The poor in the South are poor because the North keeps them poor

by John Baycroft, Bishop of Ottawa

Towards the end of January I visited Nicaragua on the way to Honduras to attend the launch of the Latin American Jubilee 2000 Campaign for Debt Cancellation. Even before Hurricane Mitch, Nicaragua and Honduras were among the poorest of the world’s poor countries. Now they are simply continuing disaster areas. God only knows what will happen when it starts raining again.

In Nicaragua I wanted to see the effects of Hurricane Mitch. I also wanted to meet partners with whom the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) works, and to assess the effectiveness of Canadian assistance.

Casa Blanca is a remote rural community close to the Honduran border. I think the government has more or less forgotten about the people there. It used to be a village until the hurricane, the mudslides, and the floods changed the course of a river that washed away most of the peopleís houses and belongings. The people, their problems and their poverty remain. They dare not rebuild houses where they used to be because that place is now a riverbed, and it will become a river again when the rainy season starts. They have nowhere else to go, and no money.

A woman showed us where her house used to be. Only a doorstep remained. The river had taken everything the family had. Yet she did not mention clothes, furniture, little treasures, or even the house — all obviously gone. She mentioned the loss of the tools for survival. What she missed most were her hand grinder ñ without which she could not grind corn — and their machetes. She was happy for us to take a picture of her with a simple grinder given by a church aid agency. I had not the courage to ask her whether they had a machete yet. Without these basic tools they cannot live.

Later, still in Casa Blanca, I held in my arms a baby born after the hurricane. The mother wanted a picture taken. Perhaps this was a symbol of new life and hope, but the crowded room was filled with the poorest people imaginable, and the children looked and sounded unbelievably unhealthy. I held the baby and wondered for how long this fragile new life could survive.

And I wondered, why are they so poor?

Another day we traveled with Christian Medical Action of Nicaragua (CMA), a PWRDF partner, into the mountains of Matagalpa where some of Mitch’s worst ravages are to be seen. Once again we were traveling to the remote communities that the government forgets.

We visited a clinic built with a PWRDF grant, complete with a plaque commemorating the Anglican Church of Canada. The Canadians were pleased. The Nicaraguans were grateful. We have made a difference there. Christian Medical Action (CMA) puts about 80 per cent of its efforts into community building and preventive medicine, and only 20 per cent into more narrowly defined medical treatments. Their successes are impressive.

We drove further into the mountains and walked through bush and fields to a remote village. Mitch has not left many scars here. CMA has only been working with the community for a year, so they are just beginning to address their problems.

They have no latrines. However, their really big problem, they say, is that they have no access to potable water. The nearest source is 15 kilometers away. Even doing all the work themselves they cannot possibly afford to pay for that much water pipe. The constitution says they have the right to free education for their children. But they have only one teacher who teaches grades 1 and 2 in an overcrowded schoolhouse. Students of grades 3 and 4 ñ who are not supposed to have school there ñ come anyway and sit under a mango tree hoping to learn something. They know ignorance is their enemy.

But why are they poor and hungry? We cannot really blame Mitch here. Why does the government ignore these people?

We heard the answers over and over again at the Jubilee Conference: the poorest of the poor are poor in the South because the rich nations of the North keep them poor. Yet I have never met a Canadian citizen or political leader who I believe would sanction this evil if they knew what the results of our policies are.

For example, before agreeing to give any relief to a country in serious financial difficulties, our international financial organs (World Bank, IMF, and Inter-American Development Bank), controlled by our governments, insist that the government of the poor country agree to stringent conditions strictly enforced. Usually these conditions include drastic cuts in government expenditures.

It sounds sensible, harmless, even a little familiar to Canadians. But the cuts have to come from social programs. So the poor in the South are getting less health care, less education, less of everything they need. In short, babies die in the South because inappropriate conditions imposed by the North force cuts in social expenditures.

There is a lot we can do as Canadians.

First, we can sign the Jubilee petition for debt cancellation and become informed about the campaign. Debt cancellation will not in itself restore the justice God demands of us. But it is a necessary first step, and cancellation of the unpayable debts of the world’s poorest countries, without attaching destructive conditions, is an achievable goal for the year 2000. Then the spirit of Jubilee will carry us into the next millennium working for justice in many other ways as well.

Secondly, we can urge our government to increase overseas development assistance that has been declining in recent years. Particularly when this aid is channeled through non- governmental agencies working directly with poor communities, the assistance can be very effective.

Thirdly, we can all dig into our pockets and give more to PWRDF. Believe me, these gifts make a difference.

The Latin American Jubilee theme is, “Yes to life, No to debt.” The Bible says, “Choose life!”

We can be part of that choice.

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