History of child sponsorship | ActionAid UK

History of child sponsorship

Nearly 50 years of child sponsorship

ActionAid has been changing lives of children and communities through child sponsorship for nearly 50 years.

Our child sponsorship programme doesn’t just provide short-term solutions in the form of food, water and school books to children over a small period of time.

But the idea behind our initiative is to ensure a child’s whole community benefits from the sponsorship as well.

Because we believe that children can only thrive when the environment around them is conducive to their long-term development.

This is why, from the start, we have been working closely with local communities in countries around the world.

Trace the history of ActionAid’s child sponsorship programme and find out how we developed an initiative that is helping thousands of people around the world.

Story of ActionAid’s child sponsorship

In 1972, a humanitarian and philanthropist named Cecil Jackson-Cole, founded a child sponsorship charity called Action in Distress.

This was to be the precursor for ActionAid, as we know it today.

In a small, rent-free office in Oxford Street, he signed up 88 sponsors for children in India and Kenya. This paid for their school books and uniforms.

By the time our first overseas office opens in Nairobi, Kenya in 1974, there were 2,000 sponsors signed up to the scheme. 

A few years later, we launched child sponsorship in Burundi. And the total number of children sponsored around the world rose to 12,150

In 1978, our first community-wide development project, funded by child sponsorship started in Andhra Pradesh, India and others soon followed in Burundi, Kenya and the Gambia.

In 1979, we changed our name to ActionAid and supported nearly 40,00 children around the world through sponsorship



At the start of 1980s, we started work in refugee camps in Somalia and launched a twin programme between UK communities and villages in India and the Gambia.

By our 10th anniversary in 1982, we sponsored 73,200 children. Our sister organisations in France and Spain have already launched by this time as well.

1985 was the year of Live Aid and the famine prompted us to start work in Sudan.

By the late 80s, celebrities such as Hugh Dennis and Nicolas Owen had joined ActionAid as child sponsors. 



The decade started with ActionAid launching two ships to carry emergency supplies to war-torn Mozambique.

In 1993, sponsorship funds help us launch a literacy tool called Reflect which taught five million people across 70 countries to read and write. Reflect went on to win five UN literacy prizes.

In the same year, after the genocide in Rwanda, ActionAid was the first charity to organise emergency relief in Zaire’s refugee camps.

In 1995, Prince Charles becomes our patron and the decade ended with the launch of our first global education campaign.



In 2001, the Gujarat earthquake killed 20,000 and left 1 million people homeless. ActionAid ‘adopted’ women and young girls to stop them being trafficked. 

We ran a campaign to abolish school fees in Kenya and helped around 2 million children in school in 2003. 

In 2004, we helped persuade the government to spend 0.7% of national income on development aid.

By 2006, the Global Campaign for Education had helped 40 million children into school.


Today ActionAid runs child sponsorship in 68 communities in 30 countries helping thousands of children. 


Page updated 30 March 2020