Bill Peters: The Passing of a Great Debt Campaigner

“I resolved to work tirelessly” (Bill Peters, 1983)

William (Bill) Peters CMG CVO MBE, distinguished diplomat and debt campaigner extraordinary, died peacefully in the early hours of Saturday 29 March, aged 90, and was buried on Friday 11 April. We offer our prayers and deep condolences to the family of Bill Peters.

Bill Peters
Bill Peters on the way to the G8 in Genoa, 2001

Writing in the year 2000, Bill wrote that “I became aware of the debt crisis in Malawi in 1983… I resolved to work tirelessly to bring world wide awakening to the sheer injustice and error involved.” That was a resolution he kept – with a vengeance!

Bill Peters was born on 28 September 1923, in Morpeth, Northumberland, the son of a cabinet maker and a light opera singer. He attended King Edward IV Grammar School, before going up to Oxford at the tender age of 17. The war intervened and he saw active service in Burma with the Ghurkhas and met a number of Tibetans, and this was the beginning of a lifelong association with both.

With the close of the war, Bill completed his studies and entered the Diplomatic Service. His many postings included one in Ghana, where on one occasion he spoke to school children and encouraged them to aim high in their lives. Among those inspired was a young Kofi Annan, who later as Secretary General of the U.N. told Bill he still remembered hearing him! Bill proved to be an outstanding diplomat, eventually becoming Ambassador to Uruguay (where he exposed himself to danger by visiting political prisoners) and High Commissioner to Malawi.

The latter position was to lead to the supreme achievements of his life, since for many years after he retired in 1983, “he campaigned almost single-handedly among distinguished people for debt remission, traversing the world several times in pursuit of his mission… Bill had a very special role as a pillar of the Jubilee organisation in financial, administrative, and policy matters. He has an amazing capacity to use the experience of his diplomatic life, and the obvious respect in which he is held, to make contacts with people who carry weight in decision-making, and to put the cause of poorer nations before them.” (Lambeth Degree Citation, 2001)

During the early 1990s, Bill linked up with Martin Dent OBE, who was to become his close friend and colleague, and who had formed a “Jubilee 2000” group at Keele University in 1990. Their association with Isobel Carter (of Tearfund), Ann Pettifor, the coordinator of the Debt Crisis Network, and others – a ‘group of nobodies’, according to Isabel (!) – led to the launch of Jubilee 2000 as a national and international campaign in April 1996. Then, on 13 October 1997, this blossomed into the ‘Jubilee Debt Coalition’, a wide and powerful grouping, with members which included Churches and other faith groups, many aid agencies, the BMA and the TUC, and supporters which included newspapers such as The Guardian. Bill and Martin were the coalition’s Vice-Presidents, but were most generous in their attitude to the rest of us: “Jubilee’s true heroes are not the originators nor the controllers, but the marvellous army of men and women who carry on the battle in local committees and gatherings.” But whether leaders or supporters, we all shared Bill’s conviction that, “It is intolerable that we should go into the next millennium in a situation where the poorest quarter of the human family owes totally unpayable debt to creditors in the richest quarter.” (Lambeth Degree Citation, 2001)

Grassroots activists were committed to the continuation of the debt campaign after 2000, fearing that the promises made by politicians and creditors would be forgotten or diluted, without a vociferous body of campaigners to ‘keep their feet to the fire’. We’d had plenty of experience of their perfidy! Furthermore, we believed that the actual delivery of debt relief would bring manifest benefits to the poor and that these would provide valuable ammunition with which to ‘ask for more’, including the fulfilment of the Jubilee 2000 petition demand that Governments “take effective steps to prevent such high levels of debt building up again! We were greatly buoyed up by Bill’s and Martin’s support – indeed, the structure of the Jubilee Debt Campaign which re-launched in 2001, with its representation on the Board of Trustees of local and regional groups, was strongly supported by Bill and Martin who became founding board members.

In the same year, Bill Peters and three other Co-Founders of Jubilee 2000 (Martin Dent, Isabel Carter and Ann Pettifor) were awarded ‘Lambeth Degrees’ (i.e., the degree of Master of Letters) by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Bill also received the Gandhi International Peace Award for his contribution to the campaign, which “made possible the provision of basic education and health-care to thousands [now millions] of people”.

Moving a motion at the Annual Assembly of the university lecturers’ union in 1999, I described Jubilee as “one of the noblest concepts ever to grace the mind of man” and it has undoubtedly been one of the most effective movements for the relief of poverty and oppression in history, which directly or indirectly has transformed the lives and prospects of hundreds of millions of people. Before Jubilee 2000’s 70,000-strong ‘human chain’ in Birmingham in 1998, the plight of the billions in severe poverty had never featured prominently on the agenda of the G8, the world’s richest nations; since that time, it has never been absent. Kofi Annan said that, “A flame of hope has been kindled in the poorest countries of the world…. On behalf of the United Nations, I extend my deep gratitude to you all for your indefatigable efforts…  millions of people are indebted to you.” These words were addressed to Jubilee 2000, but could rightly be applied to Bill Peters.

But the fight goes on, as Bill wished it should, and in his and Martin’s own words, “May God grant victory for the campaign, through the achievement of a true liberation from the burden of unpayable debt.”

Bill was predeceased by his first wife, Catherine (“Kit”), whom he had married in 1944 and who died in 1998. In 2004, Bill married his second wife, Gillian Casebourne, and is survived by Gill and her two daughters, as well as by his nieces and nephews. No flowers but donations to Jubilee Debt Campaign or The Tibet Foundation are suggested.

Dr David Golding CBE is co-ordinator of North-East Call to Action Against Poverty and a founding board member of the Jubilee Debt Campaign.

Versions of this article have appeared in the Morpeth Herald and the Newcastle Journal.


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