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Penny, David Henry (?–1983)

by Peter McCawley

David Penny, an oft-irritating and much-loved friend and colleague to hundreds of staff and students at the Australian National University died after a short illness on 24 October.

In a world which too often seems to be dominated by ambitious individuals more concerned with their own advancement than social interest, David Penny was that rare person who can genuinely be called a good man.

There are two aspects of David Penny's life which many of his friends particularly remember: his commitment to applied research on the causes of poverty, and the warmth of his friendship towards his hundreds of colleagues and friends in different nations. His belief that many of the worst aspects of the poverty which exists throughout the world could, with appropriate policies, be eliminated was based on his field work experience in North Sumatra in the late 1950s.

As a young scholar, he and his family lived through difficult times in Medan in the early 60s, while he collected data on agricultural development and village life in North Sumatra and taught at various tertiary institutions in Medan. Later, in the mid-60s, he joined the Indonesia Project in the Department of Economics, Research School of Pacific Studies and spent much of the next decade constantly writing and lecturing on problems of rural development and poverty in Indonesia.

During his years with the Indonesia Project, David Penny devoted quite extraordinary amounts of time to sharing ideas and research experiences with the staff and students who made up a community of his friends. A draft of any article or thesis chapter about almost any aspect of social, economic or political affairs in Indonesia would attract dozens of detailed comments and suggestions—ranging from the invaluable and entertaining to the downright infuriating. As likely as not, a day or so later the recipient of one of these barrages would find him willing to spend another three or four hours in discussion about the research problems and Indonesian development issues.

Why was David Penny so often prepared to spend so much time on such matters? The answer is quite straightforward: he believed that world poverty is a social disease which is largely unnecessary, and that a proper study of the social and economic factors at work in poor societies is likely to help eliminate the disease. A second part of the answer is also quite straightforward: he was a warm and friendly man who enjoyed the company of his friends, wine and interesting conversation.

In the mid-70s David Penny moved from the ANU to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs where he continued his studies of the problems of world poverty. He built up a network of dozens of Aboriginal friends and spent thousands of hours talking and writing about the difficulties which black Australians now face within their own land. He kept in close touch with his Indonesian studies as well, frequently exchanging letters and articles with Indonesian colleagues in Bogor, Medan, Yogyakarta and elsewhere.

When the unexpected and awful news that his life was soon to end came, he turned all of his attention to his most urgent unfinished work: a manuscript on the economics of famine. It is fitting that a manuscript on this subject occupied David Penny during the last few months of his life, because he cared more deeply about the daily lives of the wretched of the earth than any other person I have ever known.

Original publication

Citation details

Peter McCawley, 'Penny, David Henry (?–1983)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/penny-david-henry-808/text809, accessed 25 November 2017.

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