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February 19, 2002
Discrediting the Creditors
In Person: Ann Pettifor.
Ann Pettifor, executive director of Jubilee Research.

London—Ann Pettifor, former coordinator of the international debt cancellation campaign Jubilee 2000, sits down to talk at the south London offices of Jubilee Research @ the New Economics Foundation, where she has been based for the past year.

Settling her dog under the table, she calls her son to dispense with directions for cooking a stir fry. Then, with dinner under control, she turns her attention to the slightly more taxing issue of international economics.

“You know, the anti-corporate left sometimes gets it wrong,” she confides. “They focus on what they can see and touch, which is trade. And because the international financial regime isn’t visible, it isn’t attacked. But in reality, it has a much greater power of determination than trade.”

It’s not McDonald’s or Nike that rule our world, she argues—“at least they make things”—but the international giants of the banking world like J.P. Morgan Chase and Citigroup. “The problem with globalization lies in the liberalization of capital flows, [not] trade flows. Those who own capital operate in a global economy detached from real political, social and environmental relations. And this detachment has not come about accidentally”—it is a result of “structural imbalances” that have been deliberately constructed by those in power.

As a kid growing up in a poor gold-mining town in South Africa, Pettifor “realized that apartheid did not happen because people were prejudiced and racist, but [because] it was manufactured, created. I was concerned about imbalances of power that are not there accidentally: employers taking the profits from capitalism while workers get nothing, [or] the inequalities between women and men and blacks and whites.”

It’s a pattern that is repeated in today’s economic relations between the Northern and Southern hemispheres, she says. “It is structural: [it has] to do with the way in which the global economy has been engineered. My mission has been to discover the girders that hold up that structure, [and] to redress the imbalances.”

Not an easy mission, but it is one for which Pettifor is well suited. After a couple of years teaching in Tanzania, she became involved in local and national politics in Britain. But it wasn’t until 1994 that she began to work on developing-country debt, relocating to Washington as a lobbyist for the Network for Social Change. There she developed her talent for demystifying the impenetrable world of international finance for ordinary people.

This proved key to the success of the movement she co-founded to bring about the cancellation of the unpayable debts of the world’s poorest countries. Under her guidance, the Jubilee campaign gathered momentum though the late ’90s until, by 2000, more than 24 million people around the world had signed a petition urging leaders to do just that.

The world’s poor countries have seen only $36 billion of debt relief from a potential $100 billion promised, but Pettifor is upbeat about the movement’s achievements to date. While the Jubilee coalition no longer exists in its previous incarnation, activists in both the North and South continue to lobby for total debt cancellation. “We have thrown up a lot of contradictions, and we have raised massive public awareness,” she says. “This momentum can’t be stopped.”

Now Pettifor is working toward changing the process by which debt cancellation is agreed upon, spurred on by the ongoing debt crisis in Argentina, a country “impoverished by international creditors.”

The “Jubilee Framework” for international insolvency proposes that when a nation’s debts can be repaid only at a cost to the fundamental human rights of the population, it should be able to file for protection from its creditors, rather like Chapter 11 in the United States. An ad hoc court would then negotiate a settlement between the debtor nation and its creditors. The judge would be a third party nominated by both the debtor and creditor and, crucially, citizens would be entitled to participate in the legal proceedings.

The IMF, it appears, isn’t thinking quite as radically. It doesn’t support the idea of a third-party judge, for example, and it believes it should retain a central role in any process, despite its creditor status. But Pettifor is encouraged by what she has heard so far. “The top level of management [at the IMF] has been cleared out, and they are now willing to think new thoughts and admit that mistakes have been made.”

Pettifor will continue working at a U.N. conference on development finance in Monterrey, Mexico in March, as well as at the IMF and World Bank spring meetings in Washington. Before that, though, she’ll head to Ecuador for a meeting with debt activists from around the world with the aim of building a new “coherent and focused global campaign” around the Jubilee Framework. Her mission may not yet be accomplished, but it’s certainly looking less and less impossible.


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