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The Rise and Development of the Global Debt Movement: A North-South Dialogue

19 Jan 2007

  • Authors: Yovana Reyes Tagle, Katarina Sehm Patomäki
  • Press Contact: Emanuel Wragg


For decades, the debt issue has remained a front-runner on the agendas of civil society organizations and movements throughout the world. The debt problem shows the devastating consequences of systemic imbalances in the global economy. From the civil society standpoint, these consequences have resulted in human suffering and diminished opportunities for those affected by debt.

A wide range of civil society organizations have been working on the debt issue: from single-issue HIV/AIDS organizations to churches, radical groups and academics. Within these movements, perhaps the most prominent issue of contention is the approach of development aid as a form of charity versus a call for global justice.

Civil society in the South argues for immediate and complete cancellation of debts, appealing to human rights, moral justice and the historic debt of the North toward the South. The debt problem is, at times, referred to as a mechanism of re-colonization. In the North, impressive mass mobilizations have attracted the attention of creditor governments, and led to media calls for solving the problem of illegitimate debt. Even though civil society movements have denounced the debt burden on developing countries, effective measures have not yet been taken to solve the debt problem. And despite the common goal of finding a solution to the debt problem of the South, debt campaigners do not agree on how this goal should be attained.

These differing approaches loosely distinguish the North-South divide, which sharpened following the split of the Jubilee campaign in 2000. The debt work of civil society organizations constitutes a textbook case of necessity for North-South cooperation in terms of fact finding, knowledge building and political pressuring. If getting an issue onto the political agenda is an indicator of successful civil society work, the debt movements have been very successful. In addition, the work done by civil society organizations has created public awareness of the debt problem. But the actual reduction of the debt burden has been modest, standing today at about three times what it was in the 1980s.

Potential research gaps raised in this paper include practical consequences of debt cancellation, the mechanisms that maintain the debt problem, and how these can be addressed. These issues should be thought of within a framework of developing alternative structures for the world economy.

Yovana Reyes Tagle is a Research Fellow in the Department of Private Law, University of Helsinki, Finland.

Katarina Sehm Patomäki holds an MSc (economics) and is a PhD candidate at the Department of Development Studies at the University of Helsinki, Finland

Order PP CSSM 28 from UNRISD, 45 pages, 2006; US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students.