Dr Martin Dent OBE: a humanitarian giant and the author of ‘Brand Jubilee’

Inspirational”, “visionary”, “fantastic academic”, “true philanthropist”, and great English eccentric” are just some of the descriptions given to Martin Dent, who died on Saturday 3 May 2014, aged 89.

Martin Dent (right), with Bill Peters in Birmingham in 1998.
Martin Dent (right), with Bill Peters, forms part of the Birmingham human chain at the G8 summit in 1998.

In 1990, when students at Keele University trooped forward after one of his lectures to sign a petition for his ‘Jubilee 2000’ campaign (as he had just entitled it), calling for the cancellation of the unpayable debts of poor countries by the year 2000, little did he know then that over the next ten years the petition would attract over 24 million signatures, from 166 countries, a double world record! Nor that the campaign would secure the cancellation of $130 billion of debt, for 35 countries – $148 billion, for 36 countries, if Martin’s beloved Nigeria, which received debt cancellation separately, is included.

Martin was born in Harlow, Essex, the son of Geoffrey and Marian Dent. He was educated at Eton, Aberdeen University and Trinity College Cambridge, and was attached to the Indian Army for his National Service from 1944 until 1947. During the 1950s, he worked for the Colonial Service in Nigeria, where, in addition to maintaining order and collecting taxes, he devoted himself to promoting schooling, often funding scholarships for children himself.

A devout Christian, he was always ready to be, as Donald Nicholl said of him, “a fool for Christ”. Indeed, he “quelled widespread riots in the land of Tiv, going in unarmed and calling for order. Two thousand promptly surrendered!” (Lambeth Degree Citation) Later, he defended one of his Nigerian colleagues, Joseph Tarka, a Tiv senator, in court and was promptly sacked (in 1961) for “disloyalty to the Empire” and denied a pension. The Tiv people viewed things differently and later honoured Martin by making him an honorary chief and their official conciliator. His title was “Asor-Tar-U-Tiv”“The one who heals the land of Tiv”.

At Keele University, in the Politics Department, he was the archetypal eccentric academic, whose “grey hair flies from his head at every angle… his tie has food stains on it… trousers held up by his tie… carries his tatty documents in a plastic supermarket bag… and often quotes poetry”, as the Birmingham Post described.  He was “constantly wandering around campus looking for his ancient Renault, parked at random and then forgotten”. He was hugely popular with the students and “always available to them, though only when he remembered where he was supposed to be.” (Lambeth Degree Citation).

It is no mere coincidence that both Martin and his close friend and colleague, Bill Peters, had a background of work in Africa which brought them into close contact with people living in severe poverty. Martin described as “grotesque… the suffering… sickness and pain, hunger and malnutrition and loss of educational opportunity” facing millions of people on the continent at the time.

Furthermore, he had a fine mind and a deep understanding of the underlying structural factors behind the “the self-perpetuating cycle of deprivation”, faced by many people across the developing world, and he recognised that this cycle is exacerbated by the millstone of debt which their countries had inherited. “This debt has the effect of imposing a crushing burden of debt service, diverting resources desperately needed for services to the mass of poor people.” The latter are “reduced to a status like that of a poor Indian farmer sunk in perpetual debt to the village money lender… who lends him more and more in order to make his overdue payments, and so entangles him increasingly in unpayable debt.” It is striking that he recognised this position as “a kind of slavery” – a comparison which came readily to him, since his great great great grandfather, Thomas Buxton, had taken up the mantle of William Wilberforce after the retirement of the latter due to ill health.

Third, and critically, he recognised that unpayable debt “also imposes a great psychological burden” on the indebted. “The total loss of control by poor countries over their own policy decisions has sapped the self-confidence of many of them,” he observed. If he were them, he imagined, “the endless cycle of rescheduling debt, which I could not pay when it was due, would absorb and exhaust my energies.”

More radical debt campaigners may be surprised to learn that Martin and Bill, like the present author, accepted the necessity of attaching conditions to debt relief. They may be reassured that they were scathing about the conditions imposed by the IMF and World Bank, regarding them as self-serving, blinkered and destructive. Rather, conditionalities had to be “for the benefit of the country concerned” – to which we would now add, “and endorsed by its people”.

But Martin was no mere academic, content to analyse and diagnose the condition! His humanitarian concern “was transformed into campaigning zeal by a powerful combination of reason and morality” (Frank Judd) – and, we must add, imagination. He was responsible for attaching to the proposal for debt relief the terminology of “Jubilee”, the periodic cancellation of debts and release from slavery prescribed in the Old Testament. As a campaigning idea, it had a spark of sheer genius – and made more so by linking the proposal for a ‘Debt Jubilee’ to the approaching millennial year (a ‘Kairos moment’, or ‘Special Time’, as he described it), as suggested to him by his friend, Michael Schluter. Thus the title “Jubilee 2000” was born at Keele University, where in February 1990, Martin wrote a short paper entitled, “Why we are founding Jubilee 2000”, and where the first signatures were added to the petition.

After retirement from his lectureship in 1990, Martin “worked almost full-time on Jubilee 2000… I wrote to every MP… and every High Commissioner and Ambassador”, and to many church leaders. It was, he recalled, “hard pounding”. I’m sure it was! From 1993 onwards, Martin and Bill Peters worked together with great effect and subsequently teamed up with Isabel Carter, Ann Pettifor, William Reid, Michael Taylor and others.

Martin and Bill believed they would need to bring about “a colossal mobilisation of opinion”, in particular within the churches, as with the anti-slavery campaign two hundred years earlier. In this they succeeded, as the record-breaking Jubilee 2000 petition bears witness: “The secret of Jubilee’s success is simple but unfashionable: it is the Christian churches” (Madeleine Bunting, UNESCO Courier, 2000).

The two became Vice-Presidents of the Jubilee 2000 Coalition and co-authored the book, “The crisis of poverty and debt in the Third World” (Ashgate, 1999). In March 2001, they became founding board members and trustees of Jubilee Debt Campaign, Jubilee 2000’s successor.

Martin received an OBE from H.M. the Queen and an honorary doctorate from Keele University.

He is survived by his nephews, Charles and Patrick.

Dr David Golding CBE (david.golding@ncl.ac.uk) was Jubilee 2000’s representative in North East England, 1997-2000; a founding board member and trustee, Jubilee Debt Campaign, 2001-present; and spokesperson for Jubilee 2000/Jubilee Debt Campaign at Newcastle University, 1998 – present.

Author’s note: Preparation of this statement has been a bittersweet experience. It has been ‘sweet’ indeed to learn more of the life and achievements of this great ‘Christian gentleman’, and they bring to my mind the description, “of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:38). But it has been ‘bitter’ indeed to see how the wickedness and (even worse) the crass stupidity of the treatment meted out to indebted poor countries was exposed so clearly thirty years ago, knowing that it continues unabated to this day – in relation to Jamaica and the Philippines, for example.


Share this article

Share This