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Humanitarianism

Taught by Andrew Jones


Humanitarianism – the aid and campaigning to save lives, alleviate suffering, and protect human dignity around the world – has become one of the defining characteristics of international action in modern times. Humanitarian organisations such as Oxfam and Save the Children regularly raise huge funds in public donations to support their emergency relief, reconstruction and development programmes around the world. Meanwhile, Western governments increasingly use phrases such as ‘humanitarian intervention’ to describe missions in volatile contexts such as Libya and Iraq.

The rise of humanitarianism is a complex history, which closely intersects with the spread of modern European colonialism and the Enlightenment. In this session, we will examine the articulation of concern for distant strangers and its entanglement with histories of empire. We will adopt a broad chronological perspective, from the rise of ‘organised compassion’ and missionary relief work in the 18th century to the elaborate, globalised humanitarian industry we recognise today. The set readings touch on specific aspects of this history, in particular the close relationship between humanitarianism and empire (Barnett, Calhoun) and the rise of NGOs after decolonisation (Jones).


Seminar questions

  1. How should we define ‘humanitarianism’?
  2. What are the imperial origins of humanitarian discourse and practice?
  3. Do the interventions of contemporary humanitarian NGOs (such as Oxfam and Save the Children) represent an updated version of the colonial ‘White Man's Burden’?
  4. Why does the (imperial) history of humanitarianism matter?



Core reading

Michael Barnett, Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism (Cornell University Press, 2011), chapters 1-3 (pp.19-75).

Craig Calhoun, ‘The Imperative to Reduce Suffering: Charity, Progress, and Emergencies in the Field of Humanitarian Action’, in Michael Barnett and Thomas G. Weiss, eds., Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics (Cornell University Press, 2008), pp.73-97.

Andrew Jones, ‘The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and the Humanitarian Industry in Britain, 1963-85’, Twentieth Century British History, 26:4 (2015), pp.573-601.



Further reading

Michael Barnett and Thomas G. Weiss, ‘Humanitarianism: a brief history of the present’, in Michael Barnett and Thomas G. Weiss (eds.), Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics (Cornell University Press, 2008), pp.1-48.

Emily Baughan, ‘Every Citizen of Empire Implored to Save the Children!” Empire, Internationalism and the Save the Children Fund in Interwar Britain’, Historical Research, 86:123 (2013), pp.116-137.

Thomas Haskell, ‘Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility, Part 1’, American Historical Review, 90:2 (1985), pp.339-361.

Thomas Haskell, ‘Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility, Part 2’, American Historical Review, 90:3 (1985), pp.547-566.

Matthew Hilton, ‘Ken Loach and the Save the Children Film: Humanitarianism, Imperialism, and the Changing Role of Charity in Postwar Britain’, Journal of Modern History, 87 (2015), pp.357–394.

Andrew Jones, ‘Band Aid revisited: humanitarianism, consumption and philanthropy in the 1980s’, Contemporary British History, 31:2 (2017).

David Lambert and Alan Lester, ‘Geographies of colonial philanthropy’, Progress in Human Geography, 28 (2004), pp.320-341.

Alan Lester and Fae Dussart, Colonization and the Origins of Humanitarian Governance: Protecting Aborigines across the Nineteenth-Century British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Kevin O'Sullivan, ‘Humanitarian encounters: Biafra, NGOs and imaginings of the Third World in Britain and Ireland, 1967–70’, Journal of Genocide Research, 16:2-3 (2014), pp.299-315.

Tehila Sasson and James Vernon, ‘Practising the British way of famine: technologies of relief, 1770–1985’, European Review of History: Revue européenne d'histoire, 22:6 (2015), pp.860-872.

Caroline Shaw, Britannia's Embrace: modern humanitarianism and the imperial origins of refugee relief (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Rob Skinner and Alan Lester, ‘Humanitarianism and empire: new research agendas’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 40:5 (2012), pp.729-747.

Alex de Waal, Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (James Currey, 1997).