Humanitarianisms in context

Kevin O’Sullivan School of Humanities, National University of Ireland Galway

We do it almost without thinking. If you’re British, your NGO of choice in responding to the recent disaster in the Philippines is likely to have been Oxfam, Save the Children or Christian Aid. In Ireland, it’s Concern, Trócaire or Goal. In France: Médecins sans Frontières or Médecins du Monde. I could go on. But why do we associate so strongly with our local NGOs? Is there any difference between a British, Irish, French, or, indeed, a Japanese approach to humanitarianism? Or do they all – even the British Red Cross or the Irish branch of UNICEF – speak an international language of NGO aid?

While you read this, a group of historians and representatives of the NGO sector is meeting at the Centre for Contemporary History (ZZF) in Potsdam to tackle those very questions. It’s part of the ‘Non-state humanitarianism: from colonialism to human rights’ network that we’ve been running since early this year, with generous funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and additional support from the Irish Research Council, the University of Birmingham, ZZF Potsdam, and the University of Manchester. We’ve met twice to date: at Birmingham in March, at NUI Galway in June. We’ve discussed the big questions of imperial legacies, the rise of NGOs, and the sources and uses of humanitarian history. Yet at both workshops we kept coming back to an important central question: How meaningful is it to talk about local, national or international traditions of humanitarianism? Can an NGO really be British, Irish or French? Or is there something more fundamental to our understanding of humanitarian aid?

For our meeting at Potsdam, we’ve decided to pursue those questions a bit further. Our title says it all: ‘Humanitarianisms in context: histories of non-state actors, from the local to the global’. And to try to get to the bottom of it, we’ve drawn together papers on everything from the Japanese Red Cross and CARE International, to the British Women’s Institute and the radical humanitarianism of Cap Anamur. Over two days we aim to explore the contexts and traditions in which ideas of non-state humanitarianism have been articulated. We want to examine how our histories of NGOs interact with international, imperial and globalising vocabularies of humanitarianism. And we want to find out where those debates have been played out: in the shifting dynamics of their local, national and international contexts.

But this is no ordinary academic meeting of minds. Alongside our group of historians from across Europe and North America sit representatives of the Overseas Development Institute and Médecins sans Frontières. In previous workshops we have also heard from representatives of Christian Aid, Save the Children and Concern. Our goal is simple: to bring new histories of humanitarianism into dialogue with the needs of the contemporary NGO sector. But our impact is potentially enormous: by understanding how and where NGOs originate, what that means for their actions (and their ability to act), what kinds of projects and approaches work in the field, and – crucially – why, we can draw on the past to generate better responses to poverty and immediate crisis today. And that, to me, seems like an objective that is well worth pursuing.

Kevin O’Sullivan School of Humanities, National University of Ireland Galway

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