Volume 13 Number 4
Pushing for Debt Forgiveness
01 August 2000

Norway's former Minister of International Development and Human Rights, Hilde Frafjord Johnson, tells Jens Jonathan Wilhelmsen about her country's response to the international debt crisis.

Hilde Frafjord Johnson is not a tall person, but she stands tall. The cut of her jaw signals unusual determination. Her middle name--Frafjord--means 'from the fjords'. The steep mountains and barren soil of western Norway have produced resilient people.

Johnson was born and spent her first seven years in Tanzania. That shaped her values and life mission: to fight poverty. In her early teens she had already decided to go into politics. Seven years ago she was elected to Parliament, and for two and a half years, until February 2000, she was Norway's Minister of International Development and Human Rights. Having studied social anthropology and speaking Swahili, she was a natural choice.

Soon she became a respected figure in international development circles. She initiated the Utstein Group, consisting of herself and women cabinet ministers holding similar portfolios in Great Britain, Germany and the Netherlands. They were a driving force behind the recent reform of the HIPC (Heavily Indebted Poor Countries) initiative, which increased the number of countries eligible for debt relief from 22 to 41.

JJW: Did the fact that you were all women produce a more compassionate approach to the debt problem?

HFJ: Women may have more empathy, although I sometimes wonder. Maybe we have a closer sense of community with each other than men do. We were an alliance of like-minded ministers who could work with the World Bank and other financial bodies. Things began to happen, and movement creates optimism.

JJW: To what extent can a small country like Norway influence the big actors in the economic field?

HFJ: Norway became a forerunner amongst the OECD countries by being the first to have a comprehensive debt relief plan passed by Parliament in 1999. The HIPC initiative was strengthened by us offering full unilateral debt relief to countries which had negotiated a settlement within the HIPC framework. We also broke with the practice of paying for debt relief by charging the development assistance budget.

JJW: Your Government was one of the first officially to back the Jubilee 2000 campaign for debt relief. How do you evaluate this campaign?

HFJ: They have made a significant contribution by focusing the challenge and opportunity of a new millennium for all the OECD countries. That had a galvanizing effect. The campaign's lobbying was also effective. Cooperation with progressive countries and committed politicians was crucial. Jubilee 2000 could not have done it without us, and we could not have done it without them.

JJW: But do you not agree that progress towards debt alleviation has been disappointingly slow? Who keeps the brakes on or what are the main reasons?

HFJ: Financing is the biggest obstacle. The HIPC initiative in September 1999 resolved to move on a faster, broader and deeper scale, but the main creditors (in practice the G7 countries) have not put up the necessary funds.

JJW: There is another G8 meeting scheduled in Okinawa. Do you think Japan is open to playing a more positive role?

HFJ: It may be a help that the G8 summit is taking place in Japan. Japan has not contributed to the HIPC trust fund. Being host to the G8, they may not like the embarrassment of being the slowest in the class.

JJW: Your are a Christian Democrat. In the struggle against poverty you have had setbacks as well as victories. What does your faith mean to you?

HFJ: According to the Gospel you have a duty to fight for the rights of the poor. On this point Jesus was radical. On a more personal level, walking with Jesus gives you strength. You are not alone. Someone is struggling with you.

JJW: The present [Mugabe] regime in Zimbabwe asserts that the whites have stolen their land, and that they now have the right to take it back. Have certain developing countries some justification in maintaining that rich countries lured them into the debt trap and that they now have a moral obligation to get them out of it?

HFJ: The analogy limps, but there are some similarities. An example is the Norwegian shipbuilding campaign towards the end of the Seventies. In order to save our shipyards, we pushed our products on the developing countries. More than half the money owed to Norway by developing countries stems from this campaign. It was shameful.

JJW: A chief obstacle to progress in debtor nations is corruption. Have you seen examples of something effective being done to stop it?

HFJ: Corruption has been one of my main concerns as Minister. But you have to differentiate between need-based corruption and greed-based corruption. The former is mostly the result of people not earning enough to live. The second is more a question of the morality of the people at the top. Better control and auditing, press freedom and more use of the courts are needed. Good leaders must be encouraged to sack corrupt officials. Uganda's President Museveni, for instance, sacked several corrupt ministers.

JJW: How significant is the factor of debt remission in the battle against poverty? What other measures can reinforce its effect?

HFJ: Take Tanzania. It spends four times as much on servicing its debts as on education and health together. Debts directly affect the life of the poor. Some mechanisms to ensure the effectiveness of debt remission are in place. Getting HIPC support, for instance, has to be preceded by a review of the recipient's macro-economic policies. These must not only be export-oriented, but benefit the poor.

Improving governance--including fighting corruption--is also key. Every country needs to work out its own strategy, and not just copy World Bank blueprints. This is a big task for a poor country, but things are underway, for instance in Tanzania, Uganda and Mozambique.

JJW: American author Christopher Lasch accuses Western culture of narcissism and indifference to the suffering of others. Can political leadership play a part in awakening solidarity?

HFJ: I wish I had an answer. Better cooperation with the media is important. By focusing so much on catastrophes they create a skewed picture. A different input is needed. There are hopeful stories of what developing countries themselves achieve. Publicizing these stories will stimulate solidarity. In certain annual public collections in Norway we see incredible examples of what ordinary people are prepared to give.

JJW: Is the present Government as sympathetic to debt alleviation as you are? Will you prod them to increase the pressure on the G8?

HFJ: They have stated that they will follow up our debt relief strategy, and I believe them. As a Member of Parliament I will keep pushing.
Jens Jonathan Wilhelmsen

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