Save the Children has been working to protect young people for a century now. To mark the anniversary, the organization is looking back at its founder as it faces new crises.
World War One had just ended when Eglantyne Jebb, a 43-year-old former primary school teacher from England, traveled to Germany, her country's wartime enemy. She was worried that the children there could be suffering under the catastrophic supply situation and the consequences of the reparation demands of the victorious Allied powers. She also visited Austria, Hungary and the Balkans in 1919.
Jebb, who came from a privileged family, had already devoted years of her life to social issues. However, Jebb's literary studies in Oxford and her research work in Cambridge could not have prepared her what she would witness in the postwar landscape — the misery of hunger, families torn apart, orphans, people left injured and traumatized.
Against all odds
The consequences of the first "industrial war" in the history of humankind, which claimed the lives of up to 20 million people, made a profound and lasting impression on her. Eglantyne Jebb wanted to help in the most concrete and rapid way she could.
"All wars, whether just or unjust, disastrous or victorious, are waged against the child." This sentence was to define her future activities. Upon her return to England, she put her efforts into raising funds.
But the British public knew little of the suffering of the German civilian population. The press at the time focused rather on Germany's war guilt. Jebb's efforts were met with fierce opposition; her mission threatened to fail at the very outset.
"So she went to London's Trafalgar Square with shocking photos of starving babies and asked: 'What do actually we stand for as a country?'" Susanna Krüger, managing director of Save the Children Germany, told DW.
As a punishment for her action, Jebb was sent to prison for several days. But she was not intimidated by all the opposition and insults. On May 19, 1919, she founded the Save the Children Fund with her sister, Dorothy Buxton.
For the first time, Germany received aid relief from England. Suddenly the vision became reality: The victor helped the vanquished. This children's rights pioneer then initiated aid projects in Russia, Armenia, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece.
Universal rights for children
In 1924, at a convention in Geneva, the League of Nations — the forerunner of the United Nations — adopted the Declaration on the Rights of the Child that Jebb had formulated. Its principles form the basis of the Convention on the Rights of the Child that was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989.
Before Jebb's efforts, people had only had a concept of being vaguely charitable and "giving poor children something," Krüger said.
But Jebb maintained that this did not go far enough, arguing instead that "children have universal rights and we put these rights on the international agenda," Krüger said. Krüger regards this as a historic milestone and the great life achievement of Jebb, who died at 52, just four years after signing the declaration, from complications following a surgical procedure.
Save the Children International, headquartered in London, is now the largest independent children's rights organization in the world. It operates in 120 countries with 28 national member organizations and employs around 25,000 people. Save the Children Germany was founded in 2004.
The non-governmental organization (NGO), financed by donors worldwide, strives to help people to help themselves. It includes village elders and local councils as well as authorities and governments in its work. Save the Children's primary aims are to organize the supply of food, medicine, accommodation and education.
Every fifth child is at risk
Its largest operations were carried out following World War Two, with a defeated Germany again receiving aid from England, and in the wake of the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
The organization also undertook massive relief efforts during famines in Ethiopia, Somalia, Southeast Asia and Sudan in the 1980s as well as in Rwanda following the 1990s genocide there.
But the number of children living in conflict zones has risen sharply over the past two decades. A study conducted by Save the Children and the Peace Research Institute Oslo found that in 2017 more than 420 million children worldwide lived in conflict zones — almost every fifth child was affected.
Conflicts cast a shadow
At a ceremony in Berlin on Thursday to mark the organization's 100th anniversary, German Development Minister Gerd Müller from Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party (CSU) called for the protection of children worldwide. "Our responsibility as adults is to protect children regardless of where they are born," he said.
Müller praised the organization for making an outstanding contribution to the welfare of children, especially in developing countries. He also called on Europe to stop importing products that involved child labor, ranging from "chocolate to gravestones." The minister stressed that children belonged neither on cocoa plantations nor in quarries, but in school. Worldwide, more than 150 million children had to work — almost every 10th child, he said.
Children today: Worse chances than their parents
Sunday's centenary celebrations are overshadowed by ongoing conflicts in Yemen and Iraq. According to Krüger, the work of aid workers worldwide is also becoming increasingly difficult and dangerous because "international law is less respected than it used to be."
"We are seeing schools and hospitals bombed. Having a red cross on your vehicle does not provide protection anymore,” she said. "You still get shot at.” This was not the case 10 or 15 years ago, Krüger said.
The NGO is also concerned about the upcoming European elections. In Krüger's experience, the EU does not speak "with one voice," even though children in Europe are suffering under increasing social divisions.
"In Europe, we have 25 million children who are also at risk of poverty. It is, of course, a different form of poverty than in central Africa, perhaps. But European children today have worse chances than their parents," Krüger told DW.
For this reason, Krüger said she hoped that those elected would focus on issues that are particularly relevant for the future of children, such as climate change, social injustice and digitization.
She did, however, emphasize that there had been some encouraging developments in the area of aid to children: "In the last 20 to 30 years, child mortality has fallen by 50% and now over 80% of all girls attend school."
Recently, Save the Children laid out three ambitious global international development goals it aims to achieve by 2030: No more children should die from preventable diseases; all children should have access to basic education; and violence against children should no longer be tolerated anywhere in the world.
The NGO views Germany, with its increased geopolitical weight, as having a particular responsibility. As a current member of the UN Security Council and the world's second-largest contributor of humanitarian aid, the German government "has a central role in improving conditions of children in conflict zones," according to the organization's latest report.
Admittedly, however, current developments in global politics provide little cause for hope that Save the Children will achieve these goals within the time it has set itself.