The world's seven wealthiest nations pledged today to relieve poor countries of more than half of a crushing load of debt that for decades has stymied their efforts to climb out of poverty.
The program unveiled today at the summit meeting of the Group of Seven leading industrialized democracies could eliminate up to $90 billion in debts owed to creditor countries and international financial institutions by nearly three dozen impoverished nations, provided they steer the savings mainly to education and health programs, especially AIDS prevention. Without such relief, leaders of the wealthy nations said, the debtor countries will continue to suffer high rates of child mortality, illiteracy and HIV infection.
The agreement "is an historic step to help the world's poorest nations achieve sustained growth and independence while targeting new resources for poverty reduction, education and combating AIDS," President Clinton said in a statement. "It represents a sound, humane effort to promote widely shared prosperity in the new millennium."
The so-called Cologne Initiative will reduce the debt burden for some or all of the 33 poorest nations, which collectively owe $127 billion to industrialized countries and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. If they meet the plan's conditions, they can escape as much as $70 billion owed to the G-7 countries over the next few years. Other lending nations could grant an additional $20 billion in debt relief, U.S. officials said.
The eligible debtor nations include many from sub-Saharan Africa, plus Bolivia, Burma, Guyana, Nicaragua and Honduras. Private debt held by the targeted countries would not be affected by the plan.
After years of debate over how to balance the conflicting interests of poor, indebted nations and their prosperous creditors, momentum for a major debt reduction program has been building for months, with support from labor unions, Pope John Paul II and even the rock band U2. Skeptics, however, say past debt relief efforts have done little to help ordinary citizens because the savings often were diverted to wasteful or corrupt purposes.
The Cologne Initiative hopes to avoid this problem by requiring debtor nations to show they are using the benefits primarily for education and health. The International Monetary Fund, which holds much of the debt in question, will decide which nations qualify.
The new conditions, according to a White House briefing paper, require the debtor nations to devote more resources to "health, child survival, AIDS prevention, education, greater transparency in government budgeting and much wider consultation with civil society in the development and implementation of economic programs."
Some humanitarian groups had wanted even greater debt relief from the G-7 but hailed today's initiative because it places more emphasis on health and education spending than on IMF-style austerity measures.
"We think it is a very large step in terms of what the G-7 are willing to give," said Seth Amgott, spokesman for Washington-based Oxfam International. "It's real progress toward what the poorest countries need."
Clinton, who "was very deeply affected by his  trip to Africa," was a major backer of the initiative, said Gene Sperling, chairman of the White House Economic Policy Council. Also supporting the effort are many religious and humanitarian groups that formed the Jubilee 2000 Coalition, which promotes the new millennium as an appropriate time to redouble the battle against world poverty.
Requiring poor countries to devote their debt-relief savings to health and education will have two big benefits, U.S. officials said. It will help children live longer, healthier lives and will discourage the type of corruption and waste that gobble up money in some undeveloped nations.
"You want some assurance," Sperling said, that the savings won't go to "somebody's pet project or nepotism."
The G-7 nations -- the United States, Canada, Japan, Britain, Germany, France and Italy -- launched a first round of debt relief in 1996. But only two nations, Bolivia and Uganda, have qualified for the benefits thus far. That's largely because the 1996 program required debtor nations to devote up to 20 percent of their government revenues to debt service, a goal most could not meet.
Sperling used Mozambique as an example of the new initiative's potential benefits. The southern African nation now devotes 30 percent of its revenue to debt payments but can cut that to 15 percent under the new program.
"That would free up $30 million of debt service per year," Sperling said. "That would allow their health budget to be increased by 50 percent. . . . Mozambique is a country where a very large percentage of children die before the age of 5."
To absorb its share of the costs incurred by the new initiative, the IMF plans to sell up to 10 million ounces of the 104 million ounces of gold it controls. It will invest the proceeds and direct the resulting interest payments to the trust fund for the Highly Indebted Poor Countries, or HIPCs, Sperling said. He said the U.S. Congress must approve the gold sale.
The United States has made about $3.5 billion in loans to the eligible nations and will lose about $200 million initially under the Cologne Initiative, Sperling said. But there will be undetermined "broader costs" via U.S. contributions to the HIPC trust fund, he said.
CAPTION: At the summit meeting of the Group of Seven, the leaders unveiled a plan to help almost three dozen poor nations eliminate up to $90 billion in debts.