Saving lives through advocacy

Marty Shupack, CWS Director of Advocacy, reflects on the Jubilee 2000 Campaign and continuing efforts, urging elected officials to act with compassion and justice toward our neighbors in need.

Marty Shupack, CWS Director of Advocacy
Marty Shupack, CWS Director of Advocacy. Photo provided.

By Marty Shupack, CWS Director of Advocacy

One of the first issues I worked on when I came to Washington in 1995 made an enduring impression on me.  It was the Jubilee 2000 Campaign to cancel the international debts that many impoverished countries owed to affluent nations like the U.S. and multilateral institutions like the World Bank.  For the previous 15 years heavily indebted poor countries had been required to make billions of dollars in debt service payments--funds that should have been used for education, medical care and other anti-poverty efforts for their own impoverished people.

The idea for a Jubilee cancellation of debt came from the All Africa Conference of Churches, and the Jubilee Campaign was launched by Christian Aid in the U.K.  Church World Service and other faith offices helped create the U.S. Jubilee 2000 campaign.

I was told by colleagues from other organizations that we could talk to the White House about this and even to World Bank officials.  But never bring this up, they said, to members of Congress, because Congress absolutely hated the idea of cancelling such debts!

And yet, by the year 2000 Congress had approved cancellation of a major portion of poor country debts owed to the U.S.  In addition, President Bill Clinton had taken the lead on persuading other wealthy countries, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to cancel a large part of the debts owed to them.  President George Bush and Congress continued this program, supporting deeper cancellation of debts owed to the World Bank.  This past year most of Haiti’s remaining international debt has been cancelled.

Members of Congress who became the champions of debt relief have offered heartfelt thanks to Church World Service and others for "giving them the opportunity to do the good work that they hoped they were coming to Congress to accomplish."  What happened to turn abhorrence into embrace?

The Jubilee Campaign enlisted people of faith across the United States and in approximately 50 countries around the world, as well as major national and international religious leaders.  Church World Service, denominational offices, Catholic religious orders, and numerous other organizations communicated with their members and constituency groups, providing information, educational materials and advocacy action alerts.

I recall going into one Senator’s office to urge his support for Jubilee legislation and asking the staff person if she had heard from church people about this concern.  She put her hands up and said, "Oh yes, yes definitely, lots of letters, a ton of letters; we don’t need any more letters!"  Her boss the Senator was convinced!  This outpouring from church members to government policymakers happened across the U.S. and throughout the world.

One of the first countries to receive debt cancellation was Uganda.  In the summer of 2000 Charlotte Mwesigye, Chairperson of Jubilee 2000 Uganda, came to the U.S. to go on a speaking tour to tell people about the results of their effort and to urge perseverance so that more countries could benefit from debt cancellation.  Charlotte spoke to our group of Jubilee campaigners in Washington.  "I’m not sure you all understand what your work has accomplished, so I want to tell you.  Because of debt cancellation," she explained, "there are medical clinics in Uganda that now have doctors and medicines.  There are schools that have teachers and text books.  There are children alive today in Uganda who would not be without what you have done!"

Since then I’ve worked on a range of issues, and I’ve seen amazing progress because of the involvement of people of faith in writing and calling their members of Congress and otherwise urging their elected officials to act with compassion and justice toward our neighbors in need.  These often small and individual efforts of church people have been lifesaving:  There are mothers, fathers and children with HIV/AIDS who are alive today.  There are Haitians receiving medical care and help to rebuild their country.  And there will soon be women farmers throughout the developing world who have greater capacity to feed their families and help bring broad-based development to their communities.

In Genesis, God gives to all humankind not just political and economic elites stewardship of the world.  When we exercise that stewardship thoughtfully and compassionately in advocacy, we really can save lives and transform societies.

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