We find ourselves at a crucial moment in history, not just for our country but for the world. Thousands of people in our communities have lost their homes or their jobs due to the current economic crisis. But I fear that the global financial crisis will impact the world's impoverished and developing countries the hardest. For many of those already living on the margins, the current economic crisis is literally a life and death emergency.
That is why I have joined a delegation of 18 national Jewish and Christian religious leaders to request a meeting with our nation's new Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner in advance of the upcoming G-20 summit of the world's largest economies. In addition to leading our nation's economic recovery, Secretary Geithner is charged with shaping our global economic policies. Our delegation will tell the Secretary that canceling the unjust debts of impoverished nations and responsible, poverty-focused assistance are critical for alleviating the impact of the economic crisis on the world's poorest countries.
In Haiti, four devastating hurricanes and volatility in food and energy prices over the past year have created massive food shortages which could lead to large-scale starvation in the coming months. Haiti has been severely affected by the United States' weakening economy. Not only are exports to the US a significant percentage of Haiti's GDP, Haiti is also heavily dependent on Haitians living in the US sending money home. As the crisis in Haiti deepens, the country continues to send millions of dollars every month in debt repayment to the World Bank as it waits for desperately needed debt cancellation.
On the other side of the world in Kenya, at least 120 people were incinerated earlier this month while trying to collect spilled gasoline from an overturned tanker truck. Men, women and children were burned to death while siphoning gasoline to resell for money to buy food and other basic necessities. An Associated Press article about the tragedy tells the story of a boy who caught on fire but survived. The boy, who had dropped out of grammar school because he couldn't afford the school fees, said he had no idea that the gasoline would ignite.
Kenya's unemployment rate stands at 40% and half of the population lives below the poverty line. If it were not spending millions to repay its international debt, Kenya could follow the example of neighboring Tanzania, which used money freed by debt cancellation in 2000 to eliminate school fees and increase education spending. From that time until this year, debt relief has enabled Tanzania to increase the number of children in primary schools by over 50%, build 2,500 additional schools, and recruit thousands of additional teachers. If the current rate of progress continues, Tanzania will attain universal primary education significantly ahead of the 2015 target date set under the Millennium Development Goals.
The Judeo-Christian tradition compels us to prioritize the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable, whether in our own country or internationally. Not only is this the right thing to do, it is the best interests of our nation that we reach out to the rest of the world at this time. President Obama's administration represents a new opportunity to restore our moral standing in the world. Recognizing and responding to the increased hardship in developing countries caused by an economic crisis not of their making will be the first test of the administration's commitment to addressing global poverty.
Ruth Messinger is President of American Jewish World Service, www.ajws.org, an international development organization motivated by Judaism's imperative to pursue justice.
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