The moral crusade to free the Third World of debt in the year 2000 was started by two dedicated ex-colonialists
MARTIN DENT finds it almost impossible to keep his shirt tucked in, but he may turn out to be responsible for cracking one of today's most intractable economic problems. For his brainwave - which moved tens of thousands of people to form a human chain round the Birmingham summit yesterday - has brought the Third World debt crisis to the top of the international agenda.

An elderly, eccentric academic - the official peacemaker, in his spare time, to a little-known African tribe - Dent has spent the past decade promoting his idea of a one-off amnesty for the debt of the world's poorest countries at the turn of the millennium. Together with a retired ambassador, Bill Peters, he has inspired a mass movement and caught the attention of the world's leaders.

The two septuagenarians - who have modelled their campaign on the 19th- century crusade to end slavery - are now backed by a formidable coalition of some 80 organisations, ranging from economists to churches, from the TUC and the National Black Alliance to the National Federation of Women's Institutes.

Their plan was endorsed last week by a House of Commons select committee, and is supported by more than three quarters of MPs. Tony Blair is this weekend urging the leaders of the other seven most powerful nations to make cutting the debt burden one of their highest priorities, in order to "give Africa a future".

THE debt crisis could hardly be more urgent. The so-called developing countries now owe the rich world some $2170bn (pounds 1370bn), up from $1400bn at the beginning of the decade (a Third World baby is born with, on average, a debt of $482 round its neck); this amounts to 94 per cent of their entire annual economic output, and can never be repaid.

Every day, Third World countries pay rich ones $717m to service their debts - 11 times as much as they receive in aid - but they are still running up a down escalator. Between 1983 and 1990, they paid out $673bn (mainly in interest) to service a debt of $644bn, and yet ended up even deeper in hock.

It reminds Dent of "an absent-minded man who has lost his bath plug." The water gurgles down the plughole of debt servicing faster than the taps of aid and new loans can fill it up.

Both rich and poor suffer. Six million jobs are estimated to have been lost in rich countries in the 1980s alone because poorer ones could no longer afford to import their goods. The UN calculates that if Africa no longer had to pay off its debts the money released would be enough to save the lives of some 21 million children over the next three years.

Both Dent and Peters were in the Colonial Service in West Africa, though they did not meet until three decades later. Dent, who is now 73, was a district officer in Nigeria, just before and after independence. In 1960, he quelled widespread riots in the land of Tiv in the east of the country, going in unarmed and calling for order: 2,000 people promptly surrendered to him.

When some of the Nigerians who had helped him to stop the riots were accused of starting them, he gave evidence on their behalf. Even though this was after independence, he was hauled before his British boss. "I was told what I had done was bad for the British Empire, an Empire which I believed no longer to exist in Nigeria at that time. I was sent on leave, dismissed in my absence, and I lost my pension."

He had to start again, as a lecturer at Keele University. But he kept in touch with the Tiv people, and four years ago was made an honorary chief and the tribe's official peacemaker. He goes there to sort out disputes such as one over ownership of a 10 sq km patch of land by the river Kungwa Jov, which had claimed more than 100 lives.

Dent, who combines the knowledgeable enthusiasm of Patrick Moore with the dress sense of Lord Longford, had long worried about the debts of the poorest countries when, in 1990, he hit on his idea of an amnesty for the millennium. The idea was based on the old Judaic tradition of a jubilee year, when a ram's horn was blown and all debts were forgiven. It would be an unrepeatable event: countries would not be able to return a few years later to be let off new debts. Thus the burden of unpayable debt would be lifted without fatally sacrificing financial principle. Dent launched the idea with students at Keele University, sending the UN Secretary-General a petition calling on him to declare the millennium year of jubilee and debt remission. His backing faded ("as student support does"), and so began lonely years of writing to MPs, ambassadors, bishops and bank chairmen, and praying twice a day for help.

Meanwhile, Bill Peters, now 74, was ploughing a parallel furrow. A former colonial officer in Ghana, he is one of the very few to have been recommended for an honour by the newly independent government rather than by the British. He ended his career as High Commissioner in Malawi in the early 1980s, just as the debt crisis began to bite.

"It was a very striking thing," he says. "Children began to appear with potbellies, houses had no roofs." Poor people were squeezed, and pressure mounted on the government from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to cut back on social services, accelerating the descent into destitution.

After he retired in 1984, Peters "dedicated himself" to a lonely campaign on the issue, lobbying the Foreign Office and making speeches. It was not until 1993 that Dent and Peters each discovered what the other was doing - and they then immediately agreed to join forces. Peters swung behind Dent's idea and they called their joint campaign Jubilee 2000. They made a remarkably effective double act, with Dent supplying the charisma and Peters the realpolitik.

Dent is the great-great-great-grandson of Thomas Buxton who took over the campaign against slavery from William Wilberforce and with "plodding, dogged determination" forced a reluctant government to abolish it. Deciding that debt imposed a "new slavery" on most of the world's people, they set out to model their campaign on the abolitionist crusade, one of the first great triumphs of single-issue pressure-group politics.

They realised that the small group of anti-slavery campaigners - far less powerful than the plantation owners and their supporters - had only succeeded through "a colossal mobilisation of opinion" and set out to produce another one, particularly targeting the churches, which had, belatedly, tipped the balance in favour of abolition.

They also drew another lesson - that the anti-slavery campaign had only broken through when it adopted "a simple and radical goal". For years, they say, it "worked within the parameters set by the government's policy of ameliorating slavery and working for its gradual extinction", but despite constantly presenting powerful and well-researched evidence campaigners had been constantly outmanoeuvred by ministers and slave-owning interests.

Finally, frustrated, the campaign decided to press for "immediate, total abolition", an uncompromising stance that caught public imagination and brought victory within two years.

Dent's own simple idea - for a millennium jubilee year - similarly galvanised a debate long bogged down by the poor results of various complicated attempts to lessen the debt by remitting it in part or providing new loans on strict conditions. (A huge effort to cut the debt of Mozambique, for example, has reduced its annual payments from $104m to $100m).

Helped by Peters's contacts, the two men quickly attracted heavyweight support - including Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa; Glenys Kinnock; the Archbishop of Canterbury; the then Chairman of Lloyds Bank, Sir Jeremy Morse; and then a growing number of churches and other development groups. Last year they formed the Jubilee 2000 Coalition, which organised yesterday's demonstration.

As the major groups moved in and, increasingly, took the credit, they downplayed the founders' role, even claiming, in their publicity material, to have started the campaign themselves in 1996. But Dent and Peters are unfazed. "Among the Tiv people there is a saying, 'Or Sor on tar a ye ga' - the one who heals the land never eats," says Dent. "They mean that if someone is looking for personal honour he will not succeed in his high task."

BOTH Christians, Dent and Peters say they always believed that their lonely campaign would eventually take off. "I did sometimes wonder whether 1999 might come and we would still only be a small movement with nothing happening," says Dent. "But one's faith was that it would work."

Now, they are determined to help to spark off similar movements in the United States, Japan and Germany, the countries most resistant to relieving debt. They enjoy quoting the 19th-century Anti-Slavery Reporter, which, much struck by the new source of power of the time, described public opinion as "the steam which will enable Parliament to extinguish slavery in one massive stroke."

With Gordon Brown now admitting that the "millennium objective is now part of the G8 process", perhaps some pressure is finally beginning to build up.