Martin Dent – obituary (The Telegraph)


The Telegraph, 04 Jun 2014

Martin Dent was an academic and former colonial civil servant who launched a campaign to cancel Third World debt

Martin Dent

Martin Dent

Martin Dent, who has died aged 88, was a former colonial civil servant and an eccentric academic who co-founded Jubilee 2000, the campaign for an amnesty on world debt; against all expectations it proved spectacularly successful, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.

The genesis of Jubilee 2000 was in 1990 when Dent — then a politics lecturer at Keele University — drew up a petition calling for the one-off cancellation, by the end of the millennium, of the crippling debt owed by the world’s poorest countries. It was signed by a group of his students at Keele, and Dent said in 1998: “We wanted to find a way of forgiving the debts of others without saying it was OK for them to come back and ask for some more money next year. This is a one-off remission, not to be repeated, if at all, for a considerable period. Only in this way can we have a new beginning.”

The idea was slow to get off the ground. But in 1993 Dent joined forces with Bill Peters, a former High Commissioner in Malawi who had been quietly working on debt relief for the previous decade. Together they wrote to MPs, ambassadors, bishops and bankers to argue the justice of their cause.

Dent’s great-great-great grandfather was Thomas Fowell Buxton, who succeeded William Wilberforce in the task of mobilising public opinion against slavery and the slave trade in the early 19th century; and he liked to quote Buxton’s remark: “With ordinary talents and extraordinary perseverance, all things are attainable.”

Dent and Peters believed that the small group of anti-slavery campaigners had succeeded only through “a colossal mobilisation of opinion”, and set out to reproduce this achievement .

Helped by Peters’s contacts, they attracted heavyweight support: Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa; the Archbishop of Canterbury; the then chairman of Lloyds Bank, Sir Jeremy Morse; and a number of showbusiness personalities, among them Anthony Hopkins, Steve Coogan, Peter Gabriel and Lenny Henry. They also won the backing of the then Prime Minister Tony Blair and a majority of British MPs. Eventually the G8 countries promised to act to the tune of some $100 billion.

By the turn of the century more than 20 million people from 155 countries had added their names to the Jubilee 2000 petition. Campaigners for Jubilee 2000 and other similar groups now estimate that since then $130 billion of debt has been irrevocably written off for 35 of the poorest, most heavily indebted, countries.

Dent was appointed OBE in 2000, and the next year he and Bill Peters shared the International Peace Award of the Gandhi Foundation.

The second son of a brewer, Martin Joseph Dent was born on July 11 1925 and grew up at Harlow in Essex . Educated at Eton, he found it difficult to organise his life according to the usual rules and norms, being constantly in trouble for arriving late at classes, losing books and having his clothing in various states of disarray. At the same time he was probably the only boy in the school who regularly read the Financial Times .

After serving in the Army at the end of the war he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read History and Economics. In 1952 he became an Administrative Officer with the Colonial Service in Northern Nigeria at Makurdi, the capital of Benue Province, where he endeared himself to the local population by learning their language and traditions.

In 1960 Dent single-handedly quelled a riot among the Tiv people. Donald Nichol, in his book Holiness, wrote about this incident, giving Dent the pseudonym of “Graham”: “A populous African tribe had broken into rioting and armed rebellion. To have quelled them by force would have required thousands of troops. Graham, however, simply went among them unarmed, unprotected, stumbling along with his spectacles slipping down his nose and with his bush shorts slipping over his knees. In village after village he addressed the people, charmed them and calmed them, until soon the rioting ceased. ”

When some of the Nigerians who had helped him stop the riots were accused of being involved in starting them, Dent gave evidence on their behalf. His reward was to be dismissed, without a pension, for conduct that was “bad for the British Empire”. But the Tiv people never forgot him, and in 1994 bestowed on him the chieftainship title Asor-Tar-U-Tiv (“one who heals the land of Tiv”).

In later years Dent frequently revisited Nigeria, and other countries in central and southern Africa, maintaining close links with many African leaders, including General “Jack” Gowon, Nigeria’s Head of State from 1966 to 1975. He was thus well-versed in the difficulties created by the burden of debt in developing countries. When a relative left him a large legacy, he used it to set up a bursary fund for students in Malawi and added to it himself.

Martin Dent with the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey

On leaving the Colonial Service, Dent did two years’ research at St Anthony’s College, Oxford, and in 1963 was appointed a lecturer in Politics at Keele University, where he remained until retiring in 1990. He was highly respected by his students, who were also fascinated by the disorder of his life: the interior of his car was once found to contain a stash of coins and notes and 93 biros, in addition to books, medicines and a compass which he used, he said, to work out whether he was travelling north or south on the motorway.

A modest man of deep Christian faith, Martin Dent was unmarried. But he had many friends. One lady was invited to dinner at what Dent described as an excellent restaurant. She dressed for the occasion, only to be told on arrival that the place had closed three months earlier. Fortunately, Dent said, there was a good fish and chip shop nearby, to which they happily adjourned.

 

Martin Dent, born July 11 1925, died May 2 2014

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