terrible tragedy if debt forgiveness were to fuel further war
in Africa, where more people died in conflict during the last
century than in all the other continents combined. But
nothing in the proposals presently on the table prevents that
Another problem, especially with the HIPC initiative
launched to great fanfare in 1996 that has since proved too
slow, too stingy, and too strict, is the reliance on satisfying
IMF conditionalities. Fiscal retrenchment and exchange
rate devaluation remain at the heart of IMF prescriptions for
Africa in its enhanced structural adjustment facility (ESAF)
programs. But the problem in Africa isn’t too much public
spending, it’s insufficient investment, whether private or
public. Where low- and middle-income countries world-
wide average net investment rates of more than 25 percent
of GDP, Africa’s is about 15 percent. Redirection of public
spending, away from pageantry and armies and toward
child vaccination, rural roads, and urban sewer and water
systems, is more appropriate than further rolling back of
states that are having a hard time already in providing basic
support services for the private sector, much less in making
significant progress in improving human welfare. Eco-
nomic growth is indeed necessary to sustained poverty
reduction. But growth is just a means to an end, not the end
in itself. Moreover, African economies are so rife with
structural failures that relatively doctrinaire, neoliberal
prescriptions often work at cross-purposes with one an-
other, sometimes promoting and sometimes retarding growth
(Barrett and Carter 1999a). The IMF’s approach in Africa
has never acknowledged these basic points, imposing con-
siderable short-term hardship on the most vulnerable in the
interest of adhering to a model that sometimes but not
always leads to better macroeconomic performance in struc-
turally weak economies. Debt forgiveness should adhere to
a true preferential option for the poor and not be just another
instrument of inducing macroeconomic reform of the sort
favored in Washington.
In summary, I am a skeptical supporter of debt forgive-
ness. If remission of the external repayment obligations of
low-income states can be structured so as to generate
sustainable increases in investment, particularly in invest-
ments directly targeted at relieving educational, health,
infrastructure and liquidity constraints that disproportion-
ately burden the poor, then the potential for doing good will
be great. But given the efforts currently agreed and under
high-level discussion, expectations for debt forgiveness’
effects should be low.
Barrett, Christopher B. 1999. “The Economic and Ethical
Ambiguities of African Debt Forgiveness,” Mark
Charlton, editor. Crosscurrents: International Rela-
tions in the Post-Cold War Era. Toronto: Nelson Canada
Barrett, Christopher B. and Michael Carter. 1998.
“Does It Take More Than Market Liberalization. The
Christian Ethics and Debt Forgiveness
Economics of Sustainable Agrarian Growth and Trans-
formation,” in Michael R. Carter, Jeffrey Cason and
Frederic Zimmerman, eds., Development at a Cross-
roads: Uncertain Paths to Sustainability After the Neo-
Liberal Revolution. Madison: University of Wisconsin-
Madison Global Studies Research Program.
_______. 1999a. “Microeconomically Coherent Agricul-
tural Policy Reform in Africa,” in JoAnn Paulson, ed.,
African Economies in Transition, Volume 2: The Re-
form Experiences. London: Macmillan.
_______. 1999b.“Can’t Get Ahead For Falling Behind:
New Directions For Development Policy To Escape
Poverty and Relief Traps,” USAID BASIS Policy Brief,
Krugman, Paul. 1988. “Financing versus Forgiving a Debt
Overhang.” Journal of Development Economics. 29, 3,
Smith, Stephen L.S. “Christian Ethics and the Forgiveness
of Third World Debt.” Faith & Economics (this issue).
On the Rationale for Third World Debt Relief
Daniel Rush Finn, St. John’s University (MN)
Much fanfare has rightly accompanied the declaration
of the year 2000 as a year of Jubilee. Still, there are a number
of confusions surrounding the Jubilee call for Third World
debt relief that Christians need to resolve.
The most dramatic misunderstanding turns out to be one
of the lesser problems. Many advocates of debt relief
confuse the original Hebraic idea of Jubilee with that of the
sabbatical year. For example, one Jubilee website explains:
The campaign is inspired by the scriptural idea of the
Jubilee Year: periodically, every 7 x 7 years (i.e., 50
years), debts are forgiven and slaves set free, and
“liberty is proclaimed throughout the land”. Jubilee
is a time to apply self-righting mechanisms for
restoring balance to society.
In fact, the characteristic element of the Jubilee year was
not debt relief. Debts were to be cancelled every seven
years, during the sabbatical year (Deut 15:9; Neh. 10:31),
when bond slaves were also to be set free (Exod. 21:2). The
Jubilee had a more radical force in that agrarian society: the
return of land to its original owners, overturning of any sales
or other transfers of land over the previous 49 years.
Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty
throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be
a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his
family property and each to his own clan (Lev.
In spite of this prevalent misunderstanding, the underly-
ing spirit of the Jubilee (as “a time to apply self-righting
mechanisms for restoring balance to society”) remains
critical. In our context, the return of land after legal sale is
beyond the reach of economic logic and cultural self-
understanding, but the forgiving of debts of poor countries
in our current context can represent such a restoration of
balance. Although scholars note there is no Biblical
evidence that a Jubilee ever occurred, the meaning of the
occasion can nonetheless be a powerful motive force for
Christians today.
A second confusion is vividly expressed in the talk about
support of Third World debt relief that presumes that any
debtor-creditor relation between developing nations and
industrialized nations is inherently immoral. Many advo-
cates of the Jubilee 2000 campaign excoriate the transfer of
principle and interest payments back to creditor nations.
One often hears the lament that debtors must pay back not
only the principal but also an even greater amount in
aggregate interest payments. There is, of course, an obvious
naïveté concerning discounting—one that many get over
when they sign their first mortgage and note the total value
of mortgage payments over thirty years. More important
here, however, is a critical misunderstanding concerning
borrowing by poor nations.
The ethical problem is that some talk as if Christians
(either personally or through their nation’s policy) ought
not lend money at interest to poorer people or nations
because this is inevitably unjust. As another Jubilee 2000
website puts it,
One of the closest parallels to the debt crisis is the
Atlantic slavetrade. It, too, was a system of interna-
tional oppression accepted for generations as a nor-
mal and necessary part of trade and life.
Often cited is the Biblical prohibition against the people
of Israel charging interest on a loan to a fellow Israelite.
Overlooked, however, is the historical fact that loans in the
agrarian world of ancient Israel were almost always loans of
necessity, made by the better-off to the poor who through
misfortune were unable to make it through the winter to the
next harvest. “If you lend money to one of my people among
you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him
no interest” (Exod. 22:25). In this context, the prohibition
against interest taking was largely a prohibition against
exploiting the desperate.
In the early Church interest taking was also condemned,
for a similar reason. As Augustine of Hippo put it, “Give to
the man and do not turn away from him who seeks a loan.
But take only so much as you have given.”
The treatment
of interest taking was closely identified with the more
general teaching on property holdings. God has given
creation to all humanity so that human needs be met. If I
have more than I need and you have less than you need, I,
as a steward of God’s possessions, must share my surplus
with you. Augustine was quite typical of Christian leaders
of his day in asserting that “the superfluous things of the
wealthy are the necessities of the poor. When superfluous
things are possessed, others’ property is possessed.”
By the Middle Ages the two issues of lending at interest
and sharing of surplus were distinguished conceptually. For
example, Thomas Aquinas made a strong case for private
property. Yet he stressed that for all goods “use must be in
common,” in the sense understood a thousand years earlier
in the Christian church: that what I have in excess of what
I need must be shared if others have unmet needs—out of
respect for God’s intention in creation. Aquinas’ treatment
of interest taking, however, contains no reference to the
poverty of debtors. Instead it is based on the “sterility” of
money. Money is used up—traded away—in an exchange
(similar to how a bottle of wine is used up when it is used).
Thus to charge interest on a loan of money (or wine) would
be wrong, since charging extra beyond getting back the
things borrowed would be to charge for something that does
not exist. However, lending a house to someone for a period
of time would be different, since the house can be used
without being used up. Thus charging extra (rent) in addi-
tion to receiving the house back after that period is not
wrong. Phrasing this older view with modern words, lend-
ing capital goods can rightfully entail an extra payment
while lending consumption goods must not.
The debates over interest taking in the Middle Ages are
classic for their complexity. Yet the development of com-
mercial culture made the resolution inevitable. John Calvin,
of course, took a view of lending at interest that eventually
(over the next 400 years) won out among the Christian
churches. Lending can be a service to the borrower, who
need not be exploited in the process. Eventually even the
Roman Catholic church altered its view, in effect recogniz-
ing that, in the modern world, money is better understood as
a claim on assets. Like the house, it produces a stream of
services. Thus interest taking, within limits, is fully moral.
Even the word “usury” has changed; where it formerly
meant any taking of interest, it now means the charging of
exorbitant rates of interest. A few Christian groups (such as
the Catholic Worker movement) oppose interest taking
even today, but this is the view of a tiny minority.
Thus it is a serious problem that in talk of Third World
debt relief many Christians speak as if all interest taking
from poorer nations is immoral. It took centuries for Chris-
tians to come to appreciate the economically beneficial role
interest taking can play in the world and it would be a great
loss to forget this now. A more thoughtful Christian re-
sponse understands debt as part of a broader relation be-
tween poor and prosperous nations, where the burdens
associated with past debt may be quite moral. This will
depend on an assessment of the overall relationship—and
this requires economic (and other types of) analysis. I will
not attempt to review the economic issues here, but leave it
to the reader to recognize that nearly all nations (including
the US) have depended upon significant borrowing from
abroad in the early period of their economic development.
Turning, however, to that broader moral relationship
between debtor and creditor nations, I also take for granted
the judgment that wealthier nations, in particular the United
States, continue year by year to offer a niggardly contribu-
tion to assist in the development of poorer countries. It is in
that context that arguments for debt relief have a morally
persuasive power. Strong conditionality is necessary to
prevent the transfer of existing funds away from basic
education and health care budgets when resources become
available through debt relief. But the additional risks of
moral hazard are, on balance, worth taking in light of the
political difficulty we face in expanding other forms of
development assistance from the US government.
In sum, we need to forgive the debt of the poorest
nations, but we must exercise care as to why we do so. Doing
the right thing for the wrong reason may not hurt much
today but will lead to confusion about what truly is the right
thing to do the next time around.
1 http://www.jubilee2000uk.org/main.html
2 http://www.jubilee2000uk.org/main.html
3 Augustine, Sermons, 239.4, Patrologia Latina 38:1128,
and in Phan, (1984) p. 229.
4 Augustine, Commentary on Psalm 147, 12, Patrologia
Latina 37:1922, and in Phan (1984) p. 197.
Phan, Peter. 1984. Social Thought, Vol. 20 of The Message
of the Fathers of the Church, Wilmington, DE: Michael
“That the Work of God Might be Displayed”: Debt
Forgiveness and Development
Roland Hoksbergen, Calvin College (MI)
In a well-known story from Jesus’ final days on this
earth, Jesus encounters a man born blind. His disciples want
to know who was at fault for the man’s blindness, the man
himself or his parents. But Jesus is not concerned with
blaming anyone. Instead, he answers, “neither this man nor
his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God
might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3). Throughout the
biblical drama, God is not interested in explaining broken-
Smith, Barrett, Finn, Hoksbergen
ness, but in making and working out plans for reconciliation
and redemption. This is the same task to which his followers
are called, and this is how we should approach the crisis of
debt in the Third World. The central question about debt
forgiveness is whether it will actually be a redemptive act.
Put more simply, will it do any good.
Stephen Smith addresses the issue this way by clearly
linking his evaluation of debt forgiveness to “whether such
a policy is necessary and/or sufficient for improving the
economic situation of the poor.” This approach is further
underscored in his discussion of conditionality, which he
strongly favors. I largely agree with Smith’s analysis,
though I think he is a little too quick to reject the ideas of the
Jubilee 2000 campaign and a little too supportive of the
IMF’s standard package of economic policies. If the goal is
promote good development, then good economic policy is
not enough; we must go beyond economic policies per se to
ask how we can encourage debt-ridden countries to enact
good policies of their own accord, without foreign imposi-
Smith is surely correct that creditor nations should
condition debt forgiveness on whether the benefits of debt
relief be directed toward the poor, and on the establishment
of a track record of reasonable economic policy. To some
extent we have the Jubilee 2000 supporters to thank for
raising this issue internationally and holding the IMF ac-
countable to the world’s poor, because the IMF’s new
concern for the impact of their programs on the poor has
much to do with pressure from civil society organizations
like Jubilee 2000. Still, to focus exclusively on these two
criteria runs the risk of addressing symptoms rather than
root causes, and of missing what is really important in
development. For as long as governments enact policies
imposed from the outside, especially if they instinctively
recoil at such imposition, then those policies will likely not
work very well, nor will they likely be sustainable. The key
issue is local ownership. The debtor nation, meaning not
just those occupying government positions but a significant
majority of the citizens, must own the policies in such a way
that they themselves generate the details of the policies to fit
their own exigencies. Only if this step is taken is there hope
that such policies and practices will be maintained in the
absence of foreign intervention.
This of course is nothing new. Development theorists
and practitioners have known it for years. The question has
always been how to make it happen. What is so different
about the present policy environment is that the Cold War
is over, making it possible to work toward empowerment of
the people, citizen action, civil society promotion, and good
governance without becoming inevitably tangled up in
Cold War rhetoric and conflict. I believe that the recent
emphasis on good governance and civil society provides
some hope that poor nations around the world can make
significant progress in bringing more people into the full-
ness of social, political, and economic life, and, in the
process, develop an internal ownership of policies and
practices that spread the benefits of development to all.
Let me try to express this plainly: as nations grow in their
ability to govern themselves, they will also tend increas-
ingly to develop and implement sound economic policy,
including policies directed to the poor. Essentially, this
means expanding the participation of all peoples and social
sectors into all aspects of governance. In forgiving debt,
conditions must not only address economic policies, but,
more fundamentally, how a nation is governed. This is a
central theme in two recent high profile reports on poverty,
one being the World Bank’s decennial report on poverty,
and the other being the very recently-released UNDP Pov-
erty Report 2000. Both devote major attention to good
governance and the development of civil society.
There are important Biblical principles at work here, one
of the most important being discernment. When someone,
or some nation, is in trouble, as nations mired in debt are,
Christians naturally respond out of love, compassion, self-
sacrifice, mercy, and grace. We want to help. But while the
aforementioned principles lead us to a desire to help, they do
not automatically tell us how. Discernment is required. And
Smith is right that the Jubilee 2000 supporters are often too
lax in doing the hard work of developing programs that
actually will help. Good intentions are not enough. We must
also construct interventions that actually carry out a re-
demptive purpose. In constructing a plan, other Biblical
principles come into play, such as human freedom, dignity,
responsibility, stewardship, justice, and accountability to
others in community. It is this set of principles that leads me
to think we should condition debt forgiveness on good
governance and the expansion of civil society more so than
on economic policies.
A few brief examples will help illustrate the point. A few
years ago I was doing a study of structural adjustment
programs in Guatemala. In a personal conversation with the
ex-minister of finance, he pointed out that his government’s
stance with the IMF had been largely one of doing the least
possible to get the loans they desperately needed. More than
that, they often enacted required reforms only to the extent
necessary to appease IMF officials (Hoksbergen and
Espinoza Madrid 1997, p. 41).
A second example comes from recent Rwandan experi-
ence. Peter Uvin (1998) points out that, even just prior to the
Smith is right that the Jubilee 2000 supporters are often
too lax in doing the hard work of developing programs
that actually will help. Good intentions are not enough.
1994 genocide, the World Bank and virtually all the devel-
opment NGOs were writing positive reports about policy
changes and progress in the economic and other develop-
ment indicators they were focussing on. But Uvin argues
that all the policies and organizations were never really
“owned” by either the government or the people at large.
They were imposed from the outside and implemented only
at the margins and to the extent necessary to keep aid and
loans flowing.
Third, development scholars point out that aid and loan
flows to Africa have done much to create and exacerbate the
injustices associated with predatory states, poor gover-
nance, and their consequent poor economic policies (Bratton
and Van De Walle 1994). In this context, the IMF’s harsh
policies are seen by some as a painful but necessary step
to undercut the power of the corrupt leaders of neo-
patrimonial states.
In the first two examples, policies and programs are
“enacted,” but are not really owned. Long term develop-
ment prospects are not favorable. In the third example, it
appears that IMF programs may actually help, but only
because they impact how the country is governed, not
because their economic policies are implemented. In all
three situations, the character of the government and the
organization of the whole society behind the policies are
more important than the policies themselves.
How might debt forgiveness be structured so as to
promote good governance as well as good policy, and at the
same time respect the Biblical principles mentioned above.
A response to this question must necessarily be sketchy in
these brief comments, but I will give a few guidelines.
Debt forgiveness should be linked to the following
A track record of achievement in traditional IMF
measures like inflation and budget deficits. Such
criteria should be fewer and more results-oriented
than is the traditional package, to allow govern-
ments discretion and leadership in achieving these
A track record of achievement in poverty allevia-
tion. This would typically include an expansion of
health and education services oriented toward the
poor. The new UNDP report notes that few nations
currently integrate anti-poverty measures into their
national planning.
Both of these criteria are consistent with a traditional
focus on economic policies. The key difference is that the
burden of policy development shifts toward national lead-
ers, thus respecting their dignity and freedom, but also
holding them accountable for results. The following set of
criteria is directed at the promotion of good governance and
expanded empowerment of all the nation’s people. Each
criterion below is designed both to promote increasing
participation of all citizens and to develop mechanisms for
holding authorities accountable to manage their trust
The promotion, strengthening, and inclusion of civil
society organizations. Not only should government
sponsored programs in such areas as health, educa-
tion, and other forms of development work be under-
taken in concert with civil society organizations,
these organizations also should be encouraged to
hold officials and governing agencies accountable to
reasonable standards of integrity, fairness, and
Transparency in government affairs. The practice of
so many Third World countries of budgetary secrecy
must be opened up to public scrutiny if government
corruption is to be discovered and minimized.
The development of a functional judicial system that
responds to national understandings of justice, law,
and fairness. Impunity of those in power continues to
be a worldwide problem and undermines many well-
meaning and technically well-designed policies.
Democratic choice in electing governing leaders.
Elections monitored and evaluated by international
and local civil society organizations is one mecha-
nism to ensure progress in this area.
The Jubilee 2000 campaign follows all the right prin-
ciples in terms of our call to help the poor of the world, but,
as Smith points out, its action program falls short. The IMF
program, however, by focussing more on particular policies
and technical fixes, rushes in to apply its knowledge without
adequately accounting for the needs of local empowerment
and ownership.
Development scholars and practitioners know that de-
velopment is a long, step-by-step process that must come
from within if it is to be sustainable. In our efforts to help in
a truly redemptive way, such “that the work of God might
be displayed,” we must structure our interventions so that
all of God’s people are respected and honored as image
bearers, and are thus progressively encouraged to take
responsibility for managing their affairs with justice and
righteousness. Forgiving debts without regard to the conse-
quences is irresponsible, though forgiving debts with
discernment and purpose can be a powerful force for good.
Still, as I have tried to argue, we must do it right.
1 A draft of Attacking Poverty: World Development Re-
port 2000 has been placed on the web for purposes of
soliciting commentary. See <www.worldbank.org/pov-
erty/wdrpoverty>. The UNDP report, Overcoming
Christian Ethics and Debt Forgiveness
Human Poverty: UNDP Poverty Report 2000 is just out
and a summary of its themes is reported in Crossette
Bratton, Michael and Nicolas Van De Walle. 1994.
“Neopatrimonial Regimes and Political Transitions in
Africa.” World Politics. 46, pp. 453–89.
Crossette, Barbara. 2000. “U.N. Says Bad Government is
Often the Cause of Poverty.” New York Times. April 5.
Hoksbergen, Roland and Noemi Espinoza Madrid. 1997.
“The Evangelical Church and the Development of
Neoliberal Society: A Study of the Role of the Evangeli-
cal Church and Its NGOs in Guatemala and Honduras.”
The Journal of Developing Areas. 32, pp. 37–52.
Uvin, Peter. 1998. Aiding Violence: The Development
Enterprise in Rwanda. West Hartford, CT: Kumarian