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Jonathan Peterson of the Los Angeles Times With a Behind-The-Scenes Look At The Efforts Of An Unlikely Cast Of Characters To Persuade Wealthy Countries To Forgive Impoverished Countries' Debts.

Thanks to L.A. Times

Old as the Bible yet with a modern twist, the idea was simple, outlandish, ambitious in the absurd: The world's richest countries should forgive many billions of dollars of debt owed them by the world's poorest countries--with a deadline of the dawning millennium.

The unlikely assortment of true believers included a British professor who moonlights as a peacekeeper for an African tribe, an Irish rock superstar, the pope, a tarnished president in search of redemption, a Los Angeles member of the Kennedy clan, a devoted cadre of conservatives and a global flock of activists who equated modern debt with ancient slavery.

It was a matter of life and death, they proclaimed, a simple question of justice. Have-not nations were struggling with horrific social problems while rich lenders basked in plenty.

Blocking the way: many of the world's political and financial leaders, buttressed by apathy and time-honored beliefs that debts should be repaid.

Yet in November, in a moment of rare triumph, champions of the quest known as Jubilee 2000 gathered in the White House to celebrate America's latest, $435-million installment on a global effort to help wipe out as much as $90 billion in debt owed by more than 30 countries.

"It was a fluke--or a mercy of God--that it happened," said Martin Dent, 75, a retired professor who envisioned the jubilee movement 10 years ago at a pub in Oxford, England.

The world's wealthiest industrial democracies, ultimately pushed by the United States, had reversed course and embraced a coordinated, long-term strategy to reduce the debts of the poorest countries, a goal long opposed by financial leaders. As part of the plan, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank scrapped their own slow-moving debt-relief efforts and eased payment demands on 22 nations.

As a result, impoverished countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia have begun steering savings on debt payments toward health care, nutrition, schools and housing.

"I never expected this to happen," said James L. McDonald, a Presbyterian minister and vice president of Bread for the World, a Christian citizens' group. "I don't think any of us did."

Not that it happened easily. In the badly split U.S. Congress, debt relief was branded as a liberal, Democratic cause. In the end, however, partisan stereotypes were shattered. Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina became teary-eyed in a meeting with U2's lead singer, Bono. Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Budget Committee, defused concerns of GOP leaders.

The story of Jubilee 2000 is a striking tale of politics and faith. It arose
from a grass-roots backlash against the unequal rewards of the global economy. But unlike wild protests against the World Trade Organization and the IMF, the debt-relief cause became a cry for justice that world leaders found impossible to ignore in a time of untold prosperity.

It was a cry that first resounded across the Atlantic, where Dent, great-great-great-grandson of a British abolitionist, believed that the world was witnessing a new form of slavery.

A friendly, rumpled former official of Britain's Colonial Service, Dent had been exposed to Third World problems before. In 1960, he helped defuse riots in central Nigeria, later being named an honorary chief by the Tiv people.

He became increasingly concerned during the 1980s as the neediest nations struggled with rising payments, often for loans made to corrupt regimes during the Cold War and from banks that were less than cautious about how much was lent to Third World nations.

By the 1990s, Honduras was spending more on debt bills than on health and schools. In Zambia, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Uganda and dozens of other countries, the tale was the same: Like tapped-out consumers, borrower nations were paying more and more on interest as they plunged ever deeper into debt.

Dent knew that the Old Testament calls for a jubilee every 50 years, a fresh start for slaves and debtors. Linking that Leviticus teaching to the coming millennium, he figured, might goad politicians and galvanize the public. "It combined a practical, attainable objective with a radical vision," he said in an interview.

Others were thinking along parallel lines. In his November 1994 apostolic letter on the millennium, Pope John Paul II linked the biblical jubilee to the present, declaring that it was "time to give thought . . . to reducing substantially, if not canceling outright, the international debt which seriously threatens the future of many nations."

In 1996, Dent and Bill Peters, a retired British ambassador, dubbed the quest Jubilee 2000 and set up shop. In America, however, the ambitious vision was greeted with doubt. U.S. activists had focused on the problem since the 1970s but had failed to generate much support.

"They were like Don Quixotes tilting at windmills," recalled Marie Dennis, director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, a Catholic missionary organization. "It was way beyond us to imagine turning that dream into anything that was real. We kept resisting and kept resisting."

By contrast, efforts took off in Britain. On May 16, 1998, during a summit of the world's wealthiest democracies, more than 50,000 of the faithful flooded Birmingham, England. As President Clinton and his counterparts met in a nearby villa, church bells chimed, reggae music echoed songs of freedom and rams' horns wailed in the tradition of the biblical jubilee. The crowd snaked for more than six miles, many grasping symbolic chains of slavery.

Yet the political leaders did not act. What came next was a lesson in the
media's appetite for celebrity and politicians' hunger for coverage--realities that activists would soon exploit in the United States.

Briton Jamie Drummond, at age 25 a veteran global activist, dreamed of
waking up politicians to the debt-relief issue with a jolt similar to the Live Aid rock concerts that dramatized African famine in the 1980s. U2, an Irish rock band with a searching, spiritual quality, had been a big hit at the 1985 Live Aid show in London's Wembley Stadium, he recalled.

Drummond and others asked Bono for help. "I promised the band that nothing would take my concentration away from the next U2 project," Bono recalled in an interview. "But . . . Jubilee 2000 just had kind of a moral force about
it."

At a British recording industry gala in early 1999, Bono spoke out: "We have just got to stop asking starving people to give back the money our countries have lent them--plus interest," declared Bono, who was born Paul Hewson. "We have a once-in-a-millennium chance to change the world."

Then, in a moment that got wide news coverage, Bono--in his trademark sunglasses and black garb--jumped into the audience of Britain's pop music establishment and turned his award over to another debt-relief supporter: Muhammad Ali. The next day, the former boxing champion became a Pied Piper for debt relief, cruising the streets of London's gritty Brixton district in a 1930 Bentley convertible and stirring a crowd of thousands.

Among those who took note: Britain's financial establishment. The case for "radical action is compelling," declared the Financial Times. Gordon Brown, the country's finance minister, publicly endorsed the cause.

"It was the celebrity stuff which made the media interested--which meant the politicians could not ignore it any longer," Drummond recalled.


Congress Worried Money Would Be Squandered But deep fissures still divided the U.S. effort. Militants called on creditors to wipe out debt in one spectacular stroke. Mainstream religious groups, including the Catholic and Episcopal churches, linked arms with pragmatic relief groups, such as Oxfam and Bread for the World, in a bid to get at least something done.

In Congress, the issue remained in limbo. Lawmakers fretted that corrupt regimes would waste the savings. The GOP leadership was dubious.

But when a debt-relief bill was sent to a House panel on monetary policy newly headed by conservative Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), the pragmatic lobbyists were waiting. Four members of the Independent Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, Ala., rushed to Washington, knowing that their congressman could sabotage the bill or infuse it with life.

Elaine VanCleave, mother of three, told Bachus that acting on the problem was a matter of faith. While staff members shook their heads, Bachus "perked up and listened," she recalled. "He asked a lot of questions."

At home later, Bachus and his wife talked it over. When the House Banking Committee scheduled a June 1999 hearing, he was ready to take a stand.

Debt relief, he argued, would cost every American just $ 1.20 a year--a"minuscule sacrifice" to help countries battle child mortality, hunger and disease.

"It is the cost of an ice cream cone, it is the cost of a gallon of gas, it is the cost of the Sunday paper," he said. This choice would follow lawmakers forever, he said. "We will not only live with it in this life, but we will live with it in the next," he added.

Bachus, a loyal follower of the House leadership, had ventured far beyond the GOP program. Rep. John J. LaFalce (D-N.Y.) called it "one of the most moving statements I have ever heard."

Although few knew it, debt relief also was gaining a true believer inside
the Oval Office, where a besieged president longed to show repentance. Among Clinton's spiritual advisors in the wake of the scandal over his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky was Tony Campolo, a fiery Baptist minister and social activist. During their talks, Campolo told the president that easing the financial burden on poor countries was a matter of unusual moral importance.

Clinton, deeply embarrassed by his own conduct, was seeking redemption through virtuous public policies. Helping the poor and keeping the peace were at the top of the list. Debt relief fit perfectly.

"I brought this up with the president on two different occasions, and he was very strongly committed," Campolo said in an interview.

Inside the administration, however, it was the Treasury's job to assess the technical realities of various debt-relief efforts. To the frustration of
activists, Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers was moving cautiously.

For guidance, Bono turned to Eunice Kennedy Shriver, whom he knew from a recording project to help the Special Olympics, which she founded. Shriver, a sister of President Kennedy, steered Bono to her son Bobby, a music producer in Los Angeles with extensive financial contacts.

"I just kept asking the same question: Who's Elvis here?" Bono recalled. "I needed to know who is the person at the top of the ladder."

So, Bobby Shriver and Bono began searching for the Elvis of finance. At one session, Bob Geldof, the force behind Live Aid, scolded a bemused James D. Wolfensohn, Bobby Shriver's former boss and now president of the World Bank. At another, Paul A. Volcker, the tough former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, "laughed out loud" at Bono's pitch--but then helped the rocker make a contact in Japan.

But getting to the top of Treasury was a trickier matter. Summers, a brilliant, temperamental economist, was new to the job, and his aides feared that it was the wrong time for a high-profile session with a rock star. Finally, Summers agreed to meet Bono in the West Wing of the White House. Later, Clinton would say that the Treasury chief told him, "Some guy just came in to see me in jeans and a T-shirt, and he had just one name. But he sure was smart. Do you know anything about him?"

Reclaiming Moral High Ground By June 1999, when the world's industrial powers met, the White House wanted to reclaim the moral high ground from Britain and other nations.

In Cologne, Germany, the debt-relief quest crossed a key threshold. The world's seven major industrial democracies pledged to slash as much as 70% of the debt for 33 needy countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia. At the same time, the World Bank and the IMF were finalizing plans to ease the burden on many of their own neediest borrowers. The combined efforts could total $ 90 billion in relief over several years.

The lenders also affirmed a key condition: Applicant countries would get relief only as they moved forward with economic and other reforms to fight poverty. Then, as loans were forgiven, the countries would be required to steer the savings into anti-poverty efforts.

"It was a breakthrough when governments said, 'We have to do more,' " said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Harvard Institute for International Development. But, he added, all the red tape and uncertainty surrounding the Cologne deal made it something less than a "bold political agreement."

Three months later, the pope added his moral authority to Jubilee 2000, hosting anti-debt activists at his summer retreat, a 17th century palace southeast of Rome. The delegation included Geldof, Bono and Quincy Jones, who produced the Live Aid anthem "We Are the World." At the end of the meeting, at which the pope sat on a throne-like chair, he gave Bono white rosary beads. Believing that the pope had been staring at his sunglasses,
Bono offered them to him.

"To everyone's shock--and the courtiers' dismay--he put them on," Bono recalled. "He put them on and gave a wicked grin--straight off the cover of Rolling Stone--which I'm pretty sure is the most surreal moment of my waking life."

Soon after, Clinton announced that the United States would forgive 100% of almost $ 6 billion owed it directly by the 41 poorest countries, calling the move "a gift to the new millennium."

But Congress, which must approve funding for such initiatives, was still wary. A chance meeting at a Los Angeles dinner party would prove crucial in the drive to win over reluctant lawmakers.

It occurred at the home of record producer Jimmy Iovine, whose work included U2's "Rattle and Hum" album and the first Christmas album for the Special Olympics. Over dinner, Bono chatted with Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of Hollywood's few highly visible Republicans and Eunice Shriver's son-in-law.

"One of the things I said to him was, 'Don't make the mistake of just getting Democratic leaders behind you,' " Schwarzenegger recalled in an interview. "Democrats are not the only ones interested in doing these kinds of things."

Schwarzenegger offered to contact his friend Kasich, the powerful House budget chairman--who also happened to be a rock 'n' roll aficionado. Kasich had become increasingly bothered that America's wealth and power were triggering resentment from the world's have-nots. Debt relief "was kind of an answer to what I'd been groping for," he explained in an interview.

In early November, Kasich and Bono conducted a whirlwind tour through Republican offices on Capitol Hill. "Very quickly, you get beyond rock star," Kasich recalled of Bono's meetings with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Majority Leader Dick Armey. "Bono knew what he was talking about."

By all accounts, the celebrity-induced publicity helped: In November 1999, Congress agreed on a first, modest installment of $ 110 million toward America's Cologne pledges. More important, skeptical senators authorized the IMF to begin revaluing some of its huge gold supply to finance its own debt-relief efforts.

Then, in July, the will of Congress revealed itself with clarity and startled leaders lost control.

House members were considering $ 69 million in debt relief, hundreds of millions less than proponents sought. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) urged her colleagues to hike the amount to $ 225 million. Despite an effort by GOP leaders to kill Waters' amendment, it passed, 216 to 211, with the aid of 26 Republicans.

Suddenly, the peaceful jubilee vision had turned into a political storm: "The Republican leadership was taken aback," recalled Gerald F. Flood, an advocate with the U.S. Catholic Conference and a former World Bank employee. "Nobody expected it to pass."

In September, Bono returned to Capitol Hill. He seemed to exert a strange influence over Helms, a traditional foe of foreign aid and at age 79 a major conservative icon.

Helms leaned forward in keen interest during their half-hour meeting, as Bono recounted the biblical roots of jubilee, winning the senator's support. Soon after, Helms declared that he would be willing to quit the Senate to aid starving children "if the Lord would show me how."

A couple of weeks later, another prominent conservative joined the cause. Televangelist Pat Robertson made his only pilgrimage to the Clinton White House and, immediately afterward, appealed for debt forgiveness on his television show.

Then, in the second debate of the fall's presidential campaign, on Oct. 11, Texas Gov. George W. Bush also made a point of mentioning debt relief.

Resistance crumbled. In November, Congress agreed to provide another $435 million toward writing off debts held by the United States and other lenders, such as the Inter-American Development Bank.

The $545 million provided so far by Congress could provide as much as $ 5.45 billion in debt relief, some experts estimate. The current value of the loans is much lower than their total repayment amounts because of inflation and interest.

"I believe this is one of the most important moments of the past eight years for the United States of America . . . ," Clinton declared as he signed the legislation. "This will put our country squarely on the side of humanity for a very, very long time to come."

Still, activists can point to much unfinished business, and the movement that was supposed to expire has changed its mind.

Such destitute countries as Haiti and Bangladesh have been granted no help because their debt loads are not considered severe enough. Others, such as Zambia, have received some debt relief yet remain weighed down with heavy payments. Jubilee 2000 leaders want the World Bank and the IMF to dig much deeper into their pockets and are planning demonstrations for this July's summit of the world's wealthiest nations in Italy.

Debt-relief campaigns remain active in 69 countries. And Jubilee 2000 leaders have asked Guinness World Records to ratify their petition, with 22.1 million signatures, as the biggest of all time.


© 2001 L.A. Times. All rights reserved.

Old as the Bible yet with a modern twist, the idea was simple, outlandish, ambitious in the absurd: The world's richest countries should forgive many billions of dollars of debt owed them by the world's poorest countries--with a deadline of the dawning millennium.

The unlikely assortment of true believers included a British professor who moonlights as a peacekeeper for an African tribe, an Irish rock superstar, the pope, a tarnished president in search of redemption, a Los Angeles member of the Kennedy clan, a devoted cadre of conservatives and a global flock of activists who equated modern debt with ancient slavery.

It was a matter of life and death, they proclaimed, a simple question of justice. Have-not nations were struggling with horrific social problems while rich lenders basked in plenty.

Blocking the way: many of the world's political and financial leaders, buttressed by apathy and time-honored beliefs that debts should be repaid.

Yet in November, in a moment of rare triumph, champions of the quest known as Jubilee 2000 gathered in the White House to celebrate America's latest, $435-million installment on a global effort to help wipe out as much as $90 billion in debt owed by more than 30 countries.

"It was a fluke--or a mercy of God--that it happened," said Martin Dent, 75, a retired professor who envisioned the jubilee movement 10 years ago at a pub in Oxford, England.

The world's wealthiest industrial democracies, ultimately pushed by the United States, had reversed course and embraced a coordinated, long-term strategy to reduce the debts of the poorest countries, a goal long opposed by financial leaders. As part of the plan, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank scrapped their own slow-moving debt-relief efforts and eased payment demands on 22 nations.

As a result, impoverished countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia have begun steering savings on debt payments toward health care, nutrition, schools and housing.

"I never expected this to happen," said James L. McDonald, a Presbyterian minister and vice president of Bread for the World, a Christian citizens' group. "I don't think any of us did."

Not that it happened easily. In the badly split U.S. Congress, debt relief was branded as a liberal, Democratic cause. In the end, however, partisan stereotypes were shattered. Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina became teary-eyed in a meeting with U2's lead singer, Bono. Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Budget Committee, defused concerns of GOP leaders.

The story of Jubilee 2000 is a striking tale of politics and faith. It arose
from a grass-roots backlash against the unequal rewards of the global economy. But unlike wild protests against the World Trade Organization and the IMF, the debt-relief cause became a cry for justice that world leaders found impossible to ignore in a time of untold prosperity.

It was a cry that first resounded across the Atlantic, where Dent, great-great-great-grandson of a British abolitionist, believed that the world was witnessing a new form of slavery.

A friendly, rumpled former official of Britain's Colonial Service, Dent had been exposed to Third World problems before. In 1960, he helped defuse riots in central Nigeria, later being named an honorary chief by the Tiv people.

He became increasingly concerned during the 1980s as the neediest nations struggled with rising payments, often for loans made to corrupt regimes during the Cold War and from banks that were less than cautious about how much was lent to Third World nations.

By the 1990s, Honduras was spending more on debt bills than on health and schools. In Zambia, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Uganda and dozens of other countries, the tale was the same: Like tapped-out consumers, borrower nations were paying more and more on interest as they plunged ever deeper into debt.

Dent knew that the Old Testament calls for a jubilee every 50 years, a fresh start for slaves and debtors. Linking that Leviticus teaching to the coming millennium, he figured, might goad politicians and galvanize the public. "It combined a practical, attainable objective with a radical vision," he said in an interview.

Others were thinking along parallel lines. In his November 1994 apostolic letter on the millennium, Pope John Paul II linked the biblical jubilee to the present, declaring that it was "time to give thought . . . to reducing substantially, if not canceling outright, the international debt which seriously threatens the future of many nations."

In 1996, Dent and Bill Peters, a retired British ambassador, dubbed the quest Jubilee 2000 and set up shop. In America, however, the ambitious vision was greeted with doubt. U.S. activists had focused on the problem since the 1970s but had failed to generate much support.

"They were like Don Quixotes tilting at windmills," recalled Marie Dennis, director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, a Catholic missionary organization. "It was way beyond us to imagine turning that dream into anything that was real. We kept resisting and kept resisting."

By contrast, efforts took off in Britain. On May 16, 1998, during a summit of the world's wealthiest democracies, more than 50,000 of the faithful flooded Birmingham, England. As President Clinton and his counterparts met in a nearby villa, church bells chimed, reggae music echoed songs of freedom and rams' horns wailed in the tradition of the biblical jubilee. The crowd snaked for more than six miles, many grasping symbolic chains of slavery.

Yet the political leaders did not act. What came next was a lesson in the
media's appetite for celebrity and politicians' hunger for coverage--realities that activists would soon exploit in the United States.

Briton Jamie Drummond, at age 25 a veteran global activist, dreamed of
waking up politicians to the debt-relief issue with a jolt similar to the Live Aid rock concerts that dramatized African famine in the 1980s. U2, an Irish rock band with a searching, spiritual quality, had been a big hit at the 1985 Live Aid show in London's Wembley Stadium, he recalled.

Drummond and others asked Bono for help. "I promised the band that nothing would take my concentration away from the next U2 project," Bono recalled in an interview. "But . . . Jubilee 2000 just had kind of a moral force about
it."

At a British recording industry gala in early 1999, Bono spoke out: "We have just got to stop asking starving people to give back the money our countries have lent them--plus interest," declared Bono, who was born Paul Hewson. "We have a once-in-a-millennium chance to change the world."

Then, in a moment that got wide news coverage, Bono--in his trademark sunglasses and black garb--jumped into the audience of Britain's pop music establishment and turned his award over to another debt-relief supporter: Muhammad Ali. The next day, the former boxing champion became a Pied Piper for debt relief, cruising the streets of London's gritty Brixton district in a 1930 Bentley convertible and stirring a crowd of thousands.

Among those who took note: Britain's financial establishment. The case for "radical action is compelling," declared the Financial Times. Gordon Brown, the country's finance minister, publicly endorsed the cause.

"It was the celebrity stuff which made the media interested--which meant the politicians could not ignore it any longer," Drummond recalled.


Congress Worried Money Would Be Squandered But deep fissures still divided the U.S. effort. Militants called on creditors to wipe out debt in one spectacular stroke. Mainstream religious groups, including the Catholic and Episcopal churches, linked arms with pragmatic relief groups, such as Oxfam and Bread for the World, in a bid to get at least something done.

In Congress, the issue remained in limbo. Lawmakers fretted that corrupt regimes would waste the savings. The GOP leadership was dubious.

But when a debt-relief bill was sent to a House panel on monetary policy newly headed by conservative Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), the pragmatic lobbyists were waiting. Four members of the Independent Presbyterian Church of Birmingham, Ala., rushed to Washington, knowing that their congressman could sabotage the bill or infuse it with life.

Elaine VanCleave, mother of three, told Bachus that acting on the problem was a matter of faith. While staff members shook their heads, Bachus "perked up and listened," she recalled. "He asked a lot of questions."

At home later, Bachus and his wife talked it over. When the House Banking Committee scheduled a June 1999 hearing, he was ready to take a stand.

Debt relief, he argued, would cost every American just $ 1.20 a year--a"minuscule sacrifice" to help countries battle child mortality, hunger and disease.

"It is the cost of an ice cream cone, it is the cost of a gallon of gas, it is the cost of the Sunday paper," he said. This choice would follow lawmakers forever, he said. "We will not only live with it in this life, but we will live with it in the next," he added.

Bachus, a loyal follower of the House leadership, had ventured far beyond the GOP program. Rep. John J. LaFalce (D-N.Y.) called it "one of the most moving statements I have ever heard."

Although few knew it, debt relief also was gaining a true believer inside
the Oval Office, where a besieged president longed to show repentance. Among Clinton's spiritual advisors in the wake of the scandal over his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky was Tony Campolo, a fiery Baptist minister and social activist. During their talks, Campolo told the president that easing the financial burden on poor countries was a matter of unusual moral importance.

Clinton, deeply embarrassed by his own conduct, was seeking redemption through virtuous public policies. Helping the poor and keeping the peace were at the top of the list. Debt relief fit perfectly.

"I brought this up with the president on two different occasions, and he was very strongly committed," Campolo said in an interview.

Inside the administration, however, it was the Treasury's job to assess the technical realities of various debt-relief efforts. To the frustration of
activists, Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers was moving cautiously.

For guidance, Bono turned to Eunice Kennedy Shriver, whom he knew from a recording project to help the Special Olympics, which she founded. Shriver, a sister of President Kennedy, steered Bono to her son Bobby, a music producer in Los Angeles with extensive financial contacts.

"I just kept asking the same question: Who's Elvis here?" Bono recalled. "I needed to know who is the person at the top of the ladder."

So, Bobby Shriver and Bono began searching for the Elvis of finance. At one session, Bob Geldof, the force behind Live Aid, scolded a bemused James D. Wolfensohn, Bobby Shriver's former boss and now president of the World Bank. At another, Paul A. Volcker, the tough former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, "laughed out loud" at Bono's pitch--but then helped the rocker make a contact in Japan.

But getting to the top of Treasury was a trickier matter. Summers, a brilliant, temperamental economist, was new to the job, and his aides feared that it was the wrong time for a high-profile session with a rock star. Finally, Summers agreed to meet Bono in the West Wing of the White House. Later, Clinton would say that the Treasury chief told him, "Some guy just came in to see me in jeans and a T-shirt, and he had just one name. But he sure was smart. Do you know anything about him?"

Reclaiming Moral High Ground By June 1999, when the world's industrial powers met, the White House wanted to reclaim the moral high ground from Britain and other nations.

In Cologne, Germany, the debt-relief quest crossed a key threshold. The world's seven major industrial democracies pledged to slash as much as 70% of the debt for 33 needy countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia. At the same time, the World Bank and the IMF were finalizing plans to ease the burden on many of their own neediest borrowers. The combined efforts could total $ 90 billion in relief over several years.

The lenders also affirmed a key condition: Applicant countries would get relief only as they moved forward with economic and other reforms to fight poverty. Then, as loans were forgiven, the countries would be required to steer the savings into anti-poverty efforts.

"It was a breakthrough when governments said, 'We have to do more,' " said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Harvard Institute for International Development. But, he added, all the red tape and uncertainty surrounding the Cologne deal made it something less than a "bold political agreement."

Three months later, the pope added his moral authority to Jubilee 2000, hosting anti-debt activists at his summer retreat, a 17th century palace southeast of Rome. The delegation included Geldof, Bono and Quincy Jones, who produced the Live Aid anthem "We Are the World." At the end of the meeting, at which the pope sat on a throne-like chair, he gave Bono white rosary beads. Believing that the pope had been staring at his sunglasses,
Bono offered them to him.

"To everyone's shock--and the courtiers' dismay--he put them on," Bono recalled. "He put them on and gave a wicked grin--straight off the cover of Rolling Stone--which I'm pretty sure is the most surreal moment of my waking life."

Soon after, Clinton announced that the United States would forgive 100% of almost $ 6 billion owed it directly by the 41 poorest countries, calling the move "a gift to the new millennium."

But Congress, which must approve funding for such initiatives, was still wary. A chance meeting at a Los Angeles dinner party would prove crucial in the drive to win over reluctant lawmakers.

It occurred at the home of record producer Jimmy Iovine, whose work included U2's "Rattle and Hum" album and the first Christmas album for the Special Olympics. Over dinner, Bono chatted with Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of Hollywood's few highly visible Republicans and Eunice Shriver's son-in-law.

"One of the things I said to him was, 'Don't make the mistake of just getting Democratic leaders behind you,' " Schwarzenegger recalled in an interview. "Democrats are not the only ones interested in doing these kinds of things."

Schwarzenegger offered to contact his friend Kasich, the powerful House budget chairman--who also happened to be a rock 'n' roll aficionado. Kasich had become increasingly bothered that America's wealth and power were triggering resentment from the world's have-nots. Debt relief "was kind of an answer to what I'd been groping for," he explained in an interview.

In early November, Kasich and Bono conducted a whirlwind tour through Republican offices on Capitol Hill. "Very quickly, you get beyond rock star," Kasich recalled of Bono's meetings with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and House Majority Leader Dick Armey. "Bono knew what he was talking about."

By all accounts, the celebrity-induced publicity helped: In November 1999, Congress agreed on a first, modest installment of $ 110 million toward America's Cologne pledges. More important, skeptical senators authorized the IMF to begin revaluing some of its huge gold supply to finance its own debt-relief efforts.

Then, in July, the will of Congress revealed itself with clarity and startled leaders lost control.

House members were considering $ 69 million in debt relief, hundreds of millions less than proponents sought. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) urged her colleagues to hike the amount to $ 225 million. Despite an effort by GOP leaders to kill Waters' amendment, it passed, 216 to 211, with the aid of 26 Republicans.

Suddenly, the peaceful jubilee vision had turned into a political storm: "The Republican leadership was taken aback," recalled Gerald F. Flood, an advocate with the U.S. Catholic Conference and a former World Bank employee. "Nobody expected it to pass."

In September, Bono returned to Capitol Hill. He seemed to exert a strange influence over Helms, a traditional foe of foreign aid and at age 79 a major conservative icon.

Helms leaned forward in keen interest during their half-hour meeting, as Bono recounted the biblical roots of jubilee, winning the senator's support. Soon after, Helms declared that he would be willing to quit the Senate to aid starving children "if the Lord would show me how."

A couple of weeks later, another prominent conservative joined the cause. Televangelist Pat Robertson made his only pilgrimage to the Clinton White House and, immediately afterward, appealed for debt forgiveness on his television show.

Then, in the second debate of the fall's presidential campaign, on Oct. 11, Texas Gov. George W. Bush also made a point of mentioning debt relief.

Resistance crumbled. In November, Congress agreed to provide another $435 million toward writing off debts held by the United States and other lenders, such as the Inter-American Development Bank.

The $545 million provided so far by Congress could provide as much as $ 5.45 billion in debt relief, some experts estimate. The current value of the loans is much lower than their total repayment amounts because of inflation and interest.

"I believe this is one of the most important moments of the past eight years for the United States of America . . . ," Clinton declared as he signed the legislation. "This will put our country squarely on the side of humanity for a very, very long time to come."

Still, activists can point to much unfinished business, and the movement that was supposed to expire has changed its mind.

Such destitute countries as Haiti and Bangladesh have been granted no help because their debt loads are not considered severe enough. Others, such as Zambia, have received some debt relief yet remain weighed down with heavy payments. Jubilee 2000 leaders want the World Bank and the IMF to dig much deeper into their pockets and are planning demonstrations for this July's summit of the world's wealthiest nations in Italy.

Debt-relief campaigns remain active in 69 countries. And Jubilee 2000 leaders have asked Guinness World Records to ratify their petition, with 22.1 million signatures, as the biggest of all time.


© 2001 L.A. Times All rights reserved.

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