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ONE Global Activists on why debt suspension matters


As the world continues to battle coronavirus, the pandemic is wreaking havoc on the economies of the poorest countries and could push millions of people into hunger and poverty.

Governments desperately need money to fund emergency plans but are faced with the impossible choice of saving lives or making debt repayments. We can do something about it.

But what of the people that will be profoundly affected by the decisions world leaders make? We asked our Global Activists how the pandemic has affected them and how these impacts differ depending on where one lives.

Rúben Castro (Portugal)

When did we stop being humans?

“A man of my age, almost 40, begging in the street. I never thought I would reach this point in my life.” This phrase is from a man from whom the pandemic has taken more than his job and his house. A man who began to make the street his bed. A man who was deprived of essential care.

In Belgium, where I live, like in the rest of the European Union countries, inequality has increased after the confinement. In addition to the economic impact, the virus has exposed the weaknesses of social systems and reinforced inequalities. Many of those on the poverty line have fallen. That man, an EU citizen, was just one of those from whom the virus took more than his job.

In my hometown, in the Madeira Islands, 71% of unemployed people do not receive any benefit. I am sad to look at my island and to see more and more people in the streets. More and more families in difficulties because they cannot put food on the table. More and more people with their future in stand-by.

Vulnerable countries need a chance to do what is best for their people. This is why it is important to extend their suspension of debt until the end of next year. This would be your way of saying that they can dream for a better future. A way of telling them that saving lives is more important than repaying debts. A way of telling them that we will never stop being humans. Can we count on you?

Ahmed Dharamsi (Canada)

I think the World Bank, IMF, and G20 need to be aware of the burden and impact COVID is having worldwide. It is important to note not all countries and societies are sufficiently equipped to deal with the COVID response.

An option that should be considered by the World Bank and IMF in response to this is to explore the idea of debt relief. Debt relief is when a country or organization reduces or relieves a country of its debt. This allows poorer and unstable countries to rebuild or focus their capital on their own citizens in times of crisis.

Personally, I am very lucky to live in Canada, where the medical and political response has been reasonable. Despite this the effects of COVID can be seen within our local community. Many local businesses have been forced to close permanently due to the pandemic, and many people have lost their jobs as a result. Something that has really helped me and my brother has been the CESB aid we have received from the government. It allowed us to focus on ourselves and prioritize our family’s and our own safety at this time.

Silvia Alessi (UK)

I think that the ongoing pandemic is impacting on the future of young people to a great extent. This applies in particular to recent graduates, who will bear the brunt of the consequences of the pandemic on the job market. Not only will young people be more likely to face job insecurity, but also they will need to learn the new skills that recruiters are demanding in order to live up to a more competitive environment. As a future graduate coming from one of the poorest regions of the EU (Sicily) these issues are of vital concern to me.

I tirelessly say that I am lucky. Firstly, because I can rely on an advanced national health system. As soon as a vaccine will be distributed, I can be sure that I will be vaccinated within a span of months. This is the main reason why I supported the replenishment of Gavi enthusiastically.

Second, I was fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity to study in the UK and have a very supportive family. I am aware that for me being jobless would not imply experiencing hunger. I think that COVID has rendered marginalised people more vulnerable than ever.

As an advocacy organisation, I believe that the most effective strategy is keeping on pressuring local, national, and international decision-makers even when recovery will no longer be on the mainstream political agenda. Governments tend to adopt short-sighted approaches to post-COVID relief with a view to the next election. Therefore, the contribution of civil society should be pressuring and raising awareness about the pandemic’s long-term impact on the right to health, education, non-discrimination, job security, and mobility, especially with regards to the world’s poorest countries.

Natasha Sutton (Ireland)

COVID-19 began to affect my life on March 12 when then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar informed the public of the closure of all universities. For me, this meant leaving city-living early and returning to rural West Cork. Regardless of whether you look at infrastructure, internet accessibility or facilities, there is still a divide remaining between rural and urban Ireland. COVID-19 heightened this divide. Young people were thrust into the unknown whether it be losing a job, receiving an education online or limiting social events, huge adjustments had to and still have to be made.

I believe we are all alike but different. Every young person worldwide was undoubtedly impacted by COVID-19, but for those living in poverty, COVID-19 exacerbated their hardship. While we lived through a lockdown, for those affected by poverty, a lockdown was unsustainable and would see debt distress become a serious dilemma, particularly for those living hand-to-mouth each day.

The gravity of this pandemic is still unknown, but I feel that the effect it had and continues to have on everyday human life is clearly negative and a massive change for us all to navigate.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown we have no option but to depend on each other,” said Nana Akufo-Addo, president of Ghana. This quote for me encapsulates how we should build back better post COVID. We need to focus on increased multilateralism and encourage stronger international relations. The Sustainable Development Goals also need to be correctly, adequately, and resourcefully implemented in each society across the globe.

Debt relief needs to be considered in line with the SDGs so not to derail progress. We must be more considerate of others when it comes to the best possible solution to overcoming the pandemic.

Marie Jeanne Ndew Diouf (ONE Champion, Senegal)

In these times of pandemic I think I can say that economically speaking us young people are the most affected and some of us often live from day to day with very limited savings. We have been pushed into a new environment. I am in a border area between The Gambia and Senegal where the majority of the population depends 90% on the informal economy, and most of them used to live off the ferry traffic. We saw young people, fathers of families staying three months without income. Personally, I could feel the repercussions because I was stuck in the area for 4 months and with the strict minimum because we could not find anything that could meet our daily needs.

Depriving people of their freedom of movement in the name of general well-being can have counterproductive effects, but for me it made me understand that at some point it is up to us to take our destiny into our own hands.

With the help of other young people we were able to carry out activities and information campaigns through social networks despite the fact that we were limited in terms of resources. While some people saw this situation as a blackout, we used this time to raise awareness of the strength and usefulness of international exchanges as a guarantee of development.

Yes, I continue to believe that equal international collaboration should be valued more. That is essential to collaborate with communities in the most affected places to identify and support local solutions and, most importantly, we must unite and do so with compassion and humility. We must rebuild the economy and decide on a new way forward.

Laura Lock (UK)

COVID-19 has shocked our system. It has exposed the flaws and worsened brutal inequalities around the world. Rather than breaking our systems, COVID simply demonstrated that they are no longer fit for purpose. In a world where our economy and impact on the environment has globalised, politics remains stubbornly national.

We have to build back with intersectional sustainability that protects the most vulnerable communities of society against ever-worsening threats. We need to empower local leadership on a global scale, decolonising and deconstructing narratives of development to recognise the inherent value of diversity. Not as an aspiration, but as a necessity.

Elaine VanCleave (US)

In early 1999, I learned from Bread for the World, a founding partner in ONE, that my member of congress, Spencer Bachus (R-AL), had been named chair of the relevant subcommittee where any US legislation having to do with debt relief would have to start. Two weeks later, I found myself in the most unlikely of places for a soccer mom from Birmingham AL to be – meeting face to face with my member of Congress.

I told Rep. Bachus that I had learned that 35,000 children died every day from hunger and related preventable diseases and that I knew I could do very little to help. But I suggested that he could help millions of people by sponsoring this legislation. Before the meeting was over, he agreed to co-sponsor bipartisan debt relief legislation!

After that meeting I became a full-time volunteer advocate and activist. In fact, I organized one of the first grassroots ONE events in Birmingham in 2004, before black tees and white ONE bands. In 2005, I was invited to join a group of ONE members who traveled to Scotland to create media attention around the G8. We marched, we did interviews, we sang, we got petitions signed – all to call attention to the problem of extreme poverty in the developing world.

Twenty years later, countries are again facing crushing debt amid a global pandemic. Now, more than ever, we need to be advocates and let our world leaders, the IMF, and the World Bank know that it is their duty to do their part to end extreme poverty.

Emily Schennach, Austrian

In February 2020 a family member, living in Austria, asked me if I thought it was safe to visit me in Brussels. She was afraid that either Belgium or Austria would close its borders and prohibit traveling. I remember responding with a smile and saying that something drastic like that would definitely not happen and she should not worry about not being able leave her country (or any country for that matter). In retrospect this was, not only a wrong, but also naive answer.

Having a background in journalism and political science with a focus on international relations I have learned that closing borders and limiting the freedom of moving around is one of the most drastic measures any government could take. And if these measures were to be taken at all, its cost would justify the goal that was desperately needed to be achieved. The causes I studied were about (civil) war or natural disasters. Yet, in 2020 it is a global pandemic that brought our world and all of our lives to a stop and the (almost) unthinkable did happen.

Living in Brussels, it is a fact that poorer communities are affected harder by Corona than others. Losing a job because of COVID-19 is not the same for everyone, spreading the message to social distance does not reach everyone in every community the same way, being sick or quarantined is not the same for everyone. This is where the universality stops and where differences become obvious.

This imbalance can certainly teach us, yet again, that there is not one solution that fits everyone. We need a global response to this crisis, absolutely, however it needs to be tailor-made when needed. Right now it is one virus that comes at us all and it comes at full speed. But it takes a different toll on different people and communities. Right now some of us are simply hit harder than others.

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