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Because of Bono

Blame it on her infatuation with an Irish rock superstar, a well-developed social conscience or pure intellectual curiosity.

Whatever her initial motivation, Abbey Fisher found her passion.

It was a cause worth going back to school for, traveling to Africa for and lobbying the country's political and financial leaders for:

Debt cancellation for the hopelessly indebted.

Fisher and other anti-debt activists want the world's richest countries and international lenders to forgive many billions of dollars of debt owed them by the world's poorest countries. Such a move is a crucial step toward ending poverty.

"People in these countries are paying out so much for debt and interest when they could be using it for food, medicine, schools, hospitals or things they want and need for themselves," said Fisher, 31, who lives in York Township.

"To me, it's insane that anyone could look at this and not think it's an emergency."

Fisher, a commercial traffic director for a Camp Hill radio station, first heard about debt forgiveness in 1999 as she was graduating from York College.

A fan of the band U2 and frontman Bono, she learned about his involvement in a global social campaign called Jubilee 2000 -- an effort to wipe out as much as $90 billion in debt owed by more than 30 countries by the year 2000.

Fisher read up on the issue, learning how during the 1980s needy nations began struggling with rising debt payments -- often for loans made to corrupt regimes or tyrant dictators or from banks that paid no heed to the ballooning debt of developing nations.

Countries such as Uganda, Zambia, Ethiopia and Nicaragua were paying increasing amounts of interest and and spending less at home on schools and health care.

"Something in my head just clicked," Fisher said.

"It's an economic issue to a point, but we consider it a justice issue. I'm certainly not an economist, but I could grasp the issue and explain it to other people."

She contacted the staff of Jubilee 2000 and asked how she could help.

The "jubilee" concept comes from the Old Testament, which calls for a yearlong period every 50 years as a new start for slaves and debtors.

After 2000, the Jubilee 2000 coalition disbanded and birthed an offshoot, the Jubilee USA Network. Today, the network comprises 80 organizations including humanitarian, environmental and faith groups such as Pax Christi USA, American Jewish World Service and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The crusaders have had some success: Eight years ago, the richest countries agreed to a set of millennium development goals with a target of halving world poverty by 2015.

The Bush administration and the United Kingdom have supported debt cancellation with conditions and in 2005 urged leaders at the G-8 summit in Scotland to provide the possibility of 100 percent debt stock cancellation of eligible debts to eligible countries.

But campaigners and experts say more action and commitment are needed by world leaders.

After Fisher expressed her interest, the Jubilee staff put her to work.

She organized a York chapter of Jubilee and spoke to several churches and other groups, urging people to get involved. She helped coordinate the setup of literature tables at U2 concerts around the country during the Elevation 2001 World Tour.

She ran for a position on Jubilee's board in 2003 and won. She traveled to Africa to learn more about poverty and worked on the Jubilee staff for seven months in 2006 organizing a speaking tour around the U.S. with guests from Zambia, Peru, the Philippines and Nigeria, she said.

Recently, Fisher went back to school part time to study nonprofit management, hoping she can one day serve as director of Jubilee or a similar organization.

"I'm interested in strategic planning and getting individuals more involved in organizations (civic duty, so to say) because I think those are so important to social change," she said by e-mail.

"Jubilee has given me leadership training and, literally, a real-world education, so I am grateful. I want to be able to continue to make a difference."

The legislation Jubilee is currently pushing in Congress is the eponymous Jubilee Act, which would expand U.S. debt cancellation to more poor countries and urge the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to change economic policy prerequisites delaying some countries' access to debt relief.

One argument opponents make is that providing debt relief could mean corrupt governments could use the money inappropriately, said Neil Watkins, Jubilee's national coordinator.

The bill would specifically require impoverished countries to use the funds freed by debt cancellation for poverty reduction and require countries report how they intend to use, and have used, the money, he said.

"We now have a 10-year record and have seen people using the money for health care, education and clean water," Watkins said.

Another argument is the expense. Watkins estimates that the initial cost to the United States would be $200 million to $300 million for debt relief to nine countries.

Beyond that, the bulk of debt cancellation could be funded by utilizing the existing resources of the World Bank and IMF, Watkins said. For example, the IMF expects a $400 budget gap in 2010 and wants to use money from the sale of gold -- currently at a record high -- to fund IMF staff salaries.

Jubilee USA feels differently, believing the gold sales could also be used to fund debt relief.

Fisher has written to and met with U.S. Rep. Todd Platts, R-York County, about the Jubilee Act, as well as staff of U.S. Sens. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Bob Casey Jr., D-Pa.

Casey co-sponsored the introduction of the bill in the Senate last year after Fisher's meeting with his staff, she said.

Jubilee hopes to see a vote on the House floor next month and a vote in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations soon, Watkins said.

Fisher believes the best thing she can do to help is talk about it.

"We all say we want to get rid of poverty, but what does this mean?" she said.

"What does that mean for us as individuals that we allow this to keep happening?"

The York Daily Record

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This page contains a single entry by Rita published on July 30, 2009 4:22 AM.

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