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).
Humanitarian aid work—particularly healthcare and disaster response—necessary requires focus on the present in order to respond to crises that are often acute or emergent. Sustained focus on the immediate has given the impression that the aid sector is ahistorical. Without historical perspective, aid workers run the risk of not responding appropriately or perpetuating injustices, thus harming those they are meant to help. There is, however, a growing interest by aid workers and organizations in history: of their practice and of affected populations. Historical perspectives can lead to more contextually and culturally relevant change that address root causes of the situation. Particularly in the current era of decolonization and anti-racism, learning different histories becomes almost a moral imperative for aid workers. Given this growing interest, how does one instill a sense of value in history on the part of the next generation of humanitarian and development aid professionals?
This blog post emerged out of the recent CNHH panel part of the Canadian Historical Association conference held online in the spring. In response to the theme of public engagement, this is a look at how the 1965 National Film Board film, You Don’t Back Down, is employed in undergraduate global health ethics education. For many students who have their sights set on becoming healthcare providers in global disaster and crisis settings, it is also an introduction to histories of humanitarian and development aid work. For learners who are decidedly future focused, the aim of the ethics lesson is also to instill a respect for historical thinking and to incorporate it as a valued component their practice.
In this, the first of a two-part blog, I begin with a brief contextualization of the ethics lessons, followed by a summary of the film and an overview of the classroom discussions. I conclude with a reflection on the value of historical thinking and incorporating visual histories in global health ethics education.
For the past three years, a colleague and I from the Humanitarian Health Ethics research group have been providing guest lectures on global health and humanitarian health ethics in Bachelor of Health Sciences course. We were initially approached by a former director of MSF Canada who had been teaching the course who stated that upward of 50% of volunteers did not return for a second overseas experience. This attrition had been linked at least in some instances to feeling unprepared, unsupported and left uncertain about decisions made in ethically troubling situations. The course in which lessons are taught is a second-year undergraduate course in which students come with little critical awareness of medical-based aid work and even less historical knowledge of short-term, international medical practice experiences. In the lessons, we take a case study approach, which is a conventional approach to ethics education, that is preceded by an overview of a brief survey of moral philosophy theories related to global health. Cases help generate discussion, which is a fundamental part of resolving (mitigate or manage) ethical dilemmas. Cases presented are predominantly text based, but we also present a short film as another form of a narrative based case. The film itself acts as a case study helping students recognize unethical practice and means of applying the principles we present to them in the theory part of the lesson.
Briefly: what are ‘global health ethics’? Global Health ethics can be described as building on public health ethics and foundational bioethics but with what Solomon Benatar calls “global state of mind” (Benatar in Pinto and Upshur 2009). Pinto and Upshur (2009) have further added principles and values particularly relevant to learners of global health ethics including : humility, introspection, solidarity, and social justice . Further guidance on global health and humanitarian ethics can be found in the resources provided by the Canadian Association of Global health CAGH: equity, inclusion, shared benefit, authentic partnership, commitment to the future and responsiveness to causes of inequity.
Filmed in a cinema verité style, You Don’t Back Down (Don Owen, director, 1965, 28 minutes) follows newlyweds Dr. Alex McMahon and his wife Anne, a teacher, during an undisclosed point in their two-years overseas commitment with CUSO (Canadian Universities Service Overseas) in newly independent Nigeria.
Over the course of the film, we see 27-yr-old Dr. McMahon consult with patients plagued by overgrown tumours and strange skin ailments. We tag along as he makes his rounds at the Mary Slessor hospital where he and a (Scottish) doctor are apparently the only physicians. And we watch him perform surgeries. Meanwhile, we see his wife Anne do some shopping at the market, then balance pots and navigate smoke in her little kitchen as she prepares a meal.
Throughout, we see the benefits of CUSO’s presence in, according to narrator Robin Spry, “Helping a developing nation in concrete ways.” We see crowds of patients seeking treatment, and we are shown the doctor perform various tasks, suggesting diligence and dedication. The film reaches a climax when Dr. McMahon performs emergency surgery in the middle of the night with his European colleague.
We also are witness to the struggles the couple face in terms of culture shock, isolation and homesickness. Both Alex and Anne at separate moments talk of their struggles to find themselves at home in a culture so different from their own. With Anne at one point turning away from the camera—head in hand—saying, “I just want to go home”. Alex is filmed stating, “There are lots of days I would give anything and head home, that’s for sure.”
In those moments of frankness, Alex admits to having overcome or managed fears and doubts: “You come over so ignorant before. I come over here and drink anything, I wonder, ‘Is it boiled, or filtered?’ Before I eat any food, ‘Does it have unboiled water in it?’ I look at any vegetables, ‘Is it covered with E.coli?’ Oh, it will drive you nuts because you’re so suspicious of everything and it takes a while to get used to it. Then you find that the food really is food, and it doesn’t really make much difference.”
He also shares his biggest fear, coming up against a challenge—medical or otherwise (he doesn’t specify)—that he won’t be able to handle. That’s when he says, so as to steel himself, “You don’t back down, you can’t.” While this statement is where the film gets its name, it is also a point at which the doctor is faced with potentially ethically contentious decisions to be made. This position he finds himself in, as well as that of everyone else in the film, leads to a host of quandaries that students begin to pick up on a morally problematic and in need of sustained discussion.
Be sure to read Part Two of this blog, which looks at a summary of the in-class discussions and a reflection on the value of historical thinking and incorporating visual histories in global health ethics education.
“Making Connections with the Public: Alternative Approaches to Learning History”, The Canadian Historical Association Annual Meeting; Sponsored by the Canadian Network on Humanitarian History, Online, 31 May 2021.
In preparation for the Herrenhausen Conference “Governing Humanitarianism” in 2022, two online pre-panels will take place on September 27 and 28. Scholars from various disciplines and practitioners in humanitarian sectors are invited to join this years’ online event.
In the last two decades, humanitarianism and human rights have crystallized as two flourishing fields of research within various disciplines. Both concepts have been the subject of a lively international debate among political scientists, legal scholars, and historians, concerning their respective histories, nature, and impacts. Humanitarianism and human rights are often presented as opposing terms, and sometimes even as rival concepts, by scholars advocates on both sides. Such definitions typically present humanitarianism as resting upon a discourse of charity and suffering, while human rights are based on a discourse of solidarity and justice. Yet despite their differences, both concepts also share some similar historical origins and developments. Perhaps most importantly, both embody entangled notions of humanity. Despite the academic efforts to draw clear line between them, the boundaries between aid, relief, and rights remain both blurred and complicated.
The main goal of this digital panel is to discuss this complex relationship from various disciplinary perspectives. Rather than highlighting the differences between humanitarianism and human rights, leading experts from political science, international law, and international history will focus on the manifold overlaps and links between the two fields. When and how did these concepts compete and reinforce each other? In what ways did the emergence of humanitarian norms influence and contribute to the global emergence of international human rights law? What entanglements, dilemmas, and tensions emerge out of various competing concepts of humanitarianism and global human rights? And finally, how does this entwined history influence our landscape of international politics and crisis management today?
The digital panel “Human Rights and Humanitarianism – a Complicated Relationship?” is part of the Herrenhausen Conference “Governing Humanitarianism – Past, Present and Future,” funded by the Volkswagen Foundation.
A link to join the discussions will be published on the Volkswagen Foundation website at the beginning of September 2021. This digital pre-panel as part of the upcoming 2022 Herrenhausen Conference on “Human Rights and Humanitarianism – a Complicated Relationship?” will be held on 27 September 2021, 3:30-5pm. More information, including panel participants and bios, registration, and conference details can be found on the conference website.
Interrogating Power Structures in Aid and Multilateral Institutions
Thursday, 8 July 2021
12.00-17.30 (Irish Time)
Online, via Zoom
What does it mean to embody a lived approach to global solidarity and equal partnership in humanitarian action and advocacy? This workshop, organised by Dóchas and the School of History & Philosophy at NUI Galway, brings together leading voices from the worlds of professional humanitarianism, diplomacy, activism and academia in conversation on three key areas: human rights, multilateralism and the climate crisis. The workshop is funded by the Irish Research Council (New Foundations grant).
Confirmed speakers include:
Hugo Slim (University of Oxford)
Sonja Hyland (Political Director, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade)
Bulelani Mfaco (MASI – Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland)
Tara Rao (Our Ground Works)
Nishanie Jayamaha (Programme Co-ordinator, Climate and Environment Change and Civil Society Space, International Council of Voluntary Agencies)
The Herrenhausen Conference “Governing Humanitarianism” interrogates present issues and future directions for global humanitarian governance in relation to its pasts. Scholars from various disciplines and practitioners in humanitarian sectors are invited to join the event at Herrenhausen Palace, Hanover, on September 13-15, 2020.
Humanitarian organisations across the globe face growing challenges in delivering aid, securing funds and maintaining public confidence. Trade-offs between sovereignty, democracy, security, development, identity and human rights have become highly complex. Self-appointed guardians of the public conscience are now also major sub-contractors of governments, sometimes critics of the very institutions they rely on for funds. Continue reading
The project “Resilient Humanitarianism: the League of Red Cross Societies, 1919-1991” aims to advance the concept of resilient humanitarianism through a historical investigation of one humanitarian body, the League of Red Cross Societies, from its inception to the end of the Cold War. Global humanitarian crises abound due to ongoing conflict and natural disasters, but nation states, bodies such as the United Nations, and humanitarian organization seem incapable of offering lasting solutions to intractable situations. This project employs rarely accessed archives and an interdisciplinary approach to investigate the evolution of humanitarianism, voluntary action, and global civil society during the 20th century. This historical analysis can then be used to inform humanitarian policy, debates, and practice in the present and the future. Continue reading
European Commission | Horizon 2020, project GenHumChild
Project ID: 748770
Funded under: H2020 – EU.1.3.2. – Nurturing excellence by means of cross-border and cross-sector mobility
Call for proposals: H2020-MSCA-IF-2016 http://cordis.europa.eu/project/rcn/209587_en.html
TEMOS (Temps, Mondes, Sociétés – CNRS FRE 2015, Universités d’Angers, Bretagne Sud, Le Mans)
EnJeu[x] Enfance et Jeunesse
In 2017, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) published the second edition of its guide Women, Girls, Boys and Men. Different Needs – Equal Opportunities: GenderHandbook in Humanitarian Action (2017), explaining the necessary gender approach in all humanitarian response, showing that the two fields are closer than never and marking the efforts made in this direction for the last two decades. Traditionally, while referring to
gender, the history of humanitarian aid traditionally privileged the image of women as victims. The newest scholarship is breaking with this pattern. In a first time, research recuperates the hidden stories of women in the humanitarian, and the contributions of Linda Mahood and Tarah Brookfield mark an important step in this direction. In a second
time, historians, but also political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, are willing to explore the humanitarian aid through the gender lens. Their effort takes looking into how socially constructed practices dictated the assignment of specific roles, hierarchies, responsibilities and expectations to men and women working in the humanitarian effort,
but also how structural unequal gender roles present on the field, among the beneficiaries, undermined or even completely compromised humanitarian actions. Recent academic encounters (Gender & Humanitarianism. (Dis-)Empowering Women and Men in theTwentieth Century, 2017, Gendering Humanitarian Knowledge, 2018, L’humanitaire:nouveau champ de recherche pour l’histoire de l’Europe, 2018) and papers (Carpenter
2003, Dolan, 2014; Olivius, 2014, Jones 2013) made already important steps in this second direction. The conclusions drawn from these studies underline the confusion surrounding the term gender, but also the lack of appropriate gender related action on the field. The researchers point out the unilateral, top down, sometimes sterile perspective
humanitarians have, one that ignores the diversity of historical, geographical, cultural, political spaces, as well as local particularities that shaped, negotiated, sometimes disrupted traditional roles and gendered identities. Continue reading
What emotions have to do in the History of Humanitarian Images?
(Geneva 4-5, 2019)
Taking the title of Susan Sontag’s seminal work as a starting point, this workshop aims at re-opening an old debate about the potentialities of exhibiting other’s suffering in order to promote a culture of peace, prevent war and/or resolve conflict. Sontag concluded in her book that images of atrocities had led the Global North to a form of exhaustion, also called compassion fatigue, which has been criticised more recently as a myth. Yet, images remain today the main strategy of humanitarian organisations to raise awareness and funds. Continue reading
This past week, the journal Past & Present from Oxford University Press published a roundtable discussion on the relatively recent and rapid rise in the study of humanitarian history. The following reflects the original introduction to the discussion as published in the journal. Links to the complete article are provided below. Continue reading