The book traces the history of international humanitarianism from the anti-slavery movement to the end of the Cold War. It is based on an extensive survey of the international literature and is retold in an original narrative that relies on a close examination of the sources. It explains how relief entered both the national and the supranational institutions' agenda, and the programmes of non-governmental organisations, contributing to shape the relationship between the global North and South. The reconstruction of humanitarianism’s long history unfolds around some crucial moments and events: the colonial expansion of European countries, the two World Wars and their aftermaths, the emergence of a new postcolonial order. Salvatici looks especially closely at the major actors of aid operations (such as the Red Cross, Save the Children, the United Nations agencies, Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders) and highlights how the meaning of international humanitarianism has changed over time.
The introduction outlines the genesis of the work and it offers a critical overview of the scholarly and public debate on humanitarianism. In particular, it discusses the idea that the end of the 1990s opened up a new era for humanitarianism, marked by its subordination to the foreign policy of Western powers. The introduction also explains the periodisation proposed (from the anti-slavery movement to the end of the Cold War) and the structure of the book. The last section focuses on overlaps and differences between the history of humanitarianism and the history of human rights.
A short introduction offers an overview on the first part of the book, which opens with the earthquake of Lisbon (1755) and it analyses a long time frame (until the end of the nineteenth century). The different chapters reconstruct the emergence of a new ‘culture of sensibility’, the establishment of the anti-slavery movement and the development of relief activities in the colonial territories, at the will as much of the missionaries as of the administrators sent from the metropolises. Through these events and processes, the practices, knowledge and experience accumulated in Western societies that later encouraged the setting up of the contemporary humanitarian system. The first part of the volume examines the ‘archaeological’ phase (in Foucault’s sense of the term) of the development of that system.
The chapter explains why the anti-slavery movement is considered an important component of the archaeology of humanitarianism. It shows that the battle against slavery was intimately connected with the recognition of the suffering of other human beings, different because of their servile condition, from another race and from often geographically distant populations. This recognition was considered in itself a demonstration of humanity and Christianity. The chapter shows that the abolitionist cause was associated with ‘modern’ forms of mobilisation adopted by the anti-slavery activists who – especially in Britain – enlisted the support of wide segments of the population to exert pressure on national institutions and government. The creation of associations, information campaigns, popular petitions and widespread boycotting of products from the plantations were significant expressions of the new development of collective action against the slave trade and slavery. The chapter explores the global dimension that places anti-slavery in the pre-history of international humanitarianism: the commitment to the abolition of slavery and the trade in human beings connected different countries and continents, charting a vast field of action and promoting a close network for exchanging information, experience and knowledge. This global expansion, however, cannot be considered independently of the different national and imperial contexts which influenced the motivations behind and tendencies in abolitionism.
The interests of the home country’s inhabitants in the populations of the colonies derived most of all from the conviction that acquiring new territories meant taking on certain responsibilities. A now moral public recognised the value in compassion and benevolence. The prevailing idea was that the imperial government had obligations to deal with the c olonised subjects’ living conditions, to understand the reasons for their suffering and to find solutions to end it or at least to relieve it. The crossover between responsibility, compassion and benevolence permeated the whole European colonial experience and contributed to shaping the colonies’ administration. The chapter outlines the emergence of a transnational network of philanthropic activity which developed in close interaction with the relief work carried out at home. This interaction is clear both if we look at the types of initiatives undertaken ‘in the field’ and if we take into consideration the origins and set-up of the associations that were being founded to support the missionaries’ work.
This short introduction offers an overview of second part of the volume. It highlights humanitarianism’s focus on the victims of armed conflicts and begins with the foundation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1864. Stemming from Genevan philanthropy, the ICRC aimed to reduce the degree of cruelty in war and to aid those soldiers struck down by enemy arms or by illness. The success of its programme was partly the result of the wide and rapid accreditation the new body managed to obtain from the European governments. In the First World War, civilians became the primary recipients of the ICRC’s assistance. In the post-war years international aid was planned to combat hunger, epidemics and population displacement, and humanitarianism acquired a new meaning in the overall transition of the European countries from wartime to peacetime. The same function was relaunched and strengthened after the Second World War, when humanitarian programmes became the symbol of the victorious powers’ will to write a new start for the history of humanity.
Following recent historiography, the chapter calls into question the overlapping of the foundation of the Red Cross and the origins of humanitarianism. At the same time it explains why the birth of the ICRC marked a turning point: it led to the completion of acts that were already in progress, it catalysed the different forces in action and it intercepted shared opinions and feelings. In the first instance the new organisation directed aid and treatment work towards war victims, marking for a long time the main boundaries of humanitarian action. As well as this, the initiatives promoted by the Genevan committee as early as the beginning of the 1860s for soldiers struck down by enemy fire or illness encouraged an interpenetration between humanitarianism and warfare. This took a leap forward in the Franco-Prussian War and then again in the First World War. At the same time, Europe became the centre-stage for humanitarian operations.
This chapter focuses on the years between the two World Wars, when international humanitarian action was forced to measure itself against the First World War’s dramatic consequences; it became the prerogative of specific institutions and defined certain basic areas of competence. The League of Nations had a crucial role in promoting humanitarianism as a matter of cooperation between different countries. Assistance to refugees, public health and child protection were among the sectors in which this cooperation showed itself to be most profitable. On the initiative of individual governments, humanitarianism came to be included within the sphere of international relations. The most relevant example is certainly that of the American Relief Administration, which contributed to determining the United States’ pre-eminence on the scene of humanitarianism after the First World War. In their turn, the aid programmes were an important part of American international policy. The chapter outlines also the important role of private agencies, such as Near East Relief (a US association) and the Save the Children Fund (a British body).
The chapter opens on the Second World War and the impact it had on the actors and the orientations of international humanitarianism. It then focuses on the long-term post-war programmes and it shows how the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), as well as later UN agencies, aimed to bring about a sea change in the way aid was conceived and administered. In fact, aid for the populations who had been the object of Nazi-Fascist aggression was an integral part of the post-war reconstruction plan and became the symbol of a new beginning in the history of humanitarianism. Feeding and clothing civilians – children in particular – the provision of basic medical care, stopping the spread of epidemics: these remained the main activities of the international programmes, whose intentions, though, were reformulated in the light of humanitarianism’s new aspirations. For example, the conviction – already widely held in the philanthropic tradition – was emphasised that aid and care should go beyond immediate relief and bring a genuine ‘rehabilitation’, physical and moral, to the recipients. The post-Second World War era was a great laboratory for humanitarianism. Within it, old and new convictions, practices and skills interwove themselves and were reformulated, standardised and ratified.
This short introduction offers an overview on the third part of the book, which opens on the development programmes that, from the early 1950s, made up the main activity of international aid, now fully deployed on a global scale. The aim of these programmes was the economic and social advancement of Third World countries and flanked interventions for the industrialisation and mechanisation of agriculture, projects for sanitation, education and professional training. The areas of activity on which international humanitarianism grew over time became an integral part of development politics. In the late 1960s, the armed conflicts that shook the fragile and still mobile postcolonial set-up brought back to the centre of humanitarian action aid for the victims of war. The conflict immediately following the secession of Biafra from Nigeria (1967–69) was just the first in a series of dramatic events that captured public attention. Such emergencies formed the complicated context in which international aid was mobilised.