Efforts to alleviate poverty in developing countries continue to be hampered by the burden of debts owed to rich nations, Kenyan Nobel laureate, Wangari Maathai, said on Monday, adding that most of the loans had been incurred illegitimately by irresponsible governments.
"The debt burden continues to make it impossible for many governments to give services to the people," Maathai said at a seminar organised by churches in Africa to campaign for debt relief at the World Social Forum, under way in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
She described the debts as having been "poorly transacted and illegitimate. In many African countries we were being governed by dictatorial, unaccountable governments," Maathai said, urging the churches to continue spearheading the debt relief movement.
"Indeed, the loans were used to oppress the people, strengthen the ruling and co-operating elites, and exploit resources at the expense of the health of the environment and the welfare of the people," she said.
Maathai said people in developing countries continue to die because of the dearth of social services, noting that an estimated eight million people in Africa died every year because they could not access medicine for treatable diseases, yet their governments continued to service debt.
She challenged the poor and civil society in Africa, Asia and Latin America to raise their voice against the debt burden and not wait for their governments to champion their cause because governments were often made up of rich politicians who did not feel burdened by the loans.
Speakers at the seminar called for increased pressure on leaders in both industrialised and developing countries for debt cancellation.
They acknowledged the government of Norway's decision in October 2006 to unilaterally and unconditionally cancel debts owed by Ecuador, Jamaica, Peru, Egypt and Sierra Leone. Norway's rationale was that the debts were the result of failed development policy.
"There is a need to get rich countries to realise that debt cancellation is not an act of charity but a matter of justice," said Anna Thomas of Christian Aid.
Joel Vilando, a member of parliament from the Philippines, said the country's foreign debt was estimated at US$16 billion and represented 46.6 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).
"Debt payment gets priority over the provision of social services," said Vilando.
Noel Watkins, a debt relief campaigner from the United States, said the Millennium Development Goals could not be achieved without first dealing with the indebtedness of poor countries.
Liberia, a poverty-stricken country emerging from decades of civil war, owes its creditors about $3.7 billion yet 85 percent of the population is unemployed, according to Watkins.
"There is no legitimate debt in Africa at the moment," said Vitalis Meja of the African Network on Debt and Development. Post-conflict countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone could not succeed in their reconstruction efforts unless the debts they owed to foreign governments and multilateral lending institutions were cancelled, Meja said.
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