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17 April 2000

Geneva 2000: No breakthrough on cancellation of debt
and adoption of a currency transfer tax

Cf. WCC Update of 10 April 2000
Cf. WCC Release of 5 April 2000

Geneva 2000, the gathering 26-30 June to review developments since the 1995 World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen, does not appear likely to achieve basic changes proposed by the churches to aid the poor and the marginalized of the world.

But members of an ecumenical team present in New York for the 3-14 April meeting of the preparatory committee (prepcom) at United Nations (UN) headquarters said their work was worthwhile in achieving incremental changes, and getting attention for ideas not previously given serious consideration.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) and Lutheran World Federation (LWF), who enlisted some two dozen representatives of their members churches and partner organizations for the team, will also send a team to Geneva to continue their lobbying effort for "clarity of vision" and "change of heart." A formal statement setting forth detailed views of the churches on commitments made at Copenhagen, and the belief that more far-reaching concrete action is required to get the commitments carried out, is in process of preparation.

Martha Pushparani, a Methodist from India, estimated at the conclusion of the prepcom that the women's groups of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) got 40 per cent of the language they wanted in the document being negotiated for action by governmental delegates in Geneva. And she expressed hope that might eventually rise to 60 per cent.

Joy Kennedy, an Anglican representing the Canadian Council of Churches, said she found delegates open to using ideas and language of the ecumenical team and other NGOs in many places.

She and Pushparani also reported finding an environment where delegates were often open to talking with them and hearing their ideas, and where representatives of other NGOs would adopt language of the ecumenical team and endorse its proposals.

But Kennedy said she did not see any breakthrough on the two items the team considered especially important if poor countries were going to move forward on social development: cancellation of debt and adoption of a currency transfer tax.

The Canadian House of Commons has endorsed the currency transfer tax, commonly called the Tobin tax for the American economist who proposed it in 1978, and is calling for a study of how it might limit the destabilizing effects of currency speculation and produce funds for development.

United States, Japan and the European Union have opposed the proposal. "They don't even want to discuss whether there will be a study," said Dennis Frado, director of the LWF office at the UN.

Proposals of the ecumenical team and others for "deeper, faster and broader debt relief and cancellation processes" also met resistance from the same countries.

The church representatives have argued that the poorest countries should have their debts cancelled outright, and cancelled without having conditions placed on them such as the "structural adjustments" that have commonly been required by the International Monetary Fund.

Rogate R. Mshana, a member of the ecumenical team who serves as executive secretary for economic justice at the WCC, said delegates to the prepcom would often call for it to delete some of the most important language of the draft document, and replace it with wording that was soft and vague.

Mshana, a native of Tanzania, said he did not find any representative of his country involved in the process. While the United States and other wealthier countries with large UN mission staffs can place a strong representation in every working group, many of the poorer countries cannot afford to keep enough people in New York to cover meetings vital to their future.

To some extent, they surmount this obstacle by combining efforts through an agency formed by a Group of 77 developing countries in 1964, which now has 133 members but keeps the original designation of G77.

Pushparani said, however, that she found that G77 included governments of so many different regions with different interests that they often could not agree on clear, strong positions.

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.