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Home button Scrap Haiti's Debt - An Interview with ONE

January 27, 2010
In The News

by Te-Ping Chen

In the past two weeks, activists have rallied to keep Haiti's creditors from hounding the quake-shattered nation, which has already lost 150,000 people to the disaster.

The ONE campaign, in particular, is at the forefront of the call to drop Haiti's $1 billion debt. So far, their petition in support of debt relief has garnered 168,000 signatures, and last night, a conference call for activists attracted over 6,000 participants. talked with Aaron Banks from ONE this morning about the campaign, and their expectations for success:

The response to your action on Haiti has been massive. What's surprised you, and who's gotten involved?

The campaign has really taken off -- it's unbelievable. Signatures are nearing 168,000 now, and are still growing. It's incredible how many people signing are new [ONE] members, too: something like 65,000 people. And the campaign just started a week ago from Friday.

Politicians have been hugely supportive of the campaign. Last night, Senator Frist was on the call -- he's a longtime ONE supporter, and was in Haiti operating in a field hospital for a couple of days straight. He signed on the campaign early. We've also gotten notable support from Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who's a long-time debt relief champion. The engagement has been really strong.

ONE doesn't usually get involved in humanitarian relief efforts. What was behind the decision to take up this campaign?

Usually, we're focused on more structural causes, on what we can be doing in the long term. But Haiti is so tied up in the work we do -- in terms of its status as a recipient of aid, its need for debt relief and as a country that was just starting to turn a corner [before the quake]. The situation cried out for help, and debt relief seemed like one angle where our members could really make s difference.

Also, you have a group like Partners in Health in the country. Dr. Farmer [its founder] really proved you could take anti-retrovirals into different parts of the world and treat people successfully. Like in Haiti, his work really became a model for PEPFAR [President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] legislation, which ONE lobbied and helped support reauthorization for. Haiti's also a PEPFAR recipient country, and they'd seen their prevalence rates drop really noticeably in recent years. So, all this interflowed, and we really wanted to help find ways to make sure this disaster doesn't throw Haiti's progress off the rail.

In the past week, both the IMF and World Bank have made statements supporting debt relief for Haiti. Do you see those statements as a kind of victory?

We read them with optimism, but we don't see them as a victory. Both institutions are working to cancel debt and want to help -- this is true, but their fate is not entirely within their own hands. They're funded by countries and governments and need resources to do it. So there's more work to be done at the government level. That's why the target of our action is Timothy Geithner, [Secretary] of the U.S. Treasury. We need governments to use their influence and votes at these institutions to follow up on these promising signs, and the strong institutional desire to do the right thing.

Apart from the IMF and World Bank, what do you expect from Haiti's other creditors?

The larger stakeholder for Haiti is actually an organization people are less familiar with: the Inter-American Development Bank. They hold over $400 million of Haiti's debt, quite a bit of money. So we also have a focus on them, because it's also important to make progress on that chunk of debt. There haven't been public statements yet from them, but the U.S. has a pretty large controlling stake in their their operations, along with some other Latin American countries.  So we still think there's progress to be made. Taiwan has also made some promising statements on wanting to figure out ways to clear Haiti's debt....But countries can say one thing and still do another, so we'll have to see.