Debt, vaccines, climate: from “blah-blah” to meaningful change on a global scale

This year, global network of organisations (including KAIROS Canada) sponsored Global Days of Action for Justice and Debt Cancellation during the last two weeks of October to focus attention on the intersections of debt, climate and pandemic.

In the wake of G20 summit in Rome and as the global climate meeting in Glasgow gets underway, those of us who hold out hope for an international system that can produce meaningful change are disappointed by failures both on debt cancellation and vaccine distribution—and working for better results on climate issues.

“Political games while the world burns” was the assessment by the European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad) after the annual meetings Oct. 11-17 of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Back in April 2020, when pandemic lockdowns still were a novelty, the G20 announced a debt service suspension initiative (DSSI). But the Jubilee Debt Campaign says that the DSSI has suspended less than a quarter of debt payments for a very limited group of 46 countries.

Tim Jones, Head of Policy at Jubilee Debt Campaign, said: “The failure to make banks, hedge funds and oil traders take part in the G20’s flagship debt suspension scheme has made a mockery of this initiative. Tens of billions of dollars have flooded out of lower income countries at a time when they were desperately needed to protect lives and livelihoods.”

The campaign also cited research showing that 34 countries spend five times more on debt payments than climate change mitigation or adaptation.

Vaccine sharing

Meanwhile, about 82 countries cannot meet the World Health Organization (WHO) target of 40 per cent Covid-19 vaccination coverage by end of the current year. The global vaccine-sharing arrangement known as COVAX has delivered only about 400 million doses to about 140 low- and middle-income countries.

On Oct. 28, WHO and other aid groups called on the G20 to fund a new, a U.S. $23.4 billion plan to bring vaccines, tests and drugs to impoverished countries in the next year.

During the G20 summit in Rome two days later, Canada announced it will donate 10 million Moderna vaccines and deliver 200 million doses by the end of next year. The new promise comes despite abject failure of the last set of promises: Canada delivered only 3 million doses out of a planned 40.7 million does announced at the G7 summit last June.

On average, the G20 countries have vaccinated about 55 per cent of their eligible populations, reported The Globe and Mail. Globally, the figure is 38 per cent, and in Africa, only seven per cent.

Today in La Jornada, Mexico City: Headlines acknowledge an agreement to impose a 15-per-cent global tax on transnational corporations and new promises to donate vaccines. Photos show protests. Carrying signs that condemned “profiting from the pandemic” (left), protesters in Rome drew attention to vaccine nationalism and called for an end to patent protection for vaccines: “a global right.” And (right) protesting economic policies of the Italian government and G20.

Sharing costs of climate change

A day before being shuffled out his job as Canada’s environment minister, Jonathan Wilkinson joined German and British counterparts in a news conference Oct. 25 to announce “significant progress” in getting commitments from rich countries to boost financing for climate change adaptation and mitigation in the developing world. 

At the Copenhagen summit 12 years ago, wealthy countries pledged channel U.S. $100 billion each year to fund this effort. That level was never achieved.

The plan announced by Wilkinson, together with Germany’s Jochen Flasbarth and the U.K.’s Alok Sharma—the COP26 president-designate—would see U.S. $500 billion flow over the five years 2021-25.

Access to climate finance has been a critical issue for many developing countries, and failure to meet past goals had become “a matter of trust,” the ministers said.

A report posted on the COP26 presidency’s website does not show the commitments of individual countries, noting, for example, that the Biden administration in Washington “will work closely with Congress” to achieve U.S. commitments.Moreover, about 70 per cent of the funds would be in the form of loans, not grants, and part of the funding would come too from the private sector.


Equitable financing—based on recognition that the wealthy countries foster an economic system that uses carbon-intensive technology to exploit of the planet’s resources—is part of the challenge everyone on the planet faces as the Glasgow COP gets underway.

But underlying the struggles over who pays is the issue of holding to the 2015 Paris commitment to limit the carbon-induced temperature rise to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. As “environmental icon” David Suzuki said on CBC Radio this morning, if we love our children and grand-children—and if we love participating with all of this planet’s life and generosity—we’ll stop adding more carbon to the atmosphere.

Many of Canada’s faith-based organizations have come together in an initiative called For the Love of Creation to mobilize education, reflection, action and advocacy for climate justice. The United Church of Canada has shared its accredited status at the COP with other members, and together they formed an ecumenical delegation to work “virtually” at the summit. You can follow the delegation’s activities at COP26 by following #FLCCOP26, #UCCanCOP26 on Facebook and Instagram.

Cuba IV: Rethinking development in a revolutionary situation

“Peace + Friendship = Development”

My time in the Dominican Republic and Mexico had convinced me that most proponents of “development” failed to address the unjust structures in the world, including inequalities that have roots in colonial times. Development needed to be understood (as Gustavo Gutiérrez and others argued) in terms of liberation: a radical transformation of global systems of power and domination.

And so, once I had the opportunity to work among churches in Cuba, I was eager to learn about the practice of development in a revolutionary, socialist society.

In the years after the Cuban government’s rapprochement with organized religion in the early 1990s, some churches and especially their ecumenical agencies made major efforts to contribute to the overall well-being of Cuban society. Cuba was in its “special period” of adjustment to the loss of the Soviet Union as a major trade and aid partner. Cuban churches drew from their own creativity and resources from their global partners to assist.

Today, church-based development programs include strong emergency response capacity and training to manage small businesses and to produce and conserve food (including urban farming). Such training includes empowerment of vulnerable groups, notably farmers with disabilities and senior citizens.

Juan Carlos Cabrera, Sibanicú, Camagüey: a hearing-impaired participant in the CIC’s project with farmers who have disabilities.

The Cuban Council of Churches (CIC) has long supported a pastoral ministry among people living with disabilities. In recent years, that ministry began to focus on farmers with disabilities. You can hear from some of the families and learn about their work in a video I helped to make with The United Church of Canada in 2019. 

In Cárdenas (near Varadero in Matanzas province), the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue (CCRD) has run a “meals-on-wheels” style program for people in need because of age or illness. Support goes beyond delivery of a daily meal, and includes (according to need) provision of clothing, laundry service, house-keeping, medication, and attention to health and hygiene. 

Much of the food used in that program (and in schools and hospitals around Cárdenas) is produced at CCRD’s 32-hectare farm, El Retiro. It is also a place for training of farmers in the area. You can read more about the farm and about agriculture in Cuba in an article by Gary Kenny (a friend and former staff colleague at the United Church).

CCRD’s farm: “development means that… everyone has a voice”

In conversations with CCRD staff in March 2018, the word “development” kept coming up. I asked them what the concept meant to them. At first, they did what I sometimes do: add an adjective (“community development” or “participatory development”) or an object (“development of capacities”). Eventually, they said: “that everyone has a voice.” And: “Participation means the extent to which people can participate in community, as persons; to express themselves, with their collective and individual interests.” 

In practical terms, that means holding fast to a vision of the common good that embraces all—even as the Cuban government opens the economy to small business initiatives. Tourists already know independent restaurants (paladares) and bed-and-breakfast places (casas particulares). But now there are beauticians, repair shops, and designers of fashion and everything else. In Cuba, they are called cuentapropistas: people who work on their “own account.”

At the same time, the government also encourages people to take up farming. But the new farmers need training in everything from bookkeeping to organic farming practice. This work is carried out in a decentralized way by the CIC together with CCRD and various NGOs and state agencies. Challenges include lack of machinery; ecological awareness; impacts of climate change (drought, hurricanes); market distortions (some hotels buy directly from farmers, bypassing public systems intended to ensure food security for all); and the risk of introduction of GM seeds. 

The Cuban Council of Churches’ areas of work.

As market systems evolve and while holding fast to that vision of the common good, CIC and CCRD are taking up concepts of “social and solidarity economies” and structures of cooperatives (as opposed to individual or competitive initiatives). These are not top-down programs, but initiatives hatched in networks across the country. The idea is to get people with different interests matched up with people who have capacity and experience within the same area, working with municipalities, churches and other non-governmental organizations. The networks come together without money for projects, but proposals can emerge from their work—which is what happened with the effort to support farmers with disabilities.

In Cuba and beyond, debates continue about development. We may have “sustainable development goals,” but does the practice change? Are we transforming systems and practicing liberation?

From their experience, Cuban church leaders and theologians contribute to the global ecumenical conversation that unfolds in the World Council of Churches and the ACT Alliance of 135 faith-based development and relief agencies.

In December 2010, Reinerio Arce (a former CIC president who was then serving as rector of the Evangelical Seminary of Theology in Matanzas) called for what he called “prophetic diakonia.” (Diakonia is a Greek word used in the New Testament to refer to service—every kind of service: helping people, serving at tables, and offering leadership in faith communities.)

“In our country the churches are playing a more active role serving the people in need at this moment when our economy is shifting increasingly; we need to build capacity for this task,” he said an interview with the WCC news service.

“God sends us out in mission to bring the good news to the poor and oppressed, in word and in deed. Faithful to this call, we try to serve human needs, focusing on the marginalized, the ‘least of these,’ not only by comforting them but also by addressing the root causes of their pain, sorrow and shortages. This ministry of prophetic diakonia seeks to confront the powers of this world that lead to violence, exclusion, death and destruction, and it calls for the transformation of unjust structures and practices into God’s kingdom of justice, with fullness of life for all and for creation.” 

In Matanzas on Oct. 4, 2016, we watched on TV (left) as Hurricane Matthew crossed southwest Haiti before moving on to eastern Cuba. Three days later, I joined CIC staff as they continued their emergency response (right), including provision of shelter in churches.

Colombians ask: “Peace? What peace?”

Lilia Solano, a human rights defender who was one of the organisers of Peace, What Peace?

In recent days, I participated in a zoom-based conference with the Peace Commission of Colombia’s Senate. Since a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the largest guerrilla army, the FARC, was signed in 2016, implementation has not gone well.

By the end of 2020, at least 238 former fighters had been murdered—victims of targeted assassinations.

Meanwhile, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented more than 400 slayings of human rights defenders since 2016, of which 108 happened in 2019 and 53 in 2020. Human rights defenders include community, small-farmer, women, LGBTI, Indigenous, and Afro-Colombian leaders as well as activists for the rights of victims and their families.

My own presentation followed those of some of my friends and heroes: 

  • Former Senator Piedad Córdoba, who led efforts to free people who had been captured by the FARC in years before the peace accords
  • The Portuguese activist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, who said that “what has prevailed until now is neoliberal peace” that only opens space for transnational corporations. What has to change are the conditions that led young people to join the guerrillas.
  • From ecumenical colleagues came the reminder that the struggle for peace with justice must be global. Rudelmar Bueno de Faria of the ACT Alliance noted the role of religion in the conflict in Colombia, warning that history will not forgive those who have “played with the peace processes.”

In my remarks, I went a bit further regarding the questionable role of religious organizations in the search for peace.

I was at the marvellous ecumenical seminary in Matanzas, Cuba, in October 2016, when news came that a referendum to approve Colombia’s peace agreement had failed. It was quickly understood that fundamentalist Christians had intervened in the public debate, and rallied their bases to vote no by arguing that the peace agreement promoted “gender ideology” and would destroy the family. In reality, the FARC rebel army had acknowledged its crimes against women and LGBTI people, and apologized. Both sides pledged to do better on gender justice and the rights of LGBTI people.

For me, having worked with faith-based organisations in Colombia and their allies abroad since 1993, the vote result and the reality that some Christians worked against peace, was a disappointment. I had seen people like Lilia Solano (pictured above), a Mennonite who works among human rights NGOs and in Colombia’s legislative branch, and Fr. Javier Giraldo, the Jesuit human rights defender and founder of the Inter-Ecclesial Commission for Justice and Peace, risk their lives for peace. I thought of friends who are leaders of the Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran and Mennonite Churches and Roman Catholic religious communities who would share my disappointment, together with people in organisations like the DiPaz inter-church peace coalition, the Mesa Ecuménica por la Paz, and the popular educators and trainers of community journalists at CEPALC.

Their persistent witness guided me when I spoke the next morning to people who were gathered at the seminary to celebrate its 70th anniversary and to consider the future of ecumenical theological education in Latin America and the Caribbean, I said it seemed to me that the voices of moderate or progressive Christians were marginalised or discounted in a climate of fear generated by the shrill voices of the Christian right and their political backers. That day in Cuba, I said:

“A good theological education, offers ways to read the bible, to interpret scripture, to understand the limits church authority in civil society. In a good theological school, one learns to use the Bible to interpret the Bible, to use the texts that we have of the teachings of Jesus about the love of God and of neighbour so as to understand other parts of the bible. Without good theological education—and, by extension, good Christian education within the churches—the public square is surrendered to the most retrograde and hate-filled voices of Christian fundamentalism, empty of love and forgiveness.”

My remarks Thursday, March 18, to the Colombian Senate’s peace conference took up similar themes.

“This increase of inequality and violence contrasts with the experience of churches and social movements that uphold fullness of life and defend the dignity of women and LGBTI people. They create spaces for mutual listening, weaving networks and planting seeds of peace and justice as they raise their voices for a world of greater solidarity.

“Those of us who are too often the objects—and victims—of hate speech need your voices, you artisans of peace, and of religious leaders who promote an understanding of Christianity that is inclusive and respectful of diversity, who promote contextual and liberation theologies, who can join dialogue over differences and are reflections of the reality in which we live: who speak, in the end, of the love that should exist among all of us

“In place of fear and prejudice, let us build alliances of solidarity across all borders.”