Building an Economy that Serves and Uplifts the Vulnerable: An Interview with Eric LeCompte

Eric LeCompte is the executive director of Jubilee USA. Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed him on his work to address global inequality and build an economy that serves all persons, particularly the poor and vulnerable.

What does Jubilee USA do?

Ahead of the Jubilee Year, when Christian churches were preparing to celebrate the 2000th Anniversary of Christ’s birth, global religious leaders called us to celebrate by tackling the root causes of poverty. Pope John Paul ll encouraged us to reflect on the true scriptural meaning of Jubilee during the Church’s Jubilee 2000 celebration. Jubilee is a central them in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The Jubilee story starts in Genesis. God loves us so much that God created a resource rich world for us to share in seven days. We are closest to the Creator when we are sharing those resources amongst us. Then we have the early law books of scripture that attempt to legislate how we live according to Jubilee laws. Deuteronomy and Leviticus lay out how we can be in right relationship with one another and our God. They dictate that every seven years we should forgive debts, let the land rest, and set free slaves. They establish a set of laws that protect all of us from having too little or too much. Then the prophets come to remind the people they are no longer living according to the laws of Jubilee. And then in Luke, in the first public act of our Lord, He reads from Isaiah ‎about setting captives free and proclaiming the Year of the Lord’s Favor or the great Jubilee year. This is seven times seven years where there is a restoration of equality among all of God’s people.

From the call of Pope John Paul ll and other faith leaders, the Catholic Church took on an incredible leadership role to win debt relief for the world’s poorest countries and move forward greater protections for some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.

That’s the story of how Jubilee USA started as an interfaith coalition of Jews, Muslims, and Christians to address the structures that cause poverty and inequality. To this day, we take on US and global policies on debt, tax, trade, and transparency issues. When we address these issues, we impact millions of people living in poverty in the US and across our world. From resolving Puerto Rico’s financial crisis to corporate transparency to student debt, Jubilee USA wins solutions that impact our global community. Ultimately, we are building an economy that serves, protects, and promotes participation of the most vulnerable.

Congressional Quarterly cites our interfaith efforts as the last successful bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill.

What are some of the accomplishments that Jubilee USA has achieved?

We’ve won more than $130 billion in debt relief for the world’s poorest economies. Because of the US and global agreements we’ve won, that $130 billion is invested in schools, hospitals, and other social infrastructure. In Sub Saharan Africa alone, 54 million kids have gone to‎ school who never would have seen the inside of a classroom. Recently, Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank President, cited Jubilee’s efforts as the reason for economic growth in parts of Africa.

Debt and financial crises‎ often affect the most vulnerable in the most extreme ways. It’s tragic that the global financial crisis punished those who had nothing to do with creating the crisis. Nearly 100 million people, mostly women and children, were cast into extreme poverty because of the crisis. Beyond debt relief, Jubilee USA transforms the debt, tax, and trade policies that cause poverty and inequality. For every 10 dollars in aid developing economies receive, they lose more than150 dollars from debt payments, tax evasion, and corruption.

In the last few years, here are some of the strategic campaigns we’ve won:‎ debt relief in Haiti and the 3 Ebola-impacted West Africa countries, a new International Monetary Fund trust fund to aid poor countries struck by disasters, multiple anti-corruption measures impacting low income countries, ‎super bankruptcy legislation for Puerto Rico‎, three international agreements to promote responsible lending and stop predatory lending, two victories to keep student loan interest rates low, G7 and G20 agreements to curb tax evasion and corruption, pushing trade agreements‎ that help end poverty, and securing zero interest loans for poor communities.

Some of the work you do is very technical and wonky. Is it difficult to explain these issues to regular folks in a clear but comprehensive way, why they matter, and why everyday citizens should be active on them? Are there other challenges you’ve faced?

These economic issues impact our lives almost as much as the oxygen we breathe and yet too many of us don’t understand these issues. The issues we work on are the causes of global poverty and inequality. Unfortunately, too often, too many of us leave these issues to the realm of lawyers and economists.

Even though we have strong teaching on these issues from the Catholic Church, they can be difficult to comprehend. I stopped 5 people in front of the US Capitol, most of whom worked for Congress. Only one person could tell me what the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was. After the White House, the IMF may be the most powerful institution in the world.‎ It holds great power over our jobs and our livelihoods. Yet too many of us don’t know what financial institutions and banks really do. However, if I ask any 12 year old in Zambia or Grenada what the IMF is, they have an answer.

A big part of what we do is translation, is education. Working with the national religious community we translate how these “complex” economic issues impact poverty and impact our lives. Ultimately, what we do is justice, not charity. We are called to feed the hungry. As Jesus invites a restoration of Jubilee laws, we are also called to end the conditions that make people hungry.

We’ve faced many challenges in recent years. As our campaigns have grown in impact, special interests have put millions of dollars in lobbying efforts to try to stop us. We saw this with one of the most important times we recently brought Republican and Democratic leadership‎ together to deal with a financial crisis impacting 3.5 million Americans in Puerto Rico.

Over the last two years, we led a Puerto Rico campaign with the Archbishop of San Juan and our national religious partners that range from the US‎ Conference of Catholic Bishops to evangelical pastors.‎ When we started, members of Congress didn’t know what bankruptcy meant and special interest lobbyists were calling the shots with Congress. In the end, the power of our educational and advocacy efforts moved forward the first process since 1953 that can cut all of Puerto Rico’s debt.

As an interfaith religious coalition, we have a 20 year history of educating and winning on the complicated financial issues that impact our lives and global poverty.

Has Pope Francis’ papacy affected your work?

While the Catholic Church has always been on the forefront of these issues, Pope Francis regularly and directly speaks about the issues we work on. He follows Pope Benedict, Pope John Paul II, and a long succession of predecessors on talking about the need for economies to serve people, not people serving economic systems.

With the leadership of Pope Francis, the Catholic Church and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops support our efforts to ensure vulnerable communities around the world are not prevented access to lifesaving medicines in trade agreements.

The Holy Father doesn’t shy away from getting technical about these financial issues. The Holy Father gets as specific as talking about the efforts we work on related to tax havens, corruption, and financial secrecy. The developing world loses a trillion dollars a year because of tax evasion and corruption. During the first months of his papacy, he accepted the credentials for new ambassadors to the Vatican. As he received new ambassadors from tax havens, he expressed his concern about tax havens.

One of the reasons Pope Francis speaks so often and technically on debt, tax, and trade issues is because he led his own native country through a financial crisis. Our Holy Father stood between his people and predatory “vulture” funds who exploited Argentina’s financial crisis—a crisis with still lasting effects on Argentina’s poor and the middle class.

I tell people the most important speech Pope Francis ever gave during his papacy was a speech that many people didn’t understand. It was his speech in 2015 to the United Nations in New York. While journalists covered the Holy Father’s comments on climate change and human rights, they didn’t cover his opening framing comments on debt and economics. In my experience even people with a lot of education have a tough time with understanding these issues that affect us most. Pope Francis began his UN speech by talking about the foundational importance of a just economic system for the well-being of all of God’s people. The Holy Father spoke about technical issues of a just global financial system and referred specifically for the need of international agencies to relieve the debt of poor economies. He alluded to the necessity for a global bankruptcy process, which he explicitly endorsed in other venues. Pope Francis referenced his concerns with “usury” or lending at exploitative interest rates. His word choice of usury was interesting as hundreds of years ago the Catholic Church considered usury as a sin. Pope Francis is pushing greater responsible lending and borrowing in our financial system.

Pope Francis frames our concerns about the environment and human rights in the need for a just economic system. When we move toward a just economic system, we take care of each other and we take care of our planet.‎

What are some of your goals looking forward?

‎We are going to continue moving forward strategic campaigns among people of faith to protect vulnerable communities and prevent financial crisis. We’ll win legislation that ensures banks, lenders, and hedge funds are transparent and don’t exploit people suffering financial crisis. We’ll push trade agreements that ensure poor people can access lifesaving medicines. Working with religious leaders on every continent, we will stop austerity policies from closing schools and hospitals. We’ll tackle some of the worst practices of some payday lending companies. We can win global development agreements to stop tax evasion and corruption. We’ll stop anonymous shell companies from being vehicles that steal from poor people and protect human traffickers. Together we’ll address global inequality and build an economy that serves, protects, and promotes participation of the most vulnerable.