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Eglantyne was a pioneer who changed the way children were treated. She challenged convention, changed perspectives and forged a new future for the world’s most deprived children.

Her achievements in putting children’s welfare on the world’s agenda rank as one of the great triumphs of humanity.

Today in everything we do, we carry her spirit forward with unrelenting courage and compassion, because we know that a better life for all children is possible.

1919 Defying convention

In 1919, a few months after the Armistice that ended the First World War, a 35-year-old woman started handing out leaflets in Trafalgar Square showing a shocking photo of two emaciated children. Above the photo, the headline read: ‘Our Blockade has caused this – millions of children are starving to death’.

Eglantyne Jebb was arrested and tried for her protest against the impact of Britain’s post-war blockade of Germany and Eastern Europe. At her trial she was found guilty, but the prosecuting counsel was so impressed with her that he offered to pay her £5 fine. It was the first donation to the charity she went on to found with her sister Dorothy Buxton, Save the Children.

1920s: The beginning

Save the Children was not expected to be a permanent organisation, but it was called on to deal with emergency after emergency.

Save the Children quickly became known as a highly effective relief agency, able to provide food, clothing and money quickly and inexpensively. Within two years, Save the Children led a massive relief effort for the widespread famine in Russia. At the height of the crisis in 1921, Save the Children was feeding 650,000 children a day – an impressive feat of international negotiation and logistics that saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Eglantyne was persuasive and committed, and her ideas about children's welfare were innovative.

Her ideas developed into the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which was adopted by the League of Nations in 1924. This declaration was ground-breaking – providing formal recognition that children have rights.

Eglantyne Jebb died in 1928, but her vision lives on through the work of Save the Children.

1930 - 1950s: A growing organisation

In the 1930s we expanded our work beyond Europe, establishing the Child Protection Committee, which lobbied for the rights of children in Africa and Asia.

We worked with refugees from the Spanish Civil War and we were part of the Inter-Aid Committee that organised the rescue of children from Europe just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

Individual child sponsorship began in response to the plight of children caught in the crossfire of the Second World War in Europe. By the autumn of 1946, we were working with children, displaced people, refugees, concentration camp survivors in devastated areas of France, Yugoslavia, Poland and Greece.

Save the Children reaches New Zealand

The first branch of Save the Children was established in New Zealand in 1947. Set up by Minnie Havelaar in North Canterbury, her aim was to find foster homes or sponsors who would care for war-orphaned children, mainly from the United Kingdom but also from the rest of Europe.

1950s: Working in Asia

The Korean War began in 1950. Two years later the first Save the Children workers arrived. Save the Children stayed for more than 20 years. Many children were left destitute by the war. Malnutrition and associated diseases were rife, and the need for basic housing, food, education and healthcare for Korean children was evident.

Two New Zealand nurses, Elsie Leipst and Eunice Laloli, were part of the team of Save the Children workers. They were the first New Zealanders to be deployed and funded by Save the Children New Zealand.

At the end of the 1950s, The Declaration of the Rights of the Child was adopted by the UN General Assembly and recognised it in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

1960s: The growth of development

By the 1960s there was a new emphasis on development in newly independent nations within Asia and Africa.

Western governments and the public were prepared to give money and resources for long-term development projects, as well as emergency relief.

Globally, Save the Children was able to attract more funding for long-term development projects and emergency response. We:

  • participated in the Freedom from Hunger Campaign, which aimed to prevent the causes of famine and food shortages
  • started new work, such as the Mwanamugimu project at Mulago Hospital, Uganda, which taught mothers about nutrition
  • worked with refugees from the Chinese invasion of Tibet, children in Vietnam and children on both sides of the civil war in Nigeria.

1970s: Broadening our Reach

In 1971, war broke out between India and Pakistan – around three million people died, and East Pakistan became Bangladesh. There were many refugees, and supporters of Save the Children in New Zealand sent milk powder, soup powder and medicines to assist. The situation in Bangladesh resulted in a record 1975 appeal, and eventually, as the country stabilised, our work changed to focus on longer term development with communities in the Jamuna River area.

In 1977 a number of Save the Children organisations around the world formed an alliance to coordinate campaigning work to improve outcomes for the world’s children, sowing the seeds for Save the Children as a single global movement for children.

1980 – 2000: Adopting the Convention

STOP Polio was a special appeal supported for several years by Save the Children in New Zealand. By mid-1983, the campaign was operating in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and was gradually handed over to the governments of each of the countries involved.

The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, the culmination of Eglantyne Jebb’s original work in the 1920s.

196 countries have now signed up to this legally binding convention, which New Zealand signed in 1993. The Convention is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world.

The Convention has helped create change at the international level by providing a common foundation for global partnerships on child rights.

In 1992, the plight of children in Somalia, suffering after years of drought and famine was highlighted in New Zealand, with an appeal raising more than $1.2 million.

Globally, we continued to work with children affected by war in Iraq, Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, Angola and the Balkans. We:

  • campaigned for the rights of child soldiers and for the protection of children forced from their homes by war
  • encouraged young people to speak out about their experiences and fight for positive change.

2000 and beyond

The new millennium saw the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals, universal goals adopted by the UN that decreed that by 2015, child poverty was to be cut by two-thirds, extreme poverty and hunger halved and that all children would be able to go to school.

This decade saw Save the Children become part of the world’s impressive progress towards achieving many of these goals.

We launched a global campaign to save children from preventable illness, laying the foundations for our No Child Born to Die campaign.

And, in a decade of terrible humanitarian crises, we massively increased our capacity to respond to emergencies. Our five-year response to the 2004 Asian tsunami was one of the largest in our history, benefitting around one million people.

We worked to reach children in intensely hostile environments during the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, and in completely cut-off communities in the aftermath of the Pakistan earthquake in 2005.

In 2010 Save the Children became a global organisation – uniting 30 member organisations under Save the Children International to deliver change for children in 120 countries.

In recent years we continued with our development programmes in countries including Bangladesh, Indonesia and Fiji and responded to emergencies in Fiji, Yemen and Sulawesi.

Eglantyne Jebb dreamed of a world where no child should suffer extreme and life-threatening hardship. Today, there are signs that the world is making real progress towards her vision, but there is still much to be done.

The dramatic recent progress the world has made in saving children’s lives has brought us to a pivotal moment in human history. We have the opportunity to be the first generation to ensure that no child dies from preventable diseases, and that every child gets the chance to fulfill their potential.

By 2030 we will work to ensure:

  • No child dies from preventable causes before their fifth birthday
  • All children learn from a quality basic education
  • Violence against children is no longer tolerated.

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