Winning debt justice through people-powered campaigns

No country should be prevented from tackling the climate crisis or forced to cut back public services like health and education. Yet that is the situation for 54 lower income countries in debt crisis, whose funds are being diverted to pay back big banks and hedge funds at eye-watering interest rates.

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. We want to mobilise more people to campaign in solidarity with, and take leadership from, affected communities. 

Our beginnings

We were originally set up with the name, Jubilee Debt Campaign as we emerged from the Jubilee 2000 campaign which was a movement that took the issue of debt to the forefront of mainstream politics in the years leading up to the millennium and 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 had been agreed through the global debt cancellation programme of the 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. However, 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. 

As Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, we joined with our allies in Ukraine to call for Ukraine’s debts to be suspended in order to release resources to address the huge humanitarian crisis and costs of Russian invasion. After four months of public campaigning, Ukraine’s lenders agreed to suspend the country’s debt repayments for around two years which provides much-needed relief. 

Solidarity across and within borders

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.  

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 £23 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 million 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. 

The widespread use of debt to cover basic costs exposes how our economy is not fit for purpose. Whether it’s 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.  

The future

We exist to change this system by building the power of those affected by harmful debt, centering 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 or tackle the climate crisis 
  • Debt levels are reduced to free 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.  

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