A Victory for Haiti

How an international, grassroots mobilization helped spur the G7's decision to cancel Haiti's onerous foreign debt.
Haiti classroom, photo by Peter Pereira

The Church of Christ school in Saint Roch mountain was one of hundreds of schools destroyed in the earthquake. Debt cancellation will allow money to be spent on rebuilding, education, and basic services rather than loan interest. 

This photograph is part of Oné Respe, a magazine that compiles two decades of images of Haiti and whose proceeds benefit relief efforts.

Photo by Peter Pereira / 4SEE

Just as things seemed to be at their bleakest for Haiti, millions of voices around the world helped win a remarkable victory that will be a first step in the country’s post-earthquake reconstruction and recovery. The growing global chorus demanded cancellation of Haiti’s $1 billion in foreign debt—an impossible amount for the country to repay in the midst of such devastation.

This past weekend, the call for debt cancellation was answered.

On Friday, United States Treasury Secretary Geithner announced: "Today, we are voicing our support for what Haiti needs and deserves—comprehensive multilateral debt relief.” Over the weekend, the Group of Seven (G7) finance ministers echoed Geithner’s message: Haiti will not have to pay back its debts.

Without this agreement, Haiti would be expected to pay upwards of $15 million a year to international financial institutions while trying to recover, an effort that the United Nations says will take at least 10 years and billions of dollars.

While good news for Haiti, this announcement is also a historic win for social justice advocates around the world. It is an inspiring example of what can happen when people are organized, impassioned, and able to move forward with a clear message. The hard work of U.S. and global civil society groups, Haiti solidarity organizations, faith leaders, and members of Congress culminated this weekend with the delivery of over 400,000 petitions, organized by Jubilee USA, ONE, Avaaz, and Oxfam, calling for debt cancellation and grants, rather than loans, for Haiti. More than 80 U.S. faith, labor, and human rights organizations, as well as 94 members of Congress, sent letters to Secretary Geithner, urging him to negotiate debt cancellation.

School in Tanzania, Ron Rieckenberg photoDebt Relief: The Results Are In
Debt relief has allowed poor nations to pay for schools and health care instead of loan interest.

This powerful mobilization harkens back a decade to the beginnings of the debt cancellation movement. In 1999, a growing awareness of global poverty and unjust debt burdens brought more than 70,000 people to the Group of Eight meetings in Germany. There, they made a human chain, calling for world leaders to break the chains of debt around impoverished countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This call to consciousness and action became the Jubilee movement, and the creation of an initial global debt cancellation plan became their first victory.

Since then, more than $100 billion of debt has been canceled in dozens of countries, with a proven track record of helping to alleviate poverty and injustice. As the Jubilee USA Network advocates to create the political will in the United States, more than 65 Jubilee groups actively work in other countries around the world to create this vision of a world free of debt and inequality.

Still, dozens more impoverished countries need debt cancellation right now. Haiti’s victory this weekend is one part of a larger struggle to create a world where countries need not be indebted to feed their people and where democratic governments don’t have to pay debts from colonialism or brutal regimes. Haiti has sparked a hope that must now translate into more action for countries like Kenya and Lesotho, who suffer from great poverty and debt burdens but are not eligible for debt cancellation under the current rules.

::  After winning independence in 1804, Haiti went millions of dollars (billions in today's dollars) into debt to compensate the French for their loss of property—including the lost profits from slave trading.

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