It was one of those student gatherings that are universal. Intense young people discussing the world’s problems over coffee at four o’clock in the morning; un-happy at their relative comfort while so many were desperately poor. But what could be done? This is where the discussion usually falters, yawns start appearing and the group dribbles away. In February 1969, at one of the Oxford colleges the discussion didn’t end on this note. Instead one bright spark suggested students would be prepared to tax themselves and give one per cent of their income to help lessen poverty. And the ideas kept flowing. The tax system could work through ‘standing orders’, people signing an instruction to their bank to make regular termly payments from their account. Who should the money go to? Any of the organisations working for change that the individual wanted. Let them decide. ‘After all,’ someone enthused, ‘the Third World should be one of our first priorities.’
Third World First had begun.
It had all the weaknesses of new groups and young people. Organisation was scatty, no-one knew too much about the issues. But it also had a lot of strengths. There was an enthusiasm and freshness (they asked Ford for six cars to help the cause - they were refused) and in the self-tax scheme they had a strong and coherent idea for the movement. It quickly proved itself. In the first ten days that small group of insomniacs, coffee drinkers and idealists persuaded a thousand other Oxford students to sign standing orders taxing themselves, providing a regular income for many of the overseas charities. Oxfam was convinced of the soundness of the group and since then has provided the financial backing, together with trusts and the Overseas Development Ministry, for the student-based Third World First.
I joined the group two years later. One of four field-workers, we divided the country’s universities and colleges between us and set about organising and sustaining student campaigns. Activities varied with the interests of the different campus groups, they included film evenings, speaker meetings, sit-ins, poverty lunches, demonstrations, simulation games, grand weekend conferences, public fasts and private readings. All were aimed at generating more interest and understanding of the global povertycreating machine. But always at the centre of the educational activities were the bankers order campaigns. By the time I had joined, 25,000 students had signed Third World First bankers orders to different charities. That year another 10,500 were persuaded to join the scheme.
The next year I moved on to work with some other former Third World First activists who were starting the New Internationalist magazine. This publication was just one spin-off, Third World Publications, several film catalogues, development action guides for North of England and Scotland, study tours to Algeria and Tanzania, and very significant sums of money raised for the overseas charities; all have been generated by Third World First. Perhaps the most important achievement of all has been immeasurable: the tens of thousands of graduates who were first introduced to the issues of global injustice by a 3W1 canvasser asking them to stump up and sign a bankers order. These students have now moved into government, industry, teaching, social work and retained some commitment to the ideas they were convinced of by Third World First.
Recently I returned to the organisation to find a new group of fieldworkers looking forward to campaigning amongst the students this Autumn. The self-tax scheme was still central to their plans, and the group exuded confidence and enthusiasm. If you are a student, or know anyone in Higher Education who would be interested, you could do a lot worse than contact:
Third World First,
232 Cowley Road, Oxford, U.K.
Tel, Oxford (0865) 456 78.