Top 5 Introductory/Overview Works in the History of Humanitarianism

~ as recommended by Sarah Glassford, September 2021 ~

Looking to understand the long history of humanitarianism, but not sure where to start? Baffled by today’s complex humanitarian aid landscape? Look no further. The field of humanitarian history is dynamic and growing, but a handful of works will help English-language readers get a handle on what’s what and why it turned out that way.

What follows is a shortlist of works suitable to introduce scholars, students, and/or the general public to the history of humanitarianism from its origins in the late 18th century anti-slavery movement to the “complex humanitarian emergencies” and long-term development work of the early 21st century. Their respective bibliographies offer suggestions for further, more specialized, reading.

Here are my (current) top 5 essential reads, in order of publication:

1. John F. Hutchinson. Champions of Charity: War and the Rise of the Red Cross. Westview Press, 1996.

The late John Hutchinson’s clear-eyed, critical examination of the complicated origins and deeply political evolution of one of the modern world’s most significant humanitarian players was a pioneering effort of its kind. Subsequent scholars have had access to sources from which Hutchinson was barred, but his work still stands up, and has inspired many historians of the Red Cross and other major aid organizations.

2. James Orbinski. An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-First Century. Anchor Canada, 2009.

In contrast to the other works on this list, the great strength of Orbinski’s volume is that it is openly and deeply personal. A long-time humanitarian worker in the field and leader within Médécins Sans Frontières and other aid organizations, Orbinski takes the reader to the frontlines in Rwanda, Sudan, and Kosovo, vividly portraying the compassion, politics, and moral dilemmas of contemporary humanitarian aid.

3. Michael Barnett. Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism. Cornell University Press, 2011.

In this foundational attempt to trace the origins and evolution of humanitarianism over several centuries, Barnett outlines a useful periodization and notes key turning points, while also providing a thought-provoking framework for understanding the paradoxes (and frequent failings) of humanitarianism – especially its paternalism. An excellent starting point that lays out the important roles of economics, politics, and sentiment in shaping humanitarian thought and action, it influenced a host of subsequent studies.

4. Heide Fehrenbach and Davide Rodogno, eds. Humanitarian Photography: A History. Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Visual imagery as a means to convey the depths of suffering humanity and appeal to the generosity and compassion of potential donors is absolutely central to the history of humanitarianism. This pioneering collection of essays on the history of humanitarian photography (including cinema and other elements of visual culture) is therefore a valuable resource for understanding the larger history of humanitarianism. Case studies in the volume range from imperial evangelicals to contemporary photographers.

5. Salvatici, Silvia. A History of Humanitarianism, 1755-1989: In the Name of Others. Manchester University Press, 2019.

Another valuable overview, Salvatici integrates the many insights that emerged from the explosion of studies following Barnett’s 2011 book. The two works are largely complementary in terms of turning points and periodization, but Salvatici challenges the idea of a “golden age” of humanitarianism prior to the end of the Cold War and gives more time to discontinuities and contradictions along the way. The influences of colonialism and the postcolonial order are given particular attention.


Dr. Sarah Glassford is the Archivist for the Leddy Library Archives & Special Collections at the University of Windsor. She is also a social historian of modern Canada whose published works include Mobilizing Mercy: A History of the Canadian Red Cross (MQUP, 2017), as well as two essay collections co-edited with Amy Shaw: A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the First World War (UBC Press, 2012), and Making the Best of It: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the Second World War (UBC Press, 2020).