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.
*Featured image: Lewis Perinbam, 1987 (Source: Unknown photographer/LAC e999919839-u).
Public history is about taking history beyond the traditional academic setting and applying it to real-world challenges. It is history that is aimed at being accessible to the public. This is exactly what Anna Kozlova, a PhD Candidate at the Department of History at Carleton University, has been doing over the past several months in her MITACS-funded research project “Two case studies in the public history of international development policies in Canada: the Lebanese Special Measures Program (1975-1990) and The Life of Lewis Perinbam (1925-2008)”.
In November 2020, two books on the Spanish Civil War, Guerre d’Espagne et socialisme international: Dernière chance pour l’ordre démocratique d’entre-deux-guerres by Nicolas Lépine, and Not for King or Country: Edward Cecil-Smith, the Communist Party of Canada, and the Spanish Civil War by Tyler Wentzell, were launched as part of the Ottawa Historical Association’s first virtual book event. This event was organized with the help of Dr. Dominique Marshall of the CNHH and was co-hosted by Dr. Marshall and, historian and war journalist, Michael Petrou.
In the Winter of 2020, I had the opportunity to work with the communications department at the World University Service of Canada, or WUSC, to help sort through decades worth of documents, photos, and other forms of media stored in its Ottawa office. Shortly after the First World War, WUSC, under its original name, European Student Relief, was created in Switzerland to help support European students displaced by the war. Although the archives I had the chance inventory did not span all the period back to the 1920s, they helped to paint a picture of the work WUSC has done in the last several decades, and the aid they have been able to provide to students on an international level. While most of WUSC’s archives are held in an off-site storage facility, a small portion of them are still stored in their main office and needed to be inventoried.
This post originally appeared on Active History and is cross-posted here with permission.
“I just hope he’s at a cottage without a cell signal and wi-fi.”
I said that to my mother-in-law several times during a recent visit to Cape Breton. After all, I told her, the book project that Greg Donaghy was co-editing with myself and fellow historian Stacey Barker had recently been progressing ahead of schedule (Breaking Barriers, Shaping Worlds: Canadian Women and the Search for Global Order, UBC Press, 2021). Perhaps he felt no need to respond to my texts and emails quickly. But even as I said it, I knew it was not right. If Greg was anything, he was conscientious and dedicated to his work. Emails, texts, and phone calls rarely went unanswered. The thought of him lounging at a cottage while his inbox filled up was, in fact, patently un-Greg-like, but I did not let myself think about alternative explanations. I had been waiting to hear from him for some guidance before I undertook a few revisions to our introduction. On July 5, we all learned the terrible truth – a heart attack left Greg in a coma, which led to his death on Canada Day.
The Asian-African Conference Bulletin, published daily during the African-Asian conference at Bandung in April 1955, 65 years ago, is a significant and unused source in international history. In its pages, as much as in the conference hall around it, was born the idea of Asian-African solidarity and non-alignment. The Bulletin and other sources from the conference are now digitized as an e-dossier at historybeyondborders.ca (a new web site to which CNNH members and readers are invited to contribute).
As everyone’s inboxes and newsfeeds are flooded with announcements of cancellations and postponements of all things academic and otherwise, it is nice to have the opportunity to announce the start of something.
The Canadian Network on Humanitarian History and Carleton University’s Department of History have partnered with five Canadian NGOs to conduct historically grounded work relevant to each organization. With matching funding provided by a MITACS Accelerate grant, Dr. Dominique Marshall and Helen Kennedy (PhD candidate) are aiming to demonstrate how micro-histories of individual organizations can be used to address global humanitarian challenges and effectively contribute to the future of humanitarian networks.
Julie Delahanty’s voice softens remembering Meyer Brownstone, a knowing smile spreading across her face: “the world we know is a much, much better place for having him in it,” the executive director of Oxfam says, ending her speech.
On November 14th the Graham Centre marked the launch of A Samaritan State Revisited: Historical Perspectives on Canadian Foreign Aid, a University of Calgary Press publication, edited by Centre Director Greg Donaghy and David Webster of Bishop’s University. The launch took the form of a lively and well-attended panel discussion that featured two contributors to the volume, David Black of Dalhousie University and Stephen Brown of the University of Ottawa, as well as Margaret Biggs, former President of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the 2019-2020 Graham Centre / Massey College Visiting Scholar in Foreign and Defence Policy. The discussion and an invigorating Q & A was moderated by Donaghy.
David Black’s opening remarks highlighted the historic relationships between Canadian aid policy-makers and the university community. Early aid, dominated by technical assistance programs, drew regularly on university researchers for expertise. From the 1960s to the 1980s, universities also provided a supportive if not uncritical constituency for ODA.