Earlier this month, Nelson Mandela, former South African president, likened the fight against poverty in the Third World to the struggle against slavery and apartheid. Mandela is the symbol of the long battle in South Africa against the policy of racial discrimination embraced by the former white government.
Thus, when he speaks, the world listens.
"Do not delay while poor people continue to suffer," Mandela told finance ministers from the Group of 7, the world's richest nations, in urging a cancellation of billions of dollars of debt owed to major institutions like the World Bank. African countries are the leading debtors.
Mandela's words struck a responsive chord, with the G-7 formally agreeing to pursue a 100 percent write-off of the $70 billion owed, according to The New York Times. The world's richest nations, except for the United States, also agreed to raise an extra $50 billion a year in aid to eliminate poverty in Africa, in particular.
The U.S. has its own plan for helping poor countries, but the Bush administration is also acutely aware of the negative views expressed by many Americans with regard to foreign aid. There is widespread belief that much of the poverty is the result of government corruption at the highest levels.
In country after country in the Third World, corrupt leaders and members of their inner circles have pocketed foreign aid meant to raise the standards of living of the citizenry by providing food, clean water and sanitary conditions. But each year, the lives of the poor get more desperate and the leaders get richer.
That is why talk of canceling billions of dollars in debt did not sway the Bush administration.
Before giving the Third World nations a pass, the question that must be answered is this: Where did the money go?
There should be a full explanation for why, after all these years of direct financial help from the richest nations, things have not improved.
In return for debt cancellation, leaders of these countries should be required to open their books and to permit a review of personal accounts, especially those in Switzerland.
This isn't about kicking poor countries while they're down. It's about protecting the populace.
Just last week, The Washington Post reported on graft scandals in Kenya, the East African nation that was touted as an economic crown jewel when it gained independence from Britain in December 1963. According to the Post, international donors estimate that up to $1 billion has disappeared since 2002, when President Mwai Kibaki was elected on a platform of ending the corruption and patronage that had become widespread under his predecessor, Daniel arap Moi. Moi served for 24 years and during his tenure Kenya went from having a vibrant economy to economic disaster.
Kibaki, as the opposition leader, was highly critical of the government. But it seems that it didn't take him long to follow in his predecessor's footsteps.
The $1 billion that has disappeared represents a fifth of the nation's budget for 2004, according to the Post.
"The result can be seen in everyday life," the newspaper reported. "The roads are crumbling, and if they are repaired, jobless men begging for change do the work, filling potholes with dirt. Squalid hospitals are drastically under funded, with cancer patients forced to wait months for chemotherapy.
"Bribes are required to get services such as running water in homes, and large-scale corruption sometimes causes school and road projects to be abandoned."
This putrid state of affairs can be found in numerous countries in Africa, which is why canceling the debt without a full accounting of how the money was spent would be a major mistake.
The people of the Third World are the victims of greedy, corrupt governments. The slavery Nelson Mandela talks about is not caused by rich countries, but rather by heartless Third World leaders. They must be punished.