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Global lifesaving: A brave legacy

Drowning prevention across borders has been part of the RNLI’s vision since our charity’s foundation.

Lifeguard training in Bangladesh

Photo: RNLI/Mike Lavis

It doesn’t respect borders. It holds no prejudice for one skin colour over another. It will not favour a shout for help in Tenby over one in Tanzania.

And it cannot be cajoled by wealth – nor will it pity poverty.

Water – whether an ocean, a pond, a river or a reservoir – treats us all the same and, in so doing, connects us.

That binding force is something RNLI founder Sir William Hillary took to heart, and breathed into the RNLI from its very inception.

A bold vision

Hillary’s mission, while local in practice, was always global in its philosophy.

He knew that if organisations worked together around the world ‘without judgement’, then these partnerships would ensure a ‘reciprocal service’ for everyone. ‘It is consistent with a wise and enlightened policy,’ he said, ‘which should extend our views from our own immediate coasts to the most remote quarters of the globe.’

Sir William Hillary's original Appeal to the British Nation pamphlet, 1823
Sir William Hillary's original Appeal to the British Nation pamphlet, 1823

His was a bold vision, and one the RNLI has pursued from the day of its foundation in 1824. No matter where a vessel was from or how it got into trouble, the RNLI was there – as it is today – without exception, for anyone who needed saving.

Where and how

So when, in 1970, the institution was called upon by the British Red Cross for its first international deployment, it didn’t ask ‘who’ or ‘why’, it asked ‘where’ and ‘how’.

A devastating tropical cyclone had struck Bangladesh. Already, 500,000 lives had been lost. And those who’d survived were left without food, drinking water or medicine. The RNLI’s expertise was to prove invaluable: a team of just eight crew members, deployed in six D class inshore lifeboats, brought humanitarian aid to over 10,000 people.

RNLI staff and volunteers prepare to fly to Dhaka to help those caught up in flooding in East Pakistan in 1970

Photo: British Red Cross

Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), 1970 – it took the RNLI just 36 hours to provide 20 boats with engines and spares for an airlift from Stansted to Dhaka to help those caught up in the flood disaster

This incredible beginning to a broader international journey was just the start of a rich and rewarding global lifesaving legacy.

A duty to share

It wasn’t until 30 years later, after another urgent call for assistance – this time to flood-hit Mozambique – that the RNLI realised the enormous impact its specialist insight could have at home and abroad. 

Mozambique 2000, RNLI volunteer crew members returning home onboard a transport plane

Photo: Mick Kingston

Mozambique 2000, our volunteer crew members returning home onboard a transport plane

Inspired by another successful deployment and the knowledge gained on the ground, the organisation formed its Flood Rescue Team. Dedicated to sharing knowledge as well as practical assistance, these expert lifesavers now provide vital training and ever-ready search and rescue across the UK, Ireland and beyond.

Today in Bangladesh, where flooding continues its routine devastation, the RNLI’s work with the country’s Fire Service and Civil Defence has resulted in more lives saved, more rapidly and more efficiently than ever before.

The RNLI’s international work not only gives us the opportunity to share our 190 years of expertise and save even more lives, but it also helps us learn new lifesaving skills and develop our own capabilities at home. (Our international work is funded with just 2p out of every £1 donated.)


Every 85 seconds, someone drowns.

For a world-class organisation dedicated to drowning prevention, this number hurts. But what is even more galling is the key reason why: a lack of access to water safety education.

While swimming lessons are part of life for children in the UK and Ireland, globally, many children are not so fortunate.

In 2012, recognising the urgent need for education, the RNLI’s international team began bringing its extensive experience to those who need it most.

Partnering with local organisations to provide lifeguard, first aid, and survival skills training has – in 6 short but productive years – had a profound impact on communities from Accra in Ghana to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.

Children taking part in the Aquatic Survival Programme in Zanzibar

Photo: RNLI/Mike Lavis

Children take part in the RNLI-supported Aquatic Survival Programme in Zanzibar

A lifesaving network

Tanjid, 12, from Cox’s Bazar sums it up perfectly. ‘When the wave came and washed us away, I thought I was not about to live anymore,’ he recalls.

‘If the lifeguard was not there on that day, three friends might have been washed away.’

A lifeguard on duty in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh

Photo: RNLI/Harrison Bates

A lifeguard on duty in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh

The RNLI’s international work is already saving lives, but it’s also bringing together an incredible network of like-minded people from the global drowning community. To date, our Future Leaders in Lifesaving programme has trained over 100 delegates from 30 countries to set up, develop, and run their own lifesaving organisations.

At the RNLI, we’re proud of our courageous and selfless history, at home and abroad. But we neither rest on past victories nor take for granted future successes.

At the turn of the next century, today’s achievements will become part of our brave legacy. And that legacy, as it was always intended, will be one without judgement, without prejudice, without borders – without exception.

Find out more about the RNLI's international work here.