Rowan Williams has criticised a “great deal” of lending by banks and other institutions for being unethical, both in the UK and across the world. Dr Williams was speaking at the Jubilee Debt Campaign conference, ‘Life Before Debt’, held in Central London on Saturday 29 March.
The conference, attended by over 300 people, explored the risks of future debt crises posed by burgeoning banking, personal and sovereign debt around the world; the tools available to citizens to identify and challenge illegitimate debt and make the case for non-payment; and the wider changes needed to the global economy to end debt slavery and stop debt being used by the rich to exploit the poor.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury argued that without policies to prevent it, lending will create increased inequality, saying:
“There is always going to be a danger of a spiral of asymmetry, which is where the gap between creditors and debtors gets wider and wider. There is no particular reason why this should ever stop, that is unless we decide to try and stop it. We have to put in place policies to limit that spiral.”
On the ethics of debt and lending, Dr Williams said:
“It is no good talking about the morality of debt without talking about the creditor’s responsibility … A great deal of what we have seen is unethical, whether the international system since the 1970s, or sub-prime lending more recently.”
Also speaking at the conference were European and international debt campaigners including US academic and activist Andrew Ross, an organiser in the Strike Debt and Rolling Jubilee movements. Mr Ross said that the scale of personal debts raises questions about whether modern society is on its way to “debt serfdom”. He argued that people are increasingly being forced into debt to provide for their basic needs and social goods like food and education because of a lack of income and cuts in public services. He also challenged the morality of lenders, saying:
“We need to subject the creditors themselves to heavy moral scrutiny. If creditors make loans with the full knowledge that they won’t be repaid, who is the delinquent agent? If creditors make loans just to enable previous debts to be paid, who is the delinquent agent?”
Mr Ross argued that:
“In some cases it is more virtuous to refuse to repay your debt.”
Njoki Njehû, a debt campaigner from Kenya and member of the Jubilee South movement for debt cancellation, questioned who the real moral debtors are. Talking about debts owed by developing countries, she said:
“If you just talk about the financial debt, the balance shows one thing. But if you include the ecological, historical and social debt, it shows quite another.”
The conference included sessions on the Eurozone debt crisis; dictator debt and the Arab uprisings; pay day loans; the morality of debt; vulture funds and the Cooperative Bank; student debt; and hidden public debt in the NHS.