War on Want: Poverty is political

On the occasion of War on Want’s 60th anniversary, Sue Branford looks at the turbulent history of this uniquely left-wing charity

March 18, 2011
13 min read

Many people on the left are, like me, inherently suspicious of charities. Living in the global south, I became aware of the way hand-outs from charities can plaster over deep structural problems. By making it possible – just – for exploited people to survive in degrading poverty, charities can help to defuse social discontent and dissipate legitimate protest. Indeed, it’s clear that many charities that vehemently claim to be ‘non-political’ are, in fact, propping up the status quo. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that so many of us react scornfully to Cameron’s talk of the ‘non‑political Big Society’.

Yet a few charities are different. They see that all engagement is essentially political and it is a case of deciding at an early stage whose side you are on. If a charity chooses its alliance partners with care, it can help build a global movement for radical, far-reaching change.

Top of my list of alternative charities is War on Want, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. It is an organisation that never fails to impress with its unerring ability to link up with new movements and partners that will emerge as key players in a country’s struggle to build a more socially just society. War on Want is small compared with the economic might of Oxfam or Save the Children. Yet time and again it has provided financial and political support to a struggling new movement at a key moment, when such backing can mean the difference between survival and collapse.

I’ve seen this happen in Brazil, where War on Want was one of the first agencies to enter into partnership with the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST), the landless workers’ movement that was later to play a key role in defending the rights of peasant farmers and in pressing the government to carry out radical agrarian reform. Similarly in Palestine, War on Want has been unique among British charities in supporting the grass‑roots resistance to the Israeli occupation – just as it supported the liberation movements in Algeria, Vietnam and Eritrea in the past. And in South Africa, where it once played its part in the anti‑apartheid struggle, War on Want now works in partnership with radical social movements challenging the ANC government to deliver social justice to everyone.

Setting up War on Want

War on Want has evolved over the decades, yet its radical focus was evident from the start. Victor Gollancz, a left-wing publisher, began it all with a letter to the Guardian (then the Manchester Guardian) on 12 February 1951. The Korean War was in full spate and, just as today, many on the left were raging against the absurdity of a conflict that was killing thousands of innocent people, could not be won and was absorbing vast quantities of money.

In his letter Gollancz made two points: he called for immediate talks to negotiate an end to the war, and he made an impassioned plea ‘that a great international fund should be established, as an urgent matter of life and death, for improving the conditions of those fellow human beings, who, to the number of hundreds of millions, are starving, destitute and in despair.’ In a brilliant campaigning touch (which shows that, even before the days of text messages, individuals could be mobilised to take simple, effective actions), Gollancz asked everyone who agreed with him, to send him a postcard with the single word: ‘Yes.’

The letter provoked a massive response. Gollancz received some 10,000 postcards – far more than he had anticipated – and quickly set up a new organisation called the Association for World Peace. Harold Wilson, then an up-and-coming young Labour Party politician known to be interested in world poverty, read Gollancz’s letter and in the following year drew up a report entitled ‘War on Want – A Plan for World Development’. Wilson later claimed to have thought up the phrase ‘War on Want’ while in the bath. The mobilisation around this report, involving figures such as Barbara Castle (later to become the UK’s first minister for overseas development in the 1964 Wilson government), led to the emergence of War on Want as a movement to fight world poverty.

Other voluntary organisations were created around this time to tackle the same issue, but War on Want was the only one to emerge from the labour movement and the only one to see itself, above all else, as a political campaign group. The leaflet for the public meeting that launched War on Want in July 1952 stated unequivocally: ‘Transcending all our immediate problems, this gap between the rich and the poor of the earth is the supreme challenge of the next 50 years.’ This call for social justice rings just as true today. The underlying cause of today’s global problems, from the climate crisis to the enduring problem of world starvation, is the determination of a tiny group of capitalist corporations to grab a larger and larger share of world income.

Growing radicalisation

As War on Want developed, its underlying political stance pushed it into growing radicalisation and confrontation with the authorities, particularly the Charity Commission. The struggle for the creation of the state of Bangladesh was an early case in point. Independence forces in what was then East Pakistan won a huge victory in the elections at the end of 1970, and tensions increased as West Pakistan refused to allow East Pakistan to secede. Then, on 25 March 1971, a massacre by West Pakistan troops triggered a brutal civil war. Adding to the devastation caused by a recent cyclone, the war led to starvation, a cholera epidemic and a mass exodus, with eight million people seeking asylum in India.

While many charities pulled out during the worst of the conflict, War on Want stayed. Moreover, it made clear from early on that it supported the struggle of the Bangladeshis for national liberation. Soon after the end of the war, War on Want made a loan of £100,000 to the new government so it could buy rice to alleviate hunger. It stipulated that the loan was to be repaid in local currency to fund development projects in the country. War on Want has maintained its close links with the people of Bangladesh, still supporting the struggle of Bangladeshi women garment workers to earn a living wage today.

As was to happen again and again, War on Want’s unequivocal support for the liberation struggle in Bangladesh created a backlash in the UK. In March 1972, the organisation’s offices were burgled, with a note left behind criticising War in Want for its support for Bangladesh. At about the same time, the Charity Commission complained about the content of a War on Want advertisement in the Times. The advert sought to raise awareness of ‘the plight of the people of Bangladesh’ but the commission said that War on Want ‘had crossed the borderline into the political sphere’. War on Want decided to fight back, publicising the case and challenging the commission’s judgement. It was deluged with telegrams of support and funding to cover legal costs.

Other early experiences soon convinced War on Want that its main focus must be to fight the causes of poverty, not its symptoms – a principle that it has adhered to ever since. This led the organisation to commit to supporting progressive movements overseas while running radical campaigns at home. Under the aegis of a young John Denham, better known today for his role in Labour’s shadow cabinet, War on Want pioneered the first popular campaigns on the cancellation of third world debt, while its ‘Women for a Change’ campaign was an early drive to highlight women’s rights in development. War on Want was also the first organisation to draw attention to the damage caused by baby milk companies with its publication The Baby Killer, the German translation of which brought about a libel action by Nestlé in the Swiss courts. As a result of the worldwide movement launched by the exposé, the World Health Assembly adopted its international code on corporate marketing of baby milk formula in 1981.

Throughout these years War on Want increasingly became a target of the right. In what was to become a standard media attack, the Sunday Express carried a story in November 1978 under the headline ‘War on Want cash grab by Marxists’. War on Want’s main crime, according to the paper, was ‘exposing “colonialism” and encouraging “liberation movements”’. The Daily Mail devoted a front page lead story to the organisation in September 1987, accusing War on Want of a ‘blatant propaganda barrage against America, the West, Nato and “imperialism” generally’.

The Galloway years

Like many organisations on the left, War on Want has had its share of internal conflict. This is not surprising perhaps, as impassioned, committed individuals will tend to clash over the policies their organisations should adopt. But the four years that George Galloway was in charge were certainly among the most turbulent in its history.

George Galloway was just 29 years old when he was appointed to lead War on Want in 1983. Even so, he had considerable experience, having been a full-time organiser for the Labour Party in Dundee for six years. For a while, everything went well. Galloway set about strengthening links with the trade union movement and the Labour Party. In December 1983 he held a reception in the House of Commons with Harold Wilson as host, to build closer relations with the parliamentary party.

Galloway also strongly promoted War on Want’s development work. Famine had once again ravaged the Horn of Africa. Bob Geldof’s Band Aid initiative had led to a huge increase in donations, and War on Want became the lead agency for two consortia bringing relief to the Ethiopian regions of Eritrea and Tigray. War on Want had been working in the region for some years and it was emphatic that the only way for aid to be effective was to channel it through the Eritrean and Tigrayan liberation fronts. War on Want argued that such action was helping to strengthen the liberation movements rather than the Ethiopian government, challenging the state’s monopoly over the use of aid resources for political and military ends.

Galloway was also vociferous in his support for the Nicaraguan people under the Sandinistas, launching in 1985 a ‘Nicaragua must survive’ campaign against US aggression, in conjunction with the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign. Unsurprisingly War on Want again became a target of the right. Complaints were made to the Charity Commission, which censured the organisation both for its political support to Nicaragua and for its active engagement with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.This flurry of activity led to what appeared to be a huge increase in War on Want’s resources. However, this was deceptive, as much of the money had come from the two consortia formed to deal with the emergency in the Horn of Africa. Eventually the surge in income being channelled through War on Want’s accounts led to serious financial problems, and the organisation ended up having to shut down almost all its operations. War on Want would later win a substantial out-of-court settlement from its auditors for damages resulting from their failure of oversight.

The incident that really catapulted War on Want into the headlines, however, came right at the end of Galloway’s time at the organisation. In September 1987, Galloway called a press conference in Glasgow to announce that he would be stepping down from War on Want as he had just been elected an MP and wanted to concentrate on his new role. A pack of reporters arrived, most of them keen to grill Galloway about a trip to Athens which he had undertaken in 1985, while still in charge of War on Want.

As some of the details about travel arrangements unravelled, journalists became convinced that Galloway, who was well known as a womaniser, was covering up an affair. After intense grilling he admitted that he had been accompanied by ‘lots of people, many of them women’. To the amazement of the journalists, he added: ‘Some of them were known carnally to me. I actually had sexual intercourse with some of the people in Greece …’ The newspapers were full of the story the next day. While on one level it was trivial, the image of ‘charity boss George Bonkaway’ having a whale of a time while Africans starved was undoubtedly damaging to War on Want’s public image.

Loud and proud

In the past 10 years, War on Want has maintained its radical identity and rebuilt itself as a tightly managed organisation. It works in partnership with some of the most innovative social movements around the world, including workers’ collectives, trade unions, landless people’s movements and women’s rights groups, as well as resistance movements in Palestine, Iraq and Western Sahara. It runs hard-hitting campaigns against corporate and government targets alike, and is prepared to take on big brand UK companies openly in the media.

Its radical focus still brings War on Want into regular conflict with the Charity Commission. Zionist groups have made repeated complaints to the commission, given War on Want’s vocal support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement in Palestine, but War on Want has successfully fought off all such attacks. Most recently, War on Want has been referred to the Charity Commission by Tory MP Matthew Hancock over the organisation’s support for direct action by tax activists against companies such as Vodafone and Topshop. Once again, War on Want is unrepentant.

War on Want’s current executive director John Hilary recognises the importance of staying true to the organisation’s history of political engagement: ‘Too many British NGOs have been seduced into unholy alliances with big business and the state. War on Want’s strong links with social movements in the global South help keep our politics where they should be, in the tradition of radical resistance. Whether it be fighting the cuts in Britain or challenging the injustices of global capitalism, the war must go on.’

Sue Branford is a War on Want trustee. For a fuller account of War on Want’s history, see Waging the War on Want – 50 years of campaigning against world poverty by Mark Luetchford and Peter Burns (2003), available from waronwant.org/shop

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