Dry facts hammer home debt message;Millennium

7th May 1999 at 01:00
Barry Hugill reports on how the missionary zeal of the Jubilee 2000 campaign to bolster poor nations impressed sixth-formers

SUMMER arrived in Stockport last Thursday, just before 11 in the morning. And it brought a moral dilemma with it. What are socially aware sixth-formers to do faced with the choice of a lunchtime in the sun or an hour inside listening to yet another lecture?

Most of the 1,000 or so students at St Aquinas sixth-form college chose the factor 15 option, but 50 trooped into the airless lecture hall to demonstrate that at least some of the youth of today really do care.

To be precise they care about world debt and in ever-increasing numbers are signing up to the Jubilee 2000 campaign for the cancellation by the turn of the century of the unpayable debt owed by the world's poorest countries to the richest.

Jubilee 2000, a broad coalition of groups, is a worldwide movement with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as patron and Muhammad Ali as international ambassador. Over the past 18 months it has won enormous support from schools and colleges in the UK.

In Croydon, south London, 250 children gathered on a local playing field and formed a spiral chain for the benefit of the local media. The chain is the symbol of the campaign. Once it was used to fetter slaves now, say the campaigners, it represents the developing world's debt - the modern equivalent of chattel slavery.

Primary school pupils in Leeds have made massive paper chains, each figure representing a life lost in Africa and Asia because of debt. Across the country pupils have planted bulbs - each bulb symbolising a life that could be saved if the debt were lifted. Last year students, dressed in chains, delivered 2,500 card chain links to the Prime Minister in Downing Street.

Less dramatically, the campaigners are visiting hundreds of schools winning converts to their thesis - "aid is a weasel word masquerading as something it is not. It is not about giving, it is about lending".

The words belong to Norman Burnell, a devout Christian who spends his days spreading the word. Thus it was that he found himself at St Thomas Aquinas.

The weather was against him but he was compensated by the zeal of the teachers who had invited him and the enthusiasm of the school chaplain who, with her jeans, Chelsea boots and mobile phone, looked more like a PR executive than a woman of the cloth.

He could have gone for the emotive approach: pictures of dying children, denouncement of the bankers and their political poodles who expect interest payments from people who have nothing. It would almost certainly have worked. He chose instead to give the facts. Dry facts. Economics is rarely fun, and the ramifications of G7 and the Structural Adjustment Programme hardly riveting. But he didn't shirk, explaining as clearly, and fairly, as he could.

At the end they filed out of the room quietly. No applause, no histrionics, no tub-thumping rhetoric. But the table on which had been placed leaflets, petitions and small lapel chains was almost bare.

The Jubilee 2000 Coalition. PO Box 100, London SW1 7RT. Website: http:www.jubilee 2000uk.org

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