Gollancz's letter to The Guardian called for an end to the Korean War and the creation of an international fund "to turn swords into ploughshares". All those in support were to send a postcard to Gollancz with the simple word 'yes'. Within a month he had received 10,000 replies.
The Association for World Peace was formed in March 1951 to meet this response, and in May it invited Harold Wilson MP to chair a committee which would work out a plan "for the conquest of world hunger". This eventually became War on Want: A Plan for World Development, published on 9 June 1952.
War on Want has always been at the forefront of the debates on the structures that perpetuate global poverty and injustice. As early as 1961, War on Want raised concerns about 'third world' debt and warned it would be a central issue in the future.
In the 1970s we helped to expose the scandal of baby foods companies marketing powdered milk as a healthier option than breast milk to mothers in the global South. This was a more dangerous and expensive option for these mothers, who had no access to safe drinking water and sterilisation facilities. War on Want was also instrumental in campaigning targeting UK based companies, for workers' rights on tea plantations in their supply chains, and supported the South African struggle against apartheid. All of which spoke to our goals of promoting human rights and fighting the root causes of global poverty.
The 1980s saw War on Want embarking on ground-breaking campaigns on Third World debt and the role of women in the struggle against entrenched poverty, and we continued to support the liberation movements in Eritrea, South Africa and Western Sahara with the goal of protecting people’s human rights, lives and livelihoods.
The 1990s focused on the need to respond to issues raised by globalisation. We have always put workers' rights at the centre of our work, as well as looking for innovative ideas to ensure the benefits of a global economy are shared equally. This was reflected in our early call for the introduction of a Tobin tax on currency speculation. We continued to look at the structures that perpetuated poverty.
The 21st Century
Throughout its history War on Want has supported people who have struggled to find their own path out of poverty. We work in partnership with progressive movements and other organisations in the global justice movement to build alternatives to a world economic system that has only increased inequality and injustice as well as human rights abuses.
Our 2016 campaign to ‘Protect Local Democracy’ inspired over 23,000 people to write to the government rejecting its plan to block local councils from deciding where to invest their pension funds. In 2017 the legal challenge to the government won! Local councils are now free to boycott and divest in a win for local democracy.
War on Want has a long history of battling trade deals that protect the interests of the powerful few and not those of the many. Since 2014, War on Want has played a lead role in the successful campaign against the dangerous Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which promised to open up our most dearly held institutions and regulations, from the NHS to food safety – threatening the wellbeing of us all. We then focused on TTIP’s evil twin CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) between Europe and Canada. Working with our trade union affiliates and online campaigns group 38 Degrees, we helped secure nearly 3.3 million signatures on the European Citizens’ Initiative against TTIP and CETA. By making some of CETA’s elements the domain of voting in national parliaments, once again we hope to have seen off the imposition of an undemocratic and unfair deal.
Our Stand with Migrant Workers: End Precarious Contracts campaign launched with a UK wide day of action to demand Sports Direct end its use of precarious contracts. Shortly after, Sports Direct offered retail staff the chance to move off zero hour contracts.
Our partner Students Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), and launched their research in our report This Way to Dystopia: Exposing UNIQLO’s abuse of Chinese garments workers. SACOM’s research forced UNIQLO to improve working conditions of garment workers in its Cambodia factory. We then supported their call for the fashion giant to publish details of every company involved in making their clothes. Thanks to the actions by our supporters – they did! We continue to press UNIQLO to deal fairly with the mainly women workers who produce their garments. Improving pay and conditions for women garments workers would realise a better life for many millions of families around the world.
In the wake of the horrific Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, War on Want channelled support to affected garment workers through our Union partner on the ground. With them, we raised a 100,000-strong petition calling on fashion retailers to sign up to the new Bangladesh Safety Accord, and drove over 150 companies to join the initiative.
The Accord represents a major step forward in ensuring that there must never again be another disaster like Rana Plaza: more than 1,500 factories have now undergone safety inspections in Bangladesh, and any considered to represent an immediate threat to life have been closed.
Our partners the National Union of Plantation, Agricultural and Allied Workers (NUPAAW) in Zambia secured a stunning wage increase of up to 66% for agricultural workers. War on Want’s partner Sikhula Sonke, a women-led trade union of farm workers in South Africa, won a 50% increase in the minimum wage for casual farm labourers as part of the prolonged strike action taken in 2012.
Workers in China won an important victory in the long struggle for workers’ rights when our partner Labour Action China successfully secured £234,000 in a collective claim for compensation for silicosis victims from the company Lucky Gems and Jewellery. Our joint report, Breathless for Blue Jeans, turned the spotlight on the Chinese factories still producing distressed denim for the international market, despite voluntary bans on sandblasting that causes deadly silicosis among garment workers too.
In 2012, War on Want partner organisations in both Kenya and Zambia won the legal right for market traders and street vendors to work without fear of eviction or harassment by the police. This victory is of huge significance to the millions of women and men forced to eke out a living in the informal economy of those countries, and the millions more family members whom they support.
In February 2014, War on Want’s Executive Director was a member of the first ever UK parliamentary delegation to occupied Western Sahara, meeting with Saharawi human rights activists and other civil society leaders who had spent long periods in secret detention as a result of their protests against Moroccan military rule. Our visit was widely covered in the local media, and the parliamentary debate we organised on our return was packed. War on Want remains committed to the struggle for Saharawi self-determination, and will continue to press for a proper human rights monitoring mandate for the UN peacekeeping force in the occupied zone.
The long battle for a Robin Hood tax – originally launched by War on Want as the Tobin tax campaign in 1998 – won a major victory in May 2014 when 11 European countries (including France, Germany, Spain and Italy) confirmed they would introduce a financial transactions tax together. This success sets a strong precedent for the introduction of further taxes on bank profiteers in future, and will raise billions of euros for public expenditure each year.
Our work with trade union Unite and US pressure group Change to Win successfully highlighted the £1 billion tax dodge by Boots the Chemist since being bought up by venture capitalists in 2007. Following the international media exposure of its aggressive tax avoidance practices, Boots increased its tax payment to the UK exchequer by 40% in 2014.
Our campaign to stop the exploitation of workers in supermarket supply chains scored a double victory when the UK government agreed to set up a Groceries Code Adjudicator in 2013 to police supermarkets’ relations with their suppliers in the UK and around the world. Following a final burst of public pressure, the government also agreed to grant the Adjudicator powers to fine those supermarkets that continue to abuse their power over global supply chains with the goal of better working conditions and pay for the workers and small companies that provide our groceries.
Together with our sister organisations in the Dismantle Corporate Power coalition, War on Want secured another victory when the UN Human Rights Council agreed in June 2014 to launch negotiations towards a legally binding international framework on business and human rights. The UK, US and other Western governments tried to defeat the resolution just as they have done all previous attempts to hold transnational corporations to account at the UN level, but they were outvoted. By promoting human rights and fairer pay and conditions many millions of workers and their families will benefit with a better standard of living.
Together we're winning the fight against poverty and human rights abuses and for justice.