For more than 70 years, Christian Aid has fought poverty, strengthened the poor, and turned hope into action.
In the aftermath of World War II, British and Irish church leaders met, determined to do everything possible to help European refugees who had lost everything.
The name they gave themselves was Christian Reconstruction in Europe. Their purpose was not to evangelise, but to alleviate suffering for ordinary people, no matter what their faith.
Christian Reconstruction in Europe became a department of the British Council of Churches, and was eventually renamed the Department of Interchurch Aid and Refugee Service. In a decade, it raised £29,000.
Janet Lacey became president in 1952. Her appointment stamped a mark of courage, honesty and determination on the organisation that has remained ever since. Some clerics thought her views too radical, but Lacey was not going to allow faint-hearts to get in the way of her aim to ‘combat poverty’ across the world.
Janet Lacey stamped a mark of courage, honesty and determination on the organisation that has remained ever since.
We began to look beyond Europe and expanded our remit to support development work in newly independent nations in Africa and Asia, and respond to emergencies worldwide. We were involved in the creation of Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) – an organisation dedicated to sending skilled volunteers to work in the developing world – and providing grants for Palestinian, Chinese and Korean refugees.
We made sure that the public was aware of continuing problems in the world by organising the first Christian Aid Week in 1957, and by famously building a replica of a refugee camp in the church of St Martin in the Fields in London. Since that first Christian Aid Week five decades ago, our little red envelope has dropped through literally tens of millions of letterboxes.
In 1964, on the back of the success of Christian Aid Week, we changed our name to Christian Aid. The change of image worked, and our annual income reached £2.5 million by the end of the decade.
As world food shortages increased, Christian Aid began to look more deeply into the causes of poverty – not just at dealing with its symptoms. We began campaigning in earnest when we challenged the British government on its aid and trade policies in 1969.
Severe famines in Pakistan, Sudan and Ethiopia in the 1970s prompted a huge rise in public support for aid. However, it was becoming obvious that emergency relief wasn’t enough. What starving people needed was a genuine solution, not hand-outs.
We saw that it was not just an act of nature that made people poor, but political and economic decisions. Alongside traditional relief and development, we started to consider how to work for people’s rights.
We worked in the world’s hotspots: in Vietnam and Laos, destroyed by war; in Uganda after the overthrow of Idi Amin; in Nicaragua after the toppling of the dictator Somoza; and in Kampuchea (present-day Cambodia) after the fall of Pol Pot.
By now we were working in 40 countries, funding more than 100 long-term development projects.
The 1980s saw a huge change in the way aid agencies operated. Large-scale fundraising events like Live Aid brought the troubles of the world to the public’s attention as never before. More people were giving, and for the first time government funding was made available to Christian Aid.
By the end of the decade, Christian Aid’s annual income had increased from £5.5 million in 1979 to £28 million in 1989. That same year, Christian Aid Week raised more than £6 million.
But this extra funding was needed more than ever. The global economic recession was gathering pace. We provided support in many countries, including Lebanon, Mozambique and Ethiopia.
Our director, the Rev Michael Taylor, articulated our purpose in line with the times. Drawing on liberation and other theology, he wrote that our aim was to ‘strengthen the poor’. He drove the creation of the Southern Africa Coalition, which brought together trade unions, church groups and others to press the British government to help end apartheid. This political stand seems mild today. But back then, it was a controversial and courageous act.
In the 1990s Christian Aid became one of the first aid agencies to highlight ‘unsexy’ and complex global economic issues.
Our celebrated Banking on the Poor campaign alerted people to the need to cancel Third World debt, while the culpability of the World Trade Organisation and International Monetary Fund was exposed in our Who Runs the World? campaign.
We were not afraid to confront governments and challenge the rules of the day that said charities should be apolitical. This resolve helped change government trade policy and establish the Fairtrade Foundation - our campaigning works. Christian Aid was also quick to respond to humanitarian crises in Rwanda, the Middle East and, at the end of the decade, working across ethnic and religious divides in Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
We also ran an enormously successful supermarket campaign, when hundreds of thousands of supporters handed in their till receipts to demand that their supermarkets use decent labour standards. Clare Short, then Secretary of State for International Development, appeared on the front page of the Independent, standing next to a giant lobster and bunch of grapes, at the launch of the campaign.
As we neared the new millennium, we were able to announce that world leaders had promised to deliver $100 billion in debt relief after our intense campaigning as part of the Jubilee 2000 coalition.
The 21st century has bought new challenges to Christian Aid. The so-called war on terror, climate change and the increasing number of natural disasters, and the fact that almost half the world’s population live on less than US$2 a day, mean our work is needed more than ever.
In 2007 our annual income was £86.5 million and we now work with more than 650 overseas partners in around 50 countries. We are putting into practice our aim of turning hope into action.
But 60 years on from our founding, the fact that we’re still here isn’t a victory.
The world isn’t getting any fairer. Children in Gaza are going to schools pockmarked with bullet holes. Parents are selling their daughters in marriage to earn the money so the family can survive a drought in Afghanistan. Life expectancy for women in Zimbabwe is now 34 years old – it was 65 just a decade ago. The income of some multinational companies exceeds that of entire countries.
So we won’t stop now. We’ll carry on tackling the causes of poverty. We’ll continue to support local organisations to deliver real, practical change. We’ll work so that everyone can fulfill their right to a decent life.