No one should be forced into debt just to put food on the table or to keep the lights on. Yet almost half of all adults in the UK are in debt or fear falling into debt in the face of soaring living costs. As energy, food and housing costs surge, credit card borrowing is at record levels – an indication that households struggling to pay the bills are turning to expensive loans or credit cards to cope.
Globally, 54 countries are in debt crisis which means that resources are being diverted away from the needs of communities into the hands of rich lenders. The legacy of colonialism and damaging policies of wealthy governments have prevented the economies of lower income countries from becoming diversified and resilient while forcing them to rely on loans to deliver public services like education and healthcare. The countries facing harmful levels of debt are also on the frontline of the climate emergency and are being forced into even more debt to fight a crisis that was created by rich, polluting countries.
As the world is engulfed in multiple, intersecting crises, the fight for debt justice has never been more urgent. And so is the need to build powerful, diverse movements both here in the UK and in the global south to meet this challenge. And that’s why, we took the decision to change our name to Debt Justice – to help us better communicate who we are and what we do so we can mobilise more people to campaign in solidarity with and taking leadership from affected communities.
Our previous name, Jubilee Debt Campaign came from our origins in the Jubilee 2000 campaign which was a grassroots movement that took the issue of debt to the forefront of mainstream politics in the years leading up to the millennium and just after. As part of the global Jubilee campaign, we won $130 billion of debt cancellation for lower income countries which led to significant improvements to public services such as healthcare and education. Though this was an important victory, the structural causes that keep debt crises happening again and again, remained in place and so we continue to campaign for systemic change.
Following on from this significant debt cancellation, we also won a new UK law to protect 40 lower income countries from being sued by vulture funds. This law prevented any lender from suing a borrowing country for more than what has been agreed through the global debt cancellation programme of the 1990s and early 2000s.
More recently, we called for lower income country debt payments to be cancelled at the start of the pandemic. The IMF cancelled $1 billion of debt payments for 31 countries, and governments suspended $13 billion of debt payments for 46 countries. Though, these suspended payments are still due to be paid and as banks and hedge funds did not take part in the suspensions, less than a quarter of debt payments were suspended across the 46 countries.
Debt has long been used as a tool of oppression, exploitation and control and is set to exacerbate poverty and inequality in lower income countries as well as here in the UK. And so, in the last five years, we expanded our work to fight for debt justice at home too.
The widespread use of debt to cover basic costs exposes how our economy is not fit for purpose. We won a cap on the cost of credit won for rent-to-own products. These are loans for items like washing machines or freezers, that are paid off over a few years. We campaigned for and won a cap on the amount of interest that could be charged, saving people £22.7 million a year.
We also set up a new national network of people in debt, Together Against Debt, using the community organising approach to build the collective power of people with experience of debt. Members of the East London group won a £7,000 debt write off for one of their members while the South London group won commitments for over £1,000,000 of repairs which will help members to reduce energy debt.
During the pandemic we campaigned for a debt write off and emergency grants for people who had built up rent and council tax arrears. The government announced new funding packages for local authorities, the ‘Vulnerable Renters’ Fund and the ‘Household Support Fund’ making support available to households struggling with rent arrears, utility bills and Council Tax. It was a significant step forward as the government have finally accepted that it has a role to play in tackling the build-up of household debt in our communities, even though the funds by themselves are little more than sticking plasters.
Whether its in the UK or in lower income countries, harmful debt has been hard wired into our economic system as the acceptable solution to economic injustice. The rules of our economy are based on the interests of wealthy governments and corporations, they profiteer from a system they created where countries and households are forced into debt just to meet basic needs. Billionaires, bankers and corporations have made people’s needs into a source of profit, lending at high interest to make money out of those with little or nothing. It’s a system that serves them well but harms the rest of us.
We exist to change this system by building the power of those affected by harmful debt, centring their demands in public solidarity campaigns so that debt is no longer used by the wealthy and powerful to extract and exploit people and countries.
We are fighting for a world where:
- People and lower income countries don’t have to go into debt to cover basic needs
- Debt levels are reduced to frees up resources to live a dignified, fulfilled life
- Indebted individuals and countries build collective power to resist exploitation from lenders
- Rules are changed to strips the ability of lenders to exploit
Though the forces we fight against are well resourced, we know that we can win through building our collective power and working with the wider economic justice movement. As prominent US debt campaigner Astra Taylor says: ‘it’s time to believe in power in numbers: You are not a loan”.
We believe no-one should be exploited, oppressed or driven into poverty by debt and we hope that you will join us to achieve this vision.
We have won before and we will do it again.