Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid in the Twentieth Century
to the present day.
Humanitarian aid developed in a polycentric, multi-layered manner during specific conjunctures in the twentieth century. Its modern European version combines different threads with strong links to empire, religious and secular organizations, and warfare. In practice, the boundaries between humanitarian relief, development aid, human rights, and humanitarian intervention have been blurred. The urge to relieve distant suffering and make the world a better place, the evolving nature of
humanitarian organizations, international politics and political economy, have all contributed to making humanitarian aid a dynamic field.
The historical studies in this volume are based on multi-archival research. They start with the foundations of international humanitarianism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, highlighting state interests, religious motivations and imperial reform. From these beginnings, humanitarian aid grew strongly in volume and organization during the first half of the twentieth century. The contributions show developments in the shadow of colonialism and two world wars covering Europe,
northern Africa, China and transatlantic relations. After 1945 humanitarian practice stood at the intersection of Cold War and decolonization. Wars of independence, direct confrontations between East and West in the Third World, and the growth of development policy affected humanitarian practice, its
scope and challenges. The most recent period of global humanitarianism is explored in essays on the role of non-Western areas in humanitarian governance, relations between concern for others and the self in prominent global organizations, and the practice of aid workers on the spot.
The volume identifies several essential dilemmas inherent in the idea and practice of international humanitarian aid since the beginning of the twentieth century. Amongst these is the politics of empathy. Narratives of suffering and relief often focused on events and actions; as the consequence of an alarmist and dramatized picture, regularly gendered by a focus on women and children, the political or structural causes of suffering were often left out. Human empathy was foregrounded and used by
some of the political actors in disasters, so that we can speak of the politics of empathy. Furthermore, the volume describes humanitarian aid as politics: humanitarian aid was often used as an instrument to achieve other ends. In foreign aid it became an instrument of foreign policy. It also formed
part of the economic policy of some governments in favour of their own producers. Domestic politics in donor and receiving countries determined the size, timing, and geography of aid, while international relations affected who helped, to what extent, and for how long. Humanitarian aid as politics also touches on the fundamental question of the relationship between civil society, the state, and the military. Finally, we recognize the politics of aid: as a result of proliferation and competition,
aid organizations pursued their own politics. One basic feature was the relationship between the international dimension of aid and national aid structures in donor countries. Multi-layered systems of humanitarian aid existed and we need to ask how the aid polity developed over time nationally and
internationally, for example, through the League of Nations and the United Nations Organization. Another factor was competition between NGOs for funds, access, and publicity.
By taking a historical perspective, the volume focuses not so much on the 'crisis of crisis relief', which strikes the present-day observer, as on the fundamental ambiguities and paradoxes of humanitarian aid. One long-standing ambiguity relates to the role of women in humanitarian aid. Although humanitarian narratives put particularly the objects of women's care, that is, other women, children, and the family, at the centre of attention, active engagement offered opportunities for work and
professional careers which allowed individuals to go beyond traditional boundaries of voluntary work. Yet, in terms of organization leadership, the ceiling for them remained low. Another long-term ambiguity of the care for distant sufferers was that these remained basically 'strangers' even when the
appeal for help was based, say, on a common humanity or Christian brother- and sisterhood. Humanitarian aid tended to reinforce existing racial, ethnic, and cultural differences. On a more general level, the changing and blurred boundaries of humanitarianism account for the dynamism in the field. They also make its study so rewarding as the humanitarian cuts across the local, national, or international perspectives of historians and others.
- Hardback | 460 pages
- 149 x 221 x 31mm | 682g
- 26 Jul 2016
- German Historical Institute London
- London, United Kingdom
Other books in this series
27 Jul 2000
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About Johannes Paulmann