BBC News UK Edition
 You are in: Special Report: 1999: 06/99: debt  
News Front Page
N Ireland
UK Politics
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
debt Thursday, 5 August, 1999, 09:54 GMT 10:54 UK
Tony Robinson answers your questions
Tony Robinson
Comic Relief's Tony Robinson answers questions put to him by users of BBC News Online on international debt relief. Tony is a British comedian best known for his role as Baldrick in the Blackadder series.

Roy Young, UK: Should there be some monitoring of how money released by dropping debt is spent? Or is this a western intrusion and we should just let the local governments get on with it?

Tony Robinson: I don't think that's a cynical question, I think that's a very realistic one. I think if we simply campaigned on a utopian idea that we dropped the debt without there being any scrutiny by anyone, we would be as irresponsible as those people who lent money to dodgy regimes and for badly thought out projects in the first place.

However I think we've got be very careful of what that scrutiny consists of. In the past, a lot of the developing world has been told that what they've got to do is obey what the IMF says and what the World Bank says. If they do that they'd be seen as good boys and girls and their debts would be restructured.

But what the IMF and the World Bank have tended to say is you've got to cut back on the state's expenditure. What that's meant is schools have closed, hospitals have closed and support for small farmers has closed. So in an attempt to do what the West has wanted them to do those countries have made the people where they live considerably poorer and that's daft. So we've actually got to work out a different way of doing things.

Nina Kashani, England: What can I do to help cancel debt?

Tony Robinson: At the moment, if you're in Britain, the most important thing is to ring up the debt wish phone line on 0906 680 0866 and express your support for getting debt cancelled. Or you can email

But apart from that there are a lot of long term things that can be done. I would like to see the time arise in the next few years where the cancellation of debt is as big an issue as nuclear disarmament was worldwide in the '50s, as the stopping of the Vietnam war was in the '60s, as combating racism is, as combating environmental degradation is.

We're only going to do that if people start talking about it. And if people want to do something, the best thing they can do is talk to someone else about it. Just talk to their mates. If everyone convinces one person of the need to drop the debt then within no time at all it will become an issue so significant that every world leader has to take it seriously.

Stephen Gogerley, UK: Would there be any significant negative economic effects to creditor countries if third world debt were to be written off?

Tony Robinson: I think it's probably true that there would be a minimal adverse effect on creditor countries, although I suspect that would be more on paper that in reality. If you stop thinking about this in terms of countries and just think about it in terms of people.

If someone owes you some money and they simply can't pay any more, you're still going to have written down on paper that they owe you that money. As soon as you scribble that debt out it's going to look on paper as if you're worse off. But in reality you aren't because you're not getting the money anyway.

Sarah Smith, England: Dear Tony, this is not so much a question as an apology. As a mother of three very healthy young children I was appalled that I had not realised the extent to which the so called "debt" of these countries compounded their problems. In the future I will pay more attention and hope that your campaign has the desired effect. I don't pretend to have ever understood politics but I do understand what the mothers of these children are going through. The thought of my children being ill and not having immediate medical treatment appals me. I hope the government see sense at last and that other countries follow suit, sooner rather than later.

Tony Robinson: She needn't feel appalled, she can just start chatting to other people about it. Thank you for a lovely response.

David Scally, 16: Do you ever feel you want to give up because it feels as though you're having no effect on you campaign? If so, what gives you that extra energy to keep you going?

Tony Robinson: I suppose for me personally, I don't want to be on my deathbed thinking I never tried to make the world a better place. That in the long term is what drives me. In the short term I've been lucky enough to go to Africa on three different occasions for Comic Relief, and each time I've seen evidence of how well thought out investment coming from Comic Relief money can transform people's lives.

I've seen first hand how the work Comic Relief does can work. And the impact of us dropping the debt would be 50 times more than that. Even the $50 billion that we've got today is going to have a fantastic impact in the lives of tens of thousands of people. That doesn't make me want to give up, that makes me want to try even harder.

Karen Poole: Do you directly support Jubilee 2000 in its ideals?

Tony Robinson: Yes I do. I think some people haven't understood Jubilee 2000. I think some people have thought that Jubilee 2000 means that the debt is simply dropped and that the countries who are in debt can then go out and spend the extra money on ice-creams, lollipops and nuclear weapons.

Jubilee 2000 is a very hard-headed campaign, it recognises that there needs to be a fair process of scrutiny with everyone talking and agreeing things together. What's important is that the debate should start and it should start now. Because in the past solutions have often been imposed on poor countries, and actually it's the poor countries themselves that need to be central in those discussions about what happens in debt relief.

Ali Smith, UK: Do you think the politicians will really listen? They have been known to let us down in the past...

Tony Robinson: All politicians are worried most of all about the electorate, that's the way they stay in power. If they believe the electorate about something they will inevitably respond. If you remember when the Labour Party came into office, it looked pretty certain that they were going to get rid of foxhunting, the countryside lobby mobilised and we've still got foxhunting.

Now whatever you might think of that as a result, it does demonstrate how much the government is concerned about what the people of this country think. That's why what we wanted to do was to create a big campaign that mobilised tens of thousands of people. But it mustn't just stop now, that campaign has got to keep going for the next two or three years. Only that way will we see the dropping of the debt which really impacts on the poorest people.

Tony Duckenfield, UK: Presumably interest is charged on the debt. Rather than simply cancel it, does it make any more sense to reduce the interest charged on it to zero or near zero?

Tony Robinson: I think the answer to that is it all depends on the debt. The fact is that there are already a lot of countries who have already paid a lot more than they originally borrowed in interest charges already, so why should we continually bleed them with getting them to pay more money, whether it's the capital or the interest?

Craig, England: Do you not think that cancelling Third World debt will send the message that encourages Third World countries to live off the intelligence and hard work of others?

Tony Robinson: I'm glad that question has come up, although I think the conclusions are absolutely wrong. Most of the people in the world who are paying the debt aren't the people who incurred it in the first place. In the 1970s when the developed world was awash with oil money, large countries didn't actually know what to do with their money, they had run out of people to invest in.

It was at that time that bright young men from the banks went round the developing world with suitcases full of wads of cash and big cheque books, encouraging even the most dodgy dictatorships to invest in the most inappropriate things. Grandiose schemes which had nothing to do with ordinary people - large dams that just created enormous environmental degradation, weaponry, those kind of things.

In virtually every country that leadership disappeared long ago, and the people who are saddled with the debt are the poor people who never benefited from it in the first place. Of course it's important that there should be stringent scrutiny to make sure that when we reduce the debt we don't get into another cycle of inappropriate spending.

But to believe that some people borrowed a load of money and spent it in an irresponsible way and now want to be let off their responsibilities is a total failure to understand how those countries incurred the debt in the first place.

A Foreman: Can you say that you actually enjoy working with Comic Relief?

Tony Robinson: I think I'm just about the luckiest bunny I know!! I was a bit nervous the first time I went out to Africa, I thought why am I here, what role is there for a comedian off British television to be going into an African village where people have so little food that they might not be here in six months time. What can I say to them, what can they say to me?

But when I had my first conversation with the women of the village, all of the members of the crew were introduced, it was explained what the camera man did, it was explained what the sound crew did, then it was explained who I was. One of the women said "Oh yes we understand, he is a story teller, it's his job to tell our stories to the people back in England."

And ever since she said that I've felt happy and privileged to do what I do and the pluses are just enormous in terms of the relationships and friendships that I've developed with people around the world.

Simon Millard, UK: Since you started your involvement with Comic Relief, what are the biggest changes you have seen, either in this country or in Africa.

Tony Robinson: I think the biggest change that I've seen is that there is now the beginning of a real developmental lobby in this country. I think the idea of international development was something a bit faddy ten or twelve years ago, it tended to go with open-toed sandals and home-grown pottery.

Whereas now I think there are enormous numbers of people, particularly young people, who understand that it's one of the two or three primary challenges for the next century. And a lot of that has been to do with the education work that Comic Relief has done, and I'm proud to have made my own contribution to that.

Graham Bell, Brazil: I cannot speak for other Third World nations, but as an Englishman living in Brazil these last 8 years I find the idea of unconditionally cancelling its debt to be a well intentioned irrelevance, since any benefit will almost certainly not reach the poor. However, if the wealthy democracies are apparently holding the purse strings, is it not a good opportunity to make corrupt governments clean up their acts by insisting that they must either pay the debt or, say, spend half the amount on new schools or something? This would surely be a more concrete way of benefiting the people who should have benefited in the first place.

Tony Robinson: I think that's absolutely right, I was over in Brazil looking at an Oxfam project at the end of last year and what was very interesting for me was that there are laws in place to ensure that the poorest people have rights over the land they farm. So the problem isn't that the people don't have those rights, the problem is making sure that they are able to take advantage of their rights.

Often regional governments won't let them, or large land owners won't let them, and at that time it's very important that there is someone and some organisation around to help them assert those rights and Oxfam have been very good at doing that. I think that part of the 'drop the debt' campaign should be and must be to ensure that poor people have the right to cultivate the land which they're working.

I think that if you ask virtually anybody in the Jubilee 2000 coalition what deal they would want when the debt is dropped I think that would be one of the things that would come out strongest. It's extraordinary that in a country like Brazil there's actually no need for anyone to be hungry, you don't need to fly lots of jets in with great big packs of rice, all you need is fair treatment. I'm sure the correspondent would agree.

Linda Cole, UK: Who makes the final decision about dropping the debt? Can the UK drop their part of the debt or do we have to wait for some sort of meeting of world leaders to agree to drop the debt?

Tony Robinson: There is a meeting of world leaders, it's taking place now over the next three days. Yes of course unilateral acts always help but the thing that goes to make the biggest impact is if we get everybody to agree to drop the debt.

I don't think it's either or, I think we're just going to have to use every single strategy we can think of. Both Gordon Brown doing it on his own and leaning on people like Clinton and Japanese countries.

David Murphy, England: I fill with tears of laughter when I see Baldrick. Where did you get his personality from?

Tony Robinson: It's a combination of things. In the first series he was much smarter than either Percy or Blackadder. Ben Elton saw the series and thought it would be a good idea if Baldrick became the biggest arsehead the world had ever know. And we all sat round and tried to create that stupid person.

I was actually watching a bit of Blackadder II on the telly last night, and although he's stupid, he's not nearly as stupid as he becomes by the time Blackadder IV went on. In my own personality, he comes from that part of me that hated being told off and would often drop into stupid mode rather than be told off really severely when I was confronted by my headmaster. If I was as brain dead as I appeared then nobody could punish me because it would be cruelty to animals.

Spencer English, England: Sorry if this is not relevant but would dearly love to know whether there is any plan in Tony's future to film any more Blackadder shows.

Tony Robinson: I'm talking to you from the film lot at Shepperton Studios where we're currently making a half hour Blackadder movie to be shown in the Millennium Dome on the hour every hour, for the first year of the millennium and it's great to be working with the Blackadder team again. They are as talented, wonderful and as irritating as they ever were.

Callum Jacobs, UK: I'm a big fan of your Channel 4 programme Time Team - How did you first get interested in archaeology and what big discoveries can we expect from Time Team this year?

Tony Robinson: I've always been very interested in history, I think it helps you to understand the world greatly. I don't think you can begin to understand why people have got into the debt they are in the developing world unless you look back twenty or thirty years and look at what happened then. So history has always been very important to me.

Archaeology to me is a very dramatic way of revealing what history has to offer for us. I got very friendly with an archaeologist called Nick Aston about fifteen years ago and he got more and more famous until eventually he became a professor and was offered his own television programme. He said would it be alright if my mate does it to, so I came on board and have been on board ever since, never believing it would be the smash hit that it has been.

Who ever would have thought that half a dozen old hippies digging in a field over three days would become compulsive viewing. But it has and we've won lots of awards this year and I'm currently filming the next series which will start on Channel 4 next January.

Tony Robinson answers your questions
Links to more debt stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more debt stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | World | UK | England | N Ireland | Scotland | Wales |
UK Politics | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology |
Health | Education | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |