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debt Saturday, 12 June, 1999, 23:28 GMT 00:28 UK
Lenny Henry calls for debt to be dropped
"I think that the thing Comic Relief can do is keep up the pressure, and demonstrate that the public shares that commitment to change. We've got to make sure that debt relief happens. Keep up the pressure."
Tony Blair

By Lenny Henry

World Debt
Since the first Red Nose Day in 1988 I've travelled to 5 African countries to report on some of the crucial work that Comic Relief is funding. I've met some incredible people. I've been inspired, moved and occasionally pretty damn frightened, and I've learned something. I've learned that if you give people in Africa a fighting chance of improving their lives, they'll work their butts off to see that it happens.

With the right kind of support people really can achieve the impossible - all they need is a little bit of help to get started. Comic Relief can give people that help, and on a person to person basis it has made a huge difference to people's lives.

But just imagine if there was a way to make a difference to the lives of all of the poorest and most vulnerable people at once. Well - and here's the good news - there is.

The price of debt
The price of debt
Over the last year the team at Comic Relief have talked to all sorts of people about poverty in Africa. They've tracked down all the experts and asked them one question - 'what makes people in Africa so damn poor'? And when they looked at all the responses, one word was repeated over, and over again. DEBT.

Many of the world's poorest countries owe money to western governments, or large financial institutions (like the World Bank), and they simply can't afford to pay it back. When the loans were taken out, back in the 1970's, no-one foresaw the devastating impact the debt would have on the poorest people in the world.

The human cost of debt
The human cost of debt
These days, African governments have to spend more on paying back just the interest on their loans, than they spend on healthcare, education or sanitation. Because of the debt, kids are missing out on school, families can't get any help if they get sick, and whole communities are living without clean water to drink.

If a big chunk of the debt was cancelled, over a billion people in the developing world would have the chance of a better future. A billion people - just think about it!

In January 1999 I went to 10 Downing Street to talk to Tony Blair during filming for "Comic Relief's Great Big African Adventure", the big documentary for Red Nose Day 1999.

We talked about how debt is keeping people in Africa poor, how African governments can't afford to provide the kind of services we take for granted, because they have to spend so much money on "debt service" (paying back the interest on loans). We talked about the Jubilee 2000 campaign to cancel the unpayable debt and give people in the world's poorest countries the chance of a better life in the next Millennium.

Then, I asked him what Comic Relief could do to make sure that debt relief happens. He told me that the government needs to know that people in the UK care about debt relief before they can act. So Comic Relief has worked with Jubilee 2000 to set up a special website where people can register their support for the cancellation of debt.

Lenny Henry wants your support
Lenny Henry wants your support
Over the last ten years I've seen people across the UK go to extraordinary lengths to raise money to help people they'll never meet. I've been awestruck, amazed and totally gobsmacked by their generosity and compassion. And I know that if there was one simple thing that they could do that would make a massive difference to the lives of millions of people they'd say "c'mon Len, let's do it."

Dropping the debt is that one thing. This is our chance to make the next Millennium better. It's our chance to have a real impact on the future of this planet. Africa has huge potential, and if we all speak out against the debt, people across the continent will have a chance to break out of the poverty trap.

Go on, log on to www.dropthedebt.org and tell Tony you care.

To find out more about Comic Relief's Debt Wish call 0171 436 1122 or e-mail debt.wish@comicrelief.org.uk

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