War on Want Archive

Scope and Content

Institutional records of the campaign group War on Want, 1951-2006, including constitutional articles, minute books of the Council of Management, AGM minutes, annual reports and reviews, financial papers; correspondence; project files for Africa, Asia, Europe, Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean; campaign and publicity material; and photographic material

Administrative / Biographical History

War on Want is a British based non-governmental organisation (NGO) which campaigns against poverty, inequality and social injustice around the world.

War on Want origins lie in a letter by Victor Gollancz, the left-wing publisher, printed in 'The Guardian' newspaper on the 12th February 1951. Gollancz called for a negotiated end to the Korean War and a creation of an international fund 'to turn swords into ploughshares'. Supporters of his proposal were asked to send a postcard to Gollancz with the word 'Yes'. He received 10,000 replies to his appeal within one month. In response, the Association for World Peace was founded in March 1951 backed by prominent figures in the labour movement. Harold Wilson MP was appointed to chair an Association for World Peace committee to focus on world poverty. The committee's report entitled 'War on Want: A Plan for World Development' was published in June 1952. It identified a rapid growth in global inequality and proposed solutions, including a reduction in military spending to support a system of international aid.

By the end of 1953, the War on Want committee was effectively functioning as an independent campaign group, while the Association for World Peace had itself become largely moribund. A Central Council of War on Want was created, comprising of MPs and regional experts, which met in the House of Commons and the first War on Want conference, was held in London in 1954. The new campaign received support from independent local groups which had been formed to promote the War on Want report and which had already begun fundraising for communities overseas. The funds raised, during the campaigns early years, were largely sent overseas to individual contacts, commonly missionaries, or to international organisations such as UNICEF.

In 1959 War on Want was formally constituted as a charity and limited company. In 1960, the annual convention of the existing local groups voted to disband and co-operate with the new charity's central office. The charity began expanding its activities, instigating in 1959 its first directly funded project, an orphanage in Tunisia for refugees from the ongoing Algerian War. During the 1950s and 1960s funds raised were sent to communities overseas, with the charity promoting co-operative initiatives, such as the Bhoodan movement in India and the Ruvuma Development Association in Tanganyika [now Tanzania], along with projects in over 50 other countries. A network of War on Want shops were set up during the 1960s to raise funds for the group and in 1964 a Medical Department created to send medical supplies overseas.

The organisation was notable among charities during the 1950s and early 1960s in its emphasis, alongside disaster relief, on campaigns for economic and political change, appealing for increases in governmental international aid and, as early as 1962, calling for the abolition of third-world debt. At the same time War on Want participated in campaigns for relief work following humanitarian disasters, such as earthquakes in Agadir, Morocco and Skopje, Yugoslavia [FYR Macedonia]. The charity was central to the setting up of the Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC), established in 1963 as an umbrella group for charities to coordinate public appeals and disaster relief responses.

During the 1970s the Council sought to refine its overseas project work and centralise decisions on the distribution of funding, which had previously often been taken by local War on Want groups or based on the preferences of donors. In 1971, The British Federation of War on Want Groups and Committees was replaced by a regional structure and an International Department was created, incorporating the Medical Department, to direct overseas work.

The charity continued, during the early 1970s, to fundraise for aid relief following humanitarian disasters notably in response to floods and conflict in East Pakistan [Bangladesh] and famine in the Sahel region of Africa. However, the group was increasingly uncertain about the effectiveness of solely relief responses to such disasters. In 1974 the International Department carried out a research report into the causes of the Sahal famine, which concluded that the disaster was caused by the social and economic legacy of colonialism and neo-colonialism. As a result, the charity moved away from relief delivery and instead sought a longer-term response to the famine, developing a five-year political and social programme, focused on a small area of the Sahal, in Guidemaka, Mauritania, which aimed to address inequitable land distribution and promote co-operative agricultural development. The Council sought to further focus the charities work on supporting self-help and community-led schemes over traditional aid and relief, which resulted in War on Want leaving the DEC in 1979.

War on Want increasingly concentrated on producing investigative reports and publicising these via the media. Its campaign reports, initiated in the 1970s, included 'The State of Tea', an investigation of working conditions for tea plantation workers in Sri Lanka; 'Baby Killer' an exposé on the marketing of powdered milk in communities without safe drinking water; and the controversial 'Aid in Conflict', which advocated support for development and humanitarian projects run by Southern African liberation movements.

War on Want's political approach to poverty was at times controversial, leading to tension with the UK Charity Commission. In 1980, 'WoW Campaigns Ltd' was formed, as a separate non-charitable organisation, to allow the group to campaign on more politically contentious issues without the restrictions of charity regulations.

The 1980s saw an expansion of War on Want's work. It broadened its activities beyond it traditional focus on Southern Africa, Eastern Africa and South Asia. New campaigns and projects were launched around Central America, notably on the civil war in Nicaragua; the Middle East, including Palestine; and in Britain. War on Want also increased its work around issues of gender, launching the 'Women for a Change' campaign in 1986 and appointing a first full-time Women's Officer. The rapid growth of the 1980s contributed to wider financial difficulties which forced War on Want into administration in 1989. However, the charity was re-launched, albeit on a smaller scale, in the early 1990s.

At the turn of the millennium, War on Want concerned itself with issues raised by globalisation. It participated in the global justice movement campaigning on issues - close to the long-term concerns of War on Want - such as trade justice, workers' rights and the cancellation of third-world debt. The charity continues to lobby governments and international agencies, and conduct awareness campaigns among the public, releasing reports highlighting the activities of international bodies, governments and corporations, while also supporting grassroots community, labour and civic organisations around the world.

Further Reading:

Mark Luetchford & Peter Burns, 'Waging the War on Want: 50 Years of Campaigning Against World Poverty', London:War on Want, 2003 [SOAS Library classmark: SCRR REF 147/744064].


Unstructured arrangement. Photographic material is primarily held in boxes 109, 128, 161-163, 204-208, 212-215, 217-221, and 260-261.

Access Information

Boxes 66-73 containing multi-media material are currently unavailable.


Acquisition Information

Deposited on indefinite loan by War on Want at SOAS, University of London in March 2006.

Other Finding Aids

Interim unstructured box-list, produced by War on Want, available for consultation.

Conditions Governing Use

For permission to publish, please contact Archives & Special Collections, SOAS Library in the first instance

Copyright held by War on Want, unless otherwise indicated


Accruals expected

Related Material

SOAS Library also holds the records of the anti-poverty charity Christian Aid [Ref: CA]. Christian Aid worked alongside War on Want as a member of the Disaster Emergency Committee. These records include Christian Aid correspondence with War on Want (1957-1968) [Ref: Christian Aid (first deposit), Box CA/I/13].