Category: Blog (Page 1 of 6)

The History, and Future, of Transnational Humanitarian Work

Report from Two Years of Co-Creation of Knowledge, Policy, and Education Materials

by Helen Kennedy

August 12, 2022

Back on 6 April 2020, we announced the beginning of a Mitacs-funded research partnership between the Canadian Network on Humanitarian History, Carleton University, and five Canadian NGOs. At that time, we thought pandemic delays might extend our four-month project perhaps an additional two or three months. Now, over two years later, I am happy to announce that the project titled “Micro-Histories of Transnational Humanitarian Aid: Co-Creation of Knowledge, Policy, and Education Materials” has officially come to an end!

For the last two years, I have had the privilege of working with the Latin American Working Group, WUSC (World University Service of Canada), IMPACT (formerly Partnership Africa Canada), the Multicultural Council of Saskatchewan, and the Disability Hub (Centre for Lebanese Studies / Oxfam Quebec) to learn more about the work that they do, tell their stories, and contribute in some small way to the future of their organizations.

Having an opportunity to delve into the diverse histories and policies that shape the work of these disparate organizations has made the long pandemic days a little more interesting. The interviews and archival research I conducted covered a broad spectrum of transnational NGO work, from advocating for more inclusive election practices in Lebanon to contextualizing the work of Black leaders in Saskatchewan at the turn of the 20th century to challenges facing organizations opposed to conflict diamonds to the histories of refugee resettlement and anti-free trade advocacy.

Each organization had unique research challenges and the final reports will be used by the organizations to meet diverse needs.

As the Latin American Working Group grapples with how best to communicate to new researchers the relevancy of their work in the history of transnational solidarity and advocacy movements, we recovered four boxes of archival material and organized their transfer to the LAWG Library at York University. Interviews with former volunteers and the accompanying report sheds light on how anti-free trade solidarity includes more than simply a history of transnational labour history: the histories of refugees, human rights, environmental protection, and diplomacy are bound up in the history of LAWG and Common Frontiers.

As WUSC celebrated its 100th anniversary during the pandemic, we undertook a history of their involvement with Hungarian refugee student resettlement to shine a light on the interconnected nature of their history and their current programming. Today, WUSC hosts over 150 university students annually as part of its Student Refugee Program.

As a founding civil society member of the Kimberly Process, we worked with IMPACT to explore the history of civil society involvement in international diamond regulation. The work aims to support their ongoing advocacy work regarding resource extraction and artisanal mining.

The Multicultural Council of Saskatchewan has been doing incredible work surrounding anti-racism and educating the community on the benefits of cultural diversity since 1975. Our research project aimed to provide context for the life and achievements of Dr. Alfred Shadd, a Black educator, politician, doctor, entrepreneur, and civic leader at the turn of the 20th century.

The Disability Hub at the Centre for Lebanese Studies used our research into inclusive election best practices in North America and Europe as part of their lobbying campaign to improve inclusivity in the May 2022 elections in Lebanon.

It has been immensely varied and gratifying work and I am grateful that our stakeholders gave me their time, expertise, and advice as they navigated adapting their organizations’ work to the online space. I am looking forward to seeing the ways that all the organizations continue to explore their histories in order to shape their futures.


Helen Kennedy is a PhD candidate at Carleton University where she studies international intervention and humanitarian action in Bosnia (1992-1995).

Preserving the Legacy of Influential Canadian Humanitarian Lewis Perinbam (1925-2007)

by Sarah Glassford

April 25, 2022

Over the last two years, the CNHH has worked with the Lewis Perinbam Innovation and Impact Awards to preserve and share the memory and legacy of one of the most influential humanitarians in Canadian history: the late Lewis Perinbam.

The Malysian-born, Scottish-educated Perinbam spent most of his career in the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and “anyone who worked in the international development field in Canada during the 1970s and 1980s would be familiar” with his name. Although Perinbam’s work is well-documented in archival collections and discussed in scholarly publications, those who knew and worked with him wished to make his impact more accessible and widely known to the general public.  As one writer summed up his remarkable career: “Lewis was instrumental in fostering partnerships between Canada and the Global South, in making education more accessible to all and in creating opportunities for young people to become more involved in making our world a better place.” [1]

Thanks to a grant from the MITACS agency, Carleton University doctoral candidate in History Anna Kozlova was able to conduct a series of interviews with friends, relatives, supervisors, mentees, and co-workers of Lewis Perinbam, exploring his significant role shaping humanitarian work and humanitarian workers in both governmental (CIDA) and non-governmental organizations of the later 20th c. The result is a fascinating composite portrait of a pivotal player in the Canadian and international development scene.

Kozlova’s thoughtful interviews, as well as a selection of archival documents not previously available to the public, a podcast, and a timeline of Perinbam’s life can be found in a curated Lewis Perinbam web portal hosted on the World University Service Canada (WUSC) website. Information about the Lewis Perinbam Award (for exceptional volunteers in the field of development work) is also available through the portal.

As ever, the CNHH is proud to support efforts like this one which work to preserve and share the history of humanitarian aid and development work in Canada and beyond.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Anna Kozlova is a doctoral candidate in History at Carleton University and CNHH member interested in migration, diaspora, oral history and transnationalism. She was the lead researcher on a MITACS-funded 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).”

Sarah Glassford is the current editor of the CNHH blog, archivist in the University of Windsor’s Leddy Library Archives & Special Collections, and a social historian of 20th c. Canada.


[1] WUSC, Lewis Perinbam web portal homepage, https://lewisperinbam.wusc.ca/ (accessed 21 April 2022).

Nursing, Empire, & Mobility: Lydia Wytenbroek on American Mission Nurses in Iran & Iranian Nurses in the U.S., 1907-1979

Webinar Report by Maia Luger

March 15, 2022

This blog is cross-posted with DevHistory.

The Tuan Luu Webinar Series continued its 2021-2022 season with Lydia Wytenbroek, an Assistant Professor at the University of British Colombia School of Nursing, who spoke with Dr. David Webster, an Associate Professor in the History department at Bishop’s University. She spoke about the key argument of her current book project, titled American (Inter)Nationalism in Iran, which examines American Presbyterian mission nurses in Iran and their efforts to establish and cultivate international nursing standards in the country.

The American nursing mission in Iran started in 1834, and started an emphasis on nursing in Iran. By the start of the early 20th century, the mission established seven hospitals across Iran, with a prestigious reputation for surgery. Although these hospitals were affiliated with Presbyterian missionary work, many nurses who participated in the program weren’t necessarily focused on religious aspects, instead relating more to the sense of adventure provided by the program and the opportunity to create a professionalized agenda for nursing. They acted as ambassadors of the American model of nursing; the program boasted high admission requirements, a standardized nursing curriculum, nursing exams, certifications, and eventually led to the establishment of professional organizations, such as the Iranian Nurses Association in 1953. Through this program, nationalist concerns were articulated through a medicalized discourse, with the Iranian government using imagery of Iran as a sick mother in need of care. An anonymous nurse who participated in the program referred to nursing as a “means of regenerating an unhealthy Iranian nation”, and nursing was framed as a sisterhood, using American imagery of Florence Nightingale to represent nurses as leaders serving the Iranian nation, not just working in mission hospitals.

Dr. Wytenbroek presented the main argument of her book, that nurses occupied a prominent place in Iranian iconography based on 20th century American mission nurses. Nursing was used as a pathway for imperialism and professionalism, as well as a pathway for women’s mobility in terms of financial, social, geographical, and professional avenues. These women who graduated from these programs became supervisors and instructors, earning opportunities that may have otherwise not been accessible for them. Nurses were also able to use their knowledge and education for personal safety during World War I, with Wytenbroek using the example of Grace Sayad, a trained nurse who fled Iran and emigrated to the United States and was able to work as a nurse and financially support her family to join her in safety. (See this blog post to learn more about Grace Sayad’s story: https://nursingclio.org/2017/09/05/mission-nursing-migration-and-mobility-in-twentieth-century-iran/)

Dr. Wytenbroek also fielded questions from students and webinar attendees, discussing the dominant role of midwives prior to the establishment of the American nursing missions due to the high maternal and infant mortality rate in the early- to mid-1900s. She also discussed the sources consulted throughout her research, primarily naming mission records – and the constraints involved in the dominance of mission resources – as her main source of information. Additionally, she conducted oral interviews with Iranian nurses now residing in the U.S., as well as Iranian women’s journals written in Persian.

The webinar served as an opportunity to hear first-hand from Wytenbroek, a nurse and historian, on her experience and research on the American medical missions in Iran and the role of nursing in Iranian national identity. You can learn more about her work here: https://read.dukeupress.edu/jmews/article-abstract/18/1/36/294387/Nursing-Inter-nationalism-in-Iran-1916-1947  The next webinar will be hosted via Zoom on Wednesday, March 23th, with Jill Campbell-Miller, titled A Mission for Modernity: Canadian Women in Medical and Nursing Education in India.


Maia Lugar is currently completing a Master’s degree in Political Management at Carleton University. She is researching the topic of Indigenous territoriality and federalism, and her research interests include Indigenous structures of governance and Canadian federalism as a vehicle for colonialism.

Dr. Lydia Wytenbroek is an Assistant Professor in the School of Nursing at the University of British Columbia, and a social historian of twentieth-century health care, with a particular interest in understanding and interpreting the historical forces that have shaped the nursing profession and practice. Her current book project, American (Inter)Nationalism in Iran, examines American mission nurses in Iran and their efforts to cultivate international nursing standards in the country.

The Tuan Luu Webinar Series is presented by the Department of History at Bishop’s University. Its Winter 2022 program features webinars by emerging scholars on Global Health and History. Talks are held online via Zoom. Register at https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJUvf-GqqT8tGdyMjPDJW6jsUib0VTpwRKNx, … Visit https://devhistory.wordpress.com/ for details, or go directly to https://zoom.us/j/91288274738.

Breaking Barriers, Shaping Worlds: Reflections on Finding the Women Missing from Diplomatic History

The histories of humanitarian aid and diplomacy are closely entwined. In honour of International Women’s Day 2022, historian and CNHH member Jill Campbell-Miller reflects on the importance of expanding our understandings of diplomacy to include the women whose often unsung contributions have shaped the global order alongside men’s better known diplomatic exploits.


by Jill Campbell-Miller

8 March 2022

If one were to choose a single picture that encapsulates our collective understanding of twentieth-century diplomatic history, a few options easily spring to mind. Perhaps Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at the Yalta conference of 1945 – or the photo of Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, and Georges Clemenceau that graces the cover of Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919. Both photos tell stories of larger-than-life men leading their countries through war and toward peace. These images also carry other notions about diplomacy, such as oak tables surrounded by men smoking tobacco, hammering out the world’s business in an exercise of intellect over force. They arrive in our minds imbued with masculinity, informed by what historians and the media have taught us to see as diplomacy.

Women are largely absent from these famous images and are certainly absent from our shared imagination around what constitutes “diplomacy” in the twentieth-century context. In recent years, however, historians have begun to broaden their outlook on diplomatic history. Indeed, in Canada, the trend has been a shift from a narrower focus on the North Atlantic Triangle and the oak tables of previous iterations of diplomatic history (necessary though that work has been) toward a more expansive version of international history that is willing to look beyond the conference room as the site of diplomacy. This change has allowed women to move to the forefront as historical actors on the international stage.

The new collection Breaking Barriers, Shaping Worlds: Canadian Women and the Search for Global Order, which I co-edited with Greg Donaghy and Stacey Barker, brings together nine chapters that profile the work of Canadian women abroad. Organized around three themes – women in missions, aid, and development; women in international resistance; and women in diplomacy – it examines the work of activists, missionaries, diplomatic spouses, and diplomats. In doing so, it emphasizes one important, overlooked, truth: while these women’s work may have been rendered invisible or simply been undervalued by the societies in which they lived, women were present, and they made an impact.

Breaking Barriers, Shaping Worlds: Canadian Women and the Search for Global Order, edited by Jill Campbell-Miller, Greg Donaghy, and Stacey Barker, UBC Press 2021.

Take, for example, Kim Girouard’s chapter on Dr. Jessie MacBean, a Canadian missionary who worked for decades in South China educating women and men in obstetric specialities. As a missionary, MacBean participated in a network of imperialism, with all the problematic and sometimes destructive qualities that this entailed. Yet her work developing clinics and medical education in South China not only provided quality health care, it helped to train the next generation of Chinese obstetric specialists, including women. Girouard draws our attention to this forgotten story and legacy.

Even when it has not been forgotten, women’s work has sometimes been undermined by gendered stereotyping. Jean Casselman Wadds is well remembered as the high commissioner to the United Kingdom who helped to guide the patriation of the Canadian constitution. But as Steve Marti and Francine McKenzie write in their chapter on Casselman, the tense negotiations that led up to the final agreement have been characterized as a “dinner party war,” thereby undermining the serious diplomatic skills it took to hold many contradictory opinions around the same table. The dining hall of Canada’s high commission in London served as the trench network in this war and Casselman Wadds was not only adept at the domestic art of holding a dinner party, she was also a savvy politician. It was her expertise in both domains that smoothed the way for the patriation. Although traditionally feminine attributes are frequently characterized as weak or silly, they bring an emotional intellect often necessary for tense diplomatic situations.

These chapters and others in Breaking Barriers, Shaping Worlds demonstrate the importance of finding women in the historical record, some of whom may be hiding in plain sight. By omitting women’s history – as well as the histories of Indigenous, Black, LGBTQ2S+, and other marginalized groups – we miss out on a fuller understanding of historical events, even those we think we understand well. That is why events like International Women’s Day serve as important reminders. As historians, we do not seek to make or glorify heroes, but we do want to know what happened. Without understanding women’s roles in history, we will only ever have an incomplete picture of a rich and complex past.

To purchase Jill Campbell-Miller, Greg Donaghy, and Stacey Barker, eds., Breaking Barriers, Shaping Worlds: Canadian Women and the Search for Global Order (UBC Press, 2021), visit: https://www.ubcpress.ca/breaking-barriers-shaping-worlds


Dr. Jill Campbell-Miller is a historian who specializes in twentieth-century Canadian foreign policy and international history, with a focus on the history of foreign aid, international development, natural resources, humanitarianism (especially health education), women and gender. Her PhD dissertation, which she is currently revising to become a manuscript, examined the history of Canadian foreign aid in India during the 1950s. She recently completed an AMS postdoctoral fellowship at the Gorsebrook Research Institute at Saint Mary’s University, and a SSHRC doctoral fellowship in the Department of History at Carleton University.

Teaching with Humanitarian Archives: Three Lessons from Collaborations between Carleton University Archives and Special Collections and the Canadian Network of Humanitarian History

In December 2022, CNHH member Dominique Marshall participated in a workshop showcasing learning by doing with library resources. In the six minutes that follow, she speaks about the fit between Archives and Special Collections‘ fonds of humanitarian archives and ‘experiential learning’ at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
She thanks her three partners in the ongoing Humanitarian Archival Rescue Project, Chris Trainor and Lloyd Keane of ASC, as well as Hunter McGill, veteran of Canadian International Development Agency; Nina Dore of Carleton’s Teaching and Learning Services, organized the event and kindly produced the clip.

Spotlight on Experiential Learning: Instructor Panel with the Library (Maps, Archives, Rare Books, and Ottawa Resource Room) – Dominique Marshall presentation

The “Creative Crusade”: Settler Colonial Antinomies and Books for Development in the Age of Three Worlds

In November of this year, Jody Mason gave a lecture for the Canadian Literature Centre at the University of Alberta with this same title. What follows is a brief adaptation of one of the central points of the talk about the history of development aid.


“You Can Help,” Vol. 95, file 22, “Overseas Book Centre to: 1973, 1967-1973,” R14041, International Council for Adult Education fonds, LAC.

We might probe the complex and shifting settler colonial identifications of the decades between 1950 and the end of the 1970s period by looking at the history of development assistance, which brought books—key elements of the cultures of new left and sovereigntist nationalisms—together with “development” in actions that framed Canada as a successful model of modernization and decolonization. An important case for such a study is the Overseas Book Centre / Centre du livre pour outre-mer (OBC / CLO), a non-governmental book development program established in Toronto in 1959 by liberal internationalist and adult educator James Robbins (“Roby”) Kidd, Harry Campbell (then Chief Librarian for the Toronto Public Library), Canadian Association for Adult Education member Marion McFarland, and Kurt Swinton (then President of Encyclopedia Britannica Canada).

The OBC had Canadian precedents in non-governmental undertakings like the Canadian Council for Reconstruction Through UNESCO and other book-donation campaigns that responded in the wake of the Second World War to the call of reconstruction. However, in using books as instruments to support international education and what was coming to be called “development” the OBC would not, like the CCRU, aim at Europe; they set their sights instead on the nations of what was coming to be known as the “developing world.”[i] The OBC was committed to the idea that wealthy nations like Canada could, as one organizational history puts it, “help education in the Third World through presentation of books.” The OBC flagship program, “Books for Developing Countries,” had, according to Harry Campbell, a second purpose: to provide a use for surplus books from Toronto libraries and Britannica that would otherwise have been “burned or shredded” (though the OBC also received donated books from publishers, schools, colleges, professional groups, and individuals). Initially the OBC operated from space supplied by Kurt Swinton in an Encyclopedia Britannica warehouse in Toronto where volunteers collected and packed books for shipment; today, the NGO is known as the Canadian Organization for Development Through Education, and it is located in Ottawa.[ii]

As scholars such as Gilbert Rist have demonstrated, the development concept of the postwar years was deeply embedded in older histories of colonialism, though the terminology shifted.[iii] This genesis is important to the OBC / CLO, but here the specific context of settler colonialism must also be accounted for. In speeches such as Roby Kidd’s “I Am What a Librarian Made Me” (1961) or in texts such as Kidd’s An International Development Plan for Canada (1961), Kidd emphasizes that Canada was poised to lead the new “creative crusade.” The nation’s technological and scientific capacities are key to Kidd’s argument, but more important is his attention to the nation’s political status. Canada, he argues, is not “perceived as a threat”:

Other people can accept aid from us without feeling demeaned or becoming fearful that this is the beginning of a new imperialism. Moreover, we ourselves have recently passed out of colonialism and are even now going through rapid industrialization. We seem to be nearer in our own development to what others want to do.[iv]

Kidd’s framing of Canada as having “recently passed out of colonialism” rests on a denial of the internal colonization that structured 1960s Canada. At the same time, his view acknowledges the possibility of continuity between the old imperialism and the new development, while explicitly avoiding Canadian implication in that continuity: this could not be the new colonialism because a former colony was one of its key players. In Kidd’s version of this history, a former colony had caught up to its more “developed” counterparts. It had accomplished what Rist calls the “impossible” feat at the heart of the development paradigm, which holds to both an evolutionist idea of history and an asymptotic representation of growth: “Since time measured by the calendar passes at the same rate for everyone, it is by definition impossible for countries at the bottom to ‘catch up’ those at the top; the gap can only go on widening.” Kidd’s example of Canada seems to affirm this myth rather than disprove it; however, this is more revealing of the particular situation of the settler colony than of any observable truth about development.[v]

A second set of contradictions underwrote the work of the OBC through the 1960s and 70s. While Kidd was using his roles in the new international institutions––he was conference president of the 1960 UNESCO World Conference on Adult Education and chair of UNESCO’s Experimental World Literacy Programme from 1967-1973, for instance––to call for locally relevant and locally produced literacy materials, he was at the same time promoting the book donation model of the OBC. This is despite the fact that an increasing body of research produced at UNESCO through the 1970s was demonstrating that this model was irrelevant at best and neocolonial at worst: studies such as Ronald Barker and Richard Escarpit’s The Book Hunger (1973), for instance, offer a frank assessment of the fact that book donations from the world’s book “producing” nations could not solve acute book shortages in Africa because the greatest need was for books in languages not published in the producing nations; Philip Altbach and Eva Maria Rathgeber’s Publishing in the Third World (1980) critiques the tendency of book donation schemes to undermine fragile local publishing industries by flooding markets with subsidized books.[vi] These arguments are particularly germane to the work of the OBC: between 1960 and 1975, the OBC shipped nearly twenty million books to fifty countries, and almost four hundred tonnes of books (and equipment) were shipped overseas in 1976-77 alone.[vii]


Jody Mason is a member of the Department of English Language and Literature, where she researches the history of literacy and citizenship.


[i] Canada, “Canadian Council for Reconstruction Through UNESCO: Submission to Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, 1949-1951,” 1-3, Library and Archives Canada, 27 Jan. 2001, collectionscanada.ca/massey/h5-318-e.html. Accessed 10 Feb. 2020.

[ii] Tony Richards, “From Giving to Helping: The Evolution of a Development Agency,” Logos 4,

 no. 1 (January 1993): 26-27. Campbell’s words come from a 1984 correspondence with W.A.

 Teager. W.A. Teager, “Cultural and Humanitarian Activities Leading to an International Role and

 Focus,” in J.R. Kidd: An International Legacy of Learning, edited by Nancy J. Cochrane,

 Vancouver: Centre for Continuing Education, University of BritishColumbia, 1986,” 122-3.

[iii] Gilbert Rist, The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith (London: Zed Books, 2014), 47-79.

[iv] J.R. Kidd, “I Am What A Librarian Made Me,” in Education for Perspective (New Delhi: Indian Adult Education Association, 1969), 89-91; J.R. Kidd, “An International Development Program for Canada,” Feb. 1961, p. 2, 15, Vol. 43, file 15, “JRK – 1950s and 1960s (Cultural Background), 1950-61,”R14041, International Council for Adult Education fonds (ICAE), LAC.

[v] Rist, The History of Development, 45.

[vi] S. Kapoor, J.R. Kidd, and C. Touchette, Functional Literacy and International Development: A Study of Canadian Capability to Assist with the World Campaign to Eradicate Illiteracy (Ottawa: Canadian National Commission for UNESCO, 1968), 23, 27; Ronald Barker and Richard Escarpit, The Book Hunger (Paris: UNESCO, 1973), 24-7; Philip Altbach and Marie-Eve Rathgeber, Publishing in the Third World: Trend Report and Bibliography (New York: Praeger, 1980).

[vii]J.R. Kidd, Roby Kidd: Adult Educator, 1915-1982 (Toronto: OISE Press, 1995),105; “OBC Annual Report, 1976-77,” Vol. 108, file 13, “ICAE (International Council for Adult Education) General Files 1976-80 International Organizations – Society for International Development 1976-80 Overseas Book Centre, 1976-80,” R14041, ICAE-LAC.

Lost and Fonds. Declassification of Government Records in Canada.

On 16 September 2021, the Bill Graham Centre hosted an important forum entitled Lost and Fonds. Declassification of Government Documents in Canada.  Originally available as a zoom presentation, the Bill Graham Centre has now made the entire forum available on Youtube at this link: Lost and Fonds: Declassification of Government Documents in Canada — Bill Grah Lam Centre (utoronto.ca)

Members of the CNHH will likely already know many of the key speakers, including retired archivist Paul Marsden who has been leading public advocacy work for improved access to government information. In addition to Marsden, the forum included rising academic stars, Susan Colbourn and Tim Sayle, along with Senator Peter Boehm, Ian Wilson, a retired National Archivist, and others. I spoke on historians and their duty to the documentary record, specifically drawing upon my own naval history research and the value of adopting an activist feminist lens to revisit prior research on operational intelligence to discover what I and other historians had missed in previous examinations of open Canadian government records on this topic. 

Here is a summary of the speakers for the session:

2 pm: Welcoming Remarks: John Meehan

2:05: Paul Marsden on “Lost and Fonds”: the LRC article and next steps

2:15 Panel One: Chaired by Tim Sayle:

2:20: Transparency in the Making of National Security Policy: Thomas Juneau

2:30: The Historian’s Task and the Documentary Record: Isabel Campbell

2;40: History and the Policymaker: Sen. Peter Boehm

2:50: Panel Two: Chaired by Ian Wilson

2:55: ATIP and the Historian: Susan Colbourn

3:05: The View from LAC: Daniel German

3:15: The View from OIC: Allison Knight

3:25: Q&A: Moderated by John Meehan

The topic of access to Canadian government records is of interest to all historians as well as to members of the public and especially to advocates for refugees and other vulnerable groups. Without accurate and complete records, it is impossible to evaluate Canadian policies and their historical influences upon vulnerable peoples and others. 

I hope that members of the CNHH will take the time to watch the Youtube video if they did not get a chance to join our zoom session. And also wishing all members the best as we struggle together during this time when historical research has become particularly difficult to undertake.


Isabel Campbell, Senior Historian, Directorate of History and Heritage, National Defence Headquarters, Ottawa, Ontario.

CNHH Presents: Essential Reads in the History of Humanitarianism

Top 5 Histories of National Red Cross Societies in the English-Speaking West

~ as recommended by Sarah Glassford, September 2021 ~


The history of international-level Red Cross activity received scholarly attention beginning in the last decades of the 20th century, but national Red Cross societies long remained the preserve of celebratory tributes written by amateurs and enthusiasts. Only in the last decade have scholarly histories of national-level Red Cross societies begun to appear, largely focused on countries in the English-speaking West where the movement first took root. These histories shed light on the history of humanitarianism at every level, from the local to the global, linking grassroots volunteers fundraising at home to those suffering from conflict, disaster, poverty, and ill-health around the world.

For my money, there are the currently five “essential reads” in this growing field. Each one is based on extensive archival research, is written in English about a predominantly English-speaking country, and the resulting book is “not a hagiography but, rather, a fair-minded and scholarly addition.”[i] Collectively they offer opportunities to compare and contrast the implementation of a transnational ideology across a variety of national contexts and time periods. As more studies – ideally about countries not formerly part of the British empire – appear, the opportunities for such cross-cultural and cross-national comparisons will only increase.

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

1. Moser Jones, Marian. The American Red Cross from Clara Barton to the New Deal. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.

Moser Jones, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, channels her interest in the social history and ethics of institutional benevolence into this study of the founding years of the American Red Cross. This study offers an exhaustively detailed examination of the ARC’s wide-ranging humanitarian activities at home and abroad, alongside its tumultuous internal politics.

2. Irwin, Julia F. Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Irwin, a professor at the University of South Florida, brings to this study her expertise in US foreign relations. This work powerfully demonstrates how American Red Cross humanitarian aid overseas became a potent arm of the country’s larger foreign policy during the first half of the 20th century, and an outlet for some Americans’ desire to engage with the world.

3. Oppenheimer, Melanie. The Power of Humanity: 100 Years of Australian Red Cross, 1914-2014. HarperCollins, 2014.

Oppenheimer, a professor at Flinders University, was commissioned to write this anniversary volume by the Australian Red Cross, in which she brings to bear her expertise in the histories of gender, voluntary aid, and imperialism in times of war and peace. Despite the book’s overall celebratory theme, Oppenheimer examines the organization’s failures and limitations alongside its triumphs.

4. Tennant, Margaret, Across the Street, Across the World: A History of the Red Cross in New Zealand, 1915-2015. New Zealand Red Cross, 2015.

Tennant, a professor emerita at Massey University, was commissioned to write this anniversary volume by the New Zealand Red Cross. Her expertise as a historian of voluntary aid, social welfare, and women’s history results in a clear-eyed and fair assessment of the organization’s work at home and abroad.

5. Glassford, Sarah. Mobilizing Mercy: A History of the Canadian Red Cross. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.

(Am I biased on this one? Of course!) My own book follows the evolution of the Canadian Red Cross as an organization and its humanitarian work at home and overseas over the better part of a century. My interest in the histories of women, children, wartime, volunteering, and health is evident throughout.

Bonus: Two More to Watch!

  • Lahane, Shane. A History of the Irish Red Cross. Four Courts Press, 2019.

I discovered this one while looking up publication information for the books listed above and it sounds like another winner, blending social, cultural, health, and institutional history. Lahane is a graduate of University College Cork and has also published on the Great Famine in Ireland’s County Kerry.

  • Cresswell, Rosemary. The History of the British Red Cross, 1870-2020: Health and Humanitarianism. Bloomsbury, forthcoming in 2023.

Another commissioned anniversary study, this one looks set to follow in the tradition of Oppenheimer and Tennant, placing institutional accomplishments and failures in larger national and international contexts. Cresswell is a research fellow at the University of Warwick who specializes in the history of health and humanitarianism in modern Britain.

_____________________

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).


[i] Anne MacLellan, “We Are All Brothers,” Irish Literary Supplement, 40, 1 (Fall 2020): 18.

CNHH Presents: Essential Reads in the History of Humanitarianism

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.

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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).

Was it really “different back then?” Reflecting on current global health ethics with a NFB film about CUSO, 1965

Sonya de Laat

Cross-posted with the Canadian Historical Association.

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.

All images in this blog are screen shots from the film “You Don’t Back Down,” included by permission of the NFB.

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.

The context

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.

The film

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.

Reference for Part 1:

Pinto, A. D., & Upshur, R. E. G. (2009). Global health ethics for students. Developing World Bioethics9(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-8847.2007.00209.x

“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.

Sonya de Laat is a scholar of visual culture related to humanitarian action, global health and international development. She is the Global Health graduate academic advisor and a sessional lecturer at McMaster University. She is also an active member of the Canadian Network on Humanitarian History housed at Carleton U and an investigator with the Humanitarian Health Ethics research group based at McMaster and McGill universities. She is interested in the role of visuals—particularly photography—in histories of moral and practical dimensions of aid. Recognizing limitations inherent in the medium, Dr. de Laat’s work draws attention to the potential in photography to draw attention to ways in which we can secure a more equitable and compassionate world. Recent publications include “The camera and the Red Cross: ‘Lamentable pictures’ and conflict photography bring into focus an international movement, 1855–1865” (2021) in the International Review of the Red Cross, “Pictures in Development: The Canadian International Development Agency’s Photo Library” in The Samaritan State Revisited (2019) and “Seeing Refugees: Using Old Photographs to Gain New Perspectives on Refugees, Past and Present” (2018) available on ActiveHistory.ca

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