Real second chance for Mozambique

March 27, 2000|By Kenneth F. Hackett

PRESIDENT CLINTON joined a panel of U.S. government officials and African dignitaries at the National Summit on Africa in Washington last month to discuss the United States' policy on Africa. Articulating his desire to further our partnership with the continent, Mr. Clinton stressed that Africa does matter to the United States.

At the same time U.S. officials were pledging their support for revitalizing the African continent, thousands of people in Mozambique were fleeing their homes as torrential rains deluged the landscape, destroying homes, crops, roads and futures.

The flooding in Mozambique and neighboring Zimbabwe and South Africa has been labeled the region's worst humanitarian crisis in living memory. More than 500,000 people are homeless. And as the waters subside, the people of Mozambique are faced with rebuilding their country from the ground up -- a challenge that's all too familiar after recovering from the civil war that ended in 1992.

Indeed, Mozambique's rebound from the war has been hailed by many as a model road to recovery. Although the country is still considered one of the poorest in the world, its economy has grown an average of 10 percent each year since 1996. And the democratic elections held last year -- their second since the end of the civil war -- exemplify the country's ability to rebound from war and work toward a future of peace and prosperity.

Yet Mozambique remains under a debt burden of $6 billion. Meanwhile, the country estimates it will need more than $250 million to rebuild its flood-stricken infrastructure and help its people rebuild their lives. The suburban villagers and farmers who before the floods were at last seeing hope are now pushed back into abject poverty.

What can the international community do? Catholic Relief Services and other humanitarian organizations are providing immediate aid to the survivors. And we will all work with local partners in the coming months to restore livelihoods and strengthen the capacity of rural communities to recover from the floods. But when the media has moved on and the crisis is forgotten by much of the Western world, the long chore of rebuilding and recovering will have only begun.

Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has pledged to write off the debts owed by Mozambique to the United States. Other creditor governments have agreed to suspend Mozambique's payments for the immediate future and the World Bank agreed to speed up relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Country initiative (HIPC).

These moves are welcome, but they don't go far enough. Within a year, Mozambique will still have to resume payments of approximately $45 million each year. Now it faces massive cleanup and reconstruction costs. Saddled with weekly debt payments totaling as much as $860,000, its ability to recover from the floods that wiped out the country's infrastructure will be severely hampered.

President Clinton emphasized that the reality of our time is globalization. "We no longer have the choice not to know," he said. "We only have the choice whether to act or not to act." If Africa truly does matter to the U.S. government, now is the time to act. Congress should immediately approve the $210 million for the United States' share of debt relief for the poorest countries in the world. And to further affirm our country's solidarity with the people of Mozambique, the United States should urge other creditor governments and lending institutions to follow its example. Mozambique has demonstrated that it is a country of determination and resilience. It is now up to the United States to demonstrate it is a country of compassion and goodwill.

Kenneth F. Hackett is executive director of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, the overseas relief and development agency of the U.S. Catholic Church.

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