Obituary: Sir Peter Meinertzhagen

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The Independent Culture
PETER MEINERTZHAGEN was the second of only four chief executives who have run the Commonwealth Development Corporation. He joined CDC in 1958, when the corporation was entering a period in which, after a shaky start, it was beginning to fulfil the remit given to it by Clement Attlee's post-war Labour government - to stimulate economic development in the then colonies by investing in them on a commercial basis.

Meinertzhagen was born in 1920, the youngest of three brothers. His father, Louis Meinertzhagen, came from a long line of merchant bankers whose forebears had migrated from northern Europe in the 18th century. His mother, Gwynnedd, was the daughter of Sir William Llewellyn, a President of the Royal Academy.

Leaving Eton in the years immediately preceding the Second World War, the young Meinertzhagen joined the Royal Fusiliers, a regiment with which his family had a strong connection and in which he served with distinction throughout the war. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1944 and mentioned in despatches in 1945. He left the regiment in 1946 with the rank of Major. Rather than join his two brothers in the City, Peter joined the family firm of Alfred Booth & Co, whose interests lay in East Africa.

The years in East Africa were crucial in forming Meinertzhagen's attachment to the people of Africa and his commitment to do what he could to help in Africa's development. It was also the time that he met and married his wife, Dido Pretty. Her effervescence proved the perfect foil to his unruffled calm.

In 1958 he made the move that was to allow him to wield his brush on a larger canvas. In the late 1950s the future of CDC was by no means assured. Many in the Government felt it had outlived its usefulness. Meinertzhagen's decision to join showed his conviction that the organisation still had a useful role to play. He was confident in his ability to contribute to the fulfilment of that role.

The British government's decision in late 1963 to allow it to operate in the newly independent countries of the Commonwealth opened up new horizons for CDC, giving full rein to Meinertzhagen's talents in a number of senior posts. Between spells in London he spent eight further years in Africa, in charge of CDC's operations first in West Africa and then in East Africa. In February 1973, he succeeded Sir William Rendell as General Manager, a post he was to hold for 12 years until his retirement in 1985.

It was soon clear that Peter Meinertzhagen would bring his own particular style to the job. Commenting on the financial results in his first message to staff after taking over, he said: "Behind the figures lie many stories. When you have seen what they mean in terms of improving the lot of peoples living in the developing countries you begin to appreciate that the job we are doing is tremendously worthwhile." This concern with the effect that the activities of CDC would have on the lives of ordinary people in the poorer countries of the world remained a central tenet of his philosophy.

He was able to maintain the centrality of CDC's position in the British government's development assistance programme through his close relations with decision-makers. He was knighted in 1980.

Meinertzhagen travelled extensively for CDC, usually accompanied by his wife, who shared his enthusiasm for development. He took as deep an interest in listening to a smallholder farmer as to a head of state.

He identified strongly with the report of the Brandt Commission in 1980, which emphasised dialogue and partnership between North and South, recognising that private direct investment in enterprises, alongside official aid flows, could greatly contribute to the advancement of developing countries. He recognised that in this partnership lay a niche for CDC to become an effective catalyst for development - a role that CDC has continued to play long after his departure. He particularly valued the expression of this partnership in CDC's provision of management as well as finance to many large projects. He always ensured that training and development of local managers was a high priority.

During Meinertzhagen's period as General Manager, CDC's investments rose fourfold and its operating surplus fivefold. His contribution to this growth and to the growth in reputation of the Commonwealth Development Corporation was immense. On retiring from CDC, he was able to continue his association with emerging economies through membership of the board of Booker Tate.

Peter Meinertzhagen was a very private, unassuming and dependable person - an oasis in the turmoil of the developing world. The nature of the man was well summed up by the Prince of Wales, a member of the board of CDC at the time of Meinertzhagen's retirement. "I am sure that, whatever you do, you will make a great success as a result of your amazing ability to organise and to bring your faculties to bear in such an astute way on so many subjects. I have watched this as a director at our recent meetings and have admired you enormously. I shall miss your presence, your wisdom and your advice."

Many others will echo the Prince's words.

Peter Meinertzhagen, international development manager: born London 24 March 1920; managing director, Alfred Booth & Co 1946-57; Investigations Executive, Commonwealth Development Corporation 1958-59, Head of Investigations 1959-61, Controller of Investigations 1961-62; Regional Controller for West Africa 1962-66, Controller of Operations 1966-69, 1972-73, Regional Controller for East Africa 1969-1972, General Manager 1973-85; CMG 1966; Kt 1980; director, Booker Tate 1989-95; married 1949 Dido Pretty (one son, one daughter); died Marlborough, Wiltshire 12 November 1999.