U2 Station Exclusive Interview with Abbey Fisher of The Jubilee Network

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by Brenda Clemons, U2 Station Staff Writer

1. Can you explain a little about the Jubilee Network. What it is that you strive to do?

Jubilee USA Network is part of an international movement focused on canceling debts of countries in the Global South (these are also known as developing or Third World countries, which is an historical and outdated term). There are Jubilee groups many European nations and over 60 in the Global South, which are collectively known as Jubilee South. Jubilee is an Old Testament principle about freeing slaves and righting relationships. The debts were often accrued under dictatorial or undemocratic governments, with the knowledge of Western (U.S., European) governments, and now the people must pay back debts, at the expense of basic needs like healthcare and education. The most famous example is probably South Africa, where about of their US$23 billion debts were given to the Apartheid government. When Nelson Mandela was elected President in 1994, he was given a bill for that debt, part of which was used to imprison him for 27 years.

We focus primarily on debts claimed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). We do not use the word "owed to" because we feel that, in many cases, the debts have been repaid several times over or the "dictator" loans are illegal and should not be recognized. If for no other reason than it would allow governments to use the money to benefit the people,

we feel that debt cancellation is necessary and the right thing to do. The World Bank and IMF have a lot of power in the global economic system and they set rules for debt repayments, as well as impose harmful policy conditions on countries to qualify for their inadequate debt relief program (the same one the G8 countries agreed to expand in 2005). These conditions include imposing user fees on basic health and education, reducing teacher salaries, which the Bank and IMF say are designed to help the government balance its budget. They have typically been referred to as Structural Adjustment Policies, or SAPs.

The 2005 debt deal was a huge victory, but we have to make sure that the G8 lives up to its promise. It takes countries, on average, 5-6 years to complete the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt cancellation program. Only then do they receive 100% cancellation of their loans to the IMF and World Bank. We campaign to cut those conditions, because delay means death and sadness for so many people.

Debt is a form of economic slavery and poverty is a form of violence. I realize that the system might sound complicated, or that we're up against some very powerful forces, and we are, but debt cancellation is a critical first step in righting relationships between countries and people, the monetarily rich and poor. You don't have to be an economist to understand that poverty is wrong and we can eliminate it!

2. African nations are getting a lot of attention from the media. But, there are other countries in need of debt cancellation as well. How do you feel about African nations receiving so much media attention?

I think it's very necessary but I worry that Africa is seen as "trendy." I feel that the media needs to not put so much focus on celebrity but to actually pay attention to why celebrities are going to African countries. I also feel that there are other regions of the world that also need attention - like Asia and Latin America. We all focused on the countries affected by the Tsunami in at the end of 2003, but what the media didn't cover was the fact that these countries still had to pay back debts, instead of using that money to help the people who lost their homes.

3. What non African nations do you think is in the most need of debt cancellation?

Wow, there are so many. Certainly many countries in Central America are poor, like Nicaragua, but there are also Asian countries like Vietnam who have a lot of debts and a great deal of poverty. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but about 2/3 of its debt was from loans stolen by two dictators - a father and son named Duvalier. There are 67 countries that need 100% debt cancellation, in addition to increased aid, to even hope to meet the Millennium Development Goals. About 23 of those are non-African countries, including most Central American and many Asian countries.

4. Critics used to say that debt cancellation would not work and that the money would be wasted. But, the critics have been wrong. Can you give some examples of what countries are doing with the money they have as a result of debt cancellation?

No country that has ever received debt cancellation has ever used the money for military purposes, and has used most of it for poverty alleviation. Zambia is one of the best examples of debt cancellation that works. The country has abolished user fees on primary education. When the 2005 G8 deal was announced in 2005, the Zambian government announced that it would use the savings to put 100,000 people on free anti-retroviral HIV medication. 100,000 people who have a new brighter future! How awesome is that!

Tanzania (another African country) received $3 billion in debt relief. Tanzania has increased funding for poverty reduction by 130 percent over the last six years. Tanzania has focused the savings to increase education spending and eliminate school fees for elementary school education. Almost overnight, an estimated 1.6 million kids returned to school. By 2003, 3.1 million children were back in school. The net enrollment ratio has risen from 58.8 percent in 2000 to 88.5 percent in 2003. With debt relief savings in 2002 and 2003, Tanzania built 31,825 classrooms and the number of primary schools increased from 11,608 in 2000 to 12,689 in 2003, a net increase of 1,081 schools. Also in these two years, 17,851 new teachers were recruited and 9,100 science-teaching kits were supplied.

5. Why should other countries (such as the United States) care about debt cancellation? Does debt and poverty have an impact on the US as far as it's economy, environmental pollution, etc?

Absolutely. There is a great report called The Debt Boomerang by the Institute for Policy Studies that shows how poverty in the Global South directly affects us here in the U.S. What some people don't realize is that debt is used as leverage to pass unfair trade agreements in countries around the world, most notably in Central America and Mexico (NAFTA being the most famous example). Thousands of jobs have been outsourced from the U.S. as a result of these policies. Also, these trade agreements lower environmental standards in developing countries, so the countries are more "attractive" to foreign investors, namely oil and extractrive indrusties. We all know about the pollution caused by unsafe resource extraction, which hurts all of us.

Here's a link to the summary page of The Debt Boomerang: http://www.ips-dc.org/boomerang/summary.htm

6. Have you ever traveled to any HIPC countries? What were your impressions of the land and it's people?

I have only traveled to South Africa, which is not considered a HIPC (Heavily Indebted Poor Country) because the export income is too high compared to the total amount of debt - that is honestly the main criteria for being considered a HIPC! Forget that there are millions of people living in poverty and that South Africa has the highest number of people living with HIV/AIDS of any country in the world (over 5 million people). It was a life-changing experience, though, and I will never forget it. Absolutely beautiful country - we even got to go on a safari! The people were beautiful and all the women sang to us wherever we went. As a greeting, as a farewell. One of the women in our group was from South Africa, and she told us what one of the songs meant, because it was sung in a traditional language. It was "we are counting on you to help us," which was heartbreaking because it sounded so beautiful and actually joyous, but the message was "help us." It was insane to think that these women felt that they needed us, that we were somehow their saving grace, and it showed the totally messed up relationship between people in "rich" countries and people in "poor" countries. It is dehumanizing to all involved and very sad.

7. A few years ago much attention was given to Jubilee because of Bono's association with the organization. Do you feel that Bono's association has helped or hurt Jubilee?

I think it has been good and not-so-good. What I have seen is people being excited wherever he goes, but unfortunately, if he is no longer associated with an organization, as he no longer is with Jubilee, some of the people who were involved leave and go to the organization he is now involved with. A lot of people were involved with Jubilee USA during Net Aid and the Elevation tour, when he first got really involved, and it was great. I would not know anything about Jubilee if it hadn't been for Bono's involvement, and I am eternally grateful for it, but I am also a very loyal person, so I don't understand how some U2 fans could so easily jump over to the ONE campaign. Now people say "Oh I didn't know Jubilee was still around." Of course we are, and we need you to join with us! But after Bono wasn't involved, people didn't hear about it as much because it's very difficult to get large amounts of media coverage.

I also think celebrity involvement in general sometimes hurts because certain organizations have a very superficial level of education they give their members. We are dealing with very sensitive and important issues of justice and fairness and literally life and death, and I feel that the media and some organizations don't want to give the whole story, the one that says that yes, actually the U.S. and other rich country governments play a big part in this injustice. Or they sugarcoat it to say that all you have to do is sign your name to one letter, one time. Every action is important, but we have to keep going and pay attention to what happens AFTER Congress passes a bill, or after the G8 makes a grand pronouncement that they're going to fix something. I greatly respect celebrities who educate and commit themselves to an issue, and many have used their relative power for good, but they have to include the people they purport to help in the discussion. Brad Pitt did that when Diane Sawyer wanted to interview him - he wouldn't do it unless she went with him to Africa. Then I saw Bono and Bobby Shriver on Larry King and there wasn't an African person there talking about how the RED campaign gave them a job making clothing. It was a bunch of white guys talking about "helping" poor Africans.

8. You started at Jubilee as a volunteer. You have also worked as their tour organizer and been on the Board of Directors. How does one position differ from the other and which position did you enjoy doing most?

What is similar, and what I love about all of the positions, is being surrounded by people who believe that ending poverty and debt is possible. It makes me feel like I'm not crazy or alone for believing it too!

There is a lot of freedom to being a volunteer, and we have a tremendous amount of input into the organization. The Jubilee York, PA group, which I organize, is a member of the Jubilee Network Council, which is made up of 75 organizations, some of which are other grassroots groups around the country. The Network Council is the main decision-making body of the organization.

Being on the Board of Directors, which we call the Coordinating Committee, is an honor. It has been a huge learning experience for me and I recently had the privilege of chairing our Strategic Planning Committee through the planning process in 2005. We created a three-year plan for 2006-2008 and it was so inspiring. I wanted to start the Abbey Fisher Strategic Plan as a result and am now looking at going to grad school for Non-profit management to learn more of the nuts and bolts of making positive change in our world.

The tour was amazing - definitely an educational experience! We were blessed to travel with four speakers on two different parts of the tour - the speakers were from Nigeria, the Philippines, Zambia and Peru. They were all incredibly kind, brilliant, wonderful people and we covered 11 states! None of did all those stops, but I traveled with each of the speakers at some point and personally traveled to 8 states over 5 weeks. It was exhausting but I wouldn't trade it for anything. It really was like being on tour! I got to go to Chicago for the first time and went to THE Gap store that Bono and Oprah went to. We went to Colorado and I got to go to Red Rocks and stand in the seats.

It brought out all of my strengths and weaknesses as an organizer, but I met a lot of amazing people. I actually learned something very important - that Jubilee's staff works incredibly hard and it's very easy to get burnt out. I care too much about Jubilee to want to be in that position, because I want to stay involved for as long as Jubilee exists, so I don't think I want to be on staff again. It's very hard work, but ultimately the most important work we will ever do.

9. During the Elevation tour you helped to organize Jubilee booths at each concert. What was that like and would you do it again?

It was really fun! I think the most challenging part was finding good volunteers in each city the tour traveled to, because we didn't necessarily have Jubilee folks in each place. I had a connection with one of U2's promoter's staff who was in charge of making sure that Jubilee, Amnesty International and Greenpeace each were able to have a table at each show. It was interesting because we had two sets of boxes of tabling materials that "leapfrogged" each other to the next tour stop. I actually love figuring out all of those logistics and I was so blessed to be able to do it. I was responsible for about 40 tables during the 2nd North American leg of the tour and tabled at I think four shows, including opening night in Ft. Lauderdale.

The fans, for the most part, were incredibly supportive of what we were doing. Obviously, there were a lot of people who didn't know what Jubilee was, but we got so many compliments and "you're doing a great job" - it was amazing. I also got to take some of my friends to a show where we had tables and show them exactly the kind of work we're doing. It was a thrill to have my favorite things come together - friends and Jubilee and U2 concerts!

One thing I should mention is that we didn't automatically get a ticket to the show. I had tickets for every show I tabled at, but occasionally if there were extra floor wristbands the promoter would come to the table and give one to someone. I think the table volunteers shared them on a few occasions, and would watch a few songs each. It was the same for the Amnesty and Greenpeace folks. I had heard that ONE volunteers got to go into the Ellipse during the Vertigo tour, so I'm just slightly jealous about that - ha ha. I did it solely as a volunteer, which meant a lot of late nights organizing everything, but I'd do it again in a second.

10. Tell us about the Jubilee Sabbath Year.

According to the Old Testament, every Seven Years is a Sabbath Year, and every 50th year is a Jubilee year, which is why we had a Jubilee 2000 campaign. Seven years after the Jubilee in 2000, we are having a Sabbath year, which calls for a righting of relationships and remembering this concept that is common to all faiths - helping the poor. I don't consider myself to be a person of any one faith, but it is definitely a campaign that everyone can get behind. The best description of the Sabbath Year is on our website: http://www.jubileeusa.org/jubilee.cgi?path=/jubilee_congregations&page= sabbath_year.html There are a lot of really exciting things happening this year and we are looking forward to making more of a difference!

11. How can people become more involved in Jubilee and/or debt cancellation?

They can contact me anytime at [email protected]. You can also visit our website at http://www.jubileeusa.org. We have a lot of ways for people to get involved and several local groups around the country. There's a monthly action email alert you can sign up for and lots of other ways to educate yourself. We're launching a brand new website in early February so we hope ya'll will check it out!

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on March 16, 2007 4:43 PM.

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