Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid in the Twentieth Century

Review of Johannes Paulmann (ed.) Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid in the Twentieth Century. London: Oxford University Press, 2016. 460 pp. £75 (hardback), ISBN: 9780198778974

Ben Holmes History Department, University of Exeter

 Cross-posted from imperialglobalexeter.com

Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid in the Twentieth Century (2016), edited by Johannes Paulmann (Director of the Leibniz Institute of European History and Professor of Modern History at the University of Mainz), exemplifies the burgeoning field of the history of humanitarianism. In providing historical context to a sector that is often stuck in the ‘perpetual present’, the volume shares a common purpose with a fast-growing body of literature.[1] Specifically, the volume examines 150 years of history to demonstrate that the technical and ethical crises central to modern humanitarianism – such as competition between aid organisations, the tendency of aid to ‘do more harm than good’, and the manipulation of aid by political actors – are not unique to the twenty first century. They have, in fact, ‘been inherent in humanitarian practice for more than a century’ [3].[2]

Paulmann

Examining humanitarianism from the late nineteenth century to the present places this volume in similar territory to Michael Barnett’s Empire of Humanity (2011). Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid is based on a conference that took place in the same year that Barnett’s work was published. Nevertheless, the edited volume has responded to some of the historiographical criticisms aimed at Empire of Humanity. Firstly, to counter Barnett’s western-centric focus, the volume incorporates ‘the point of view of Europe and the West and of the Colonies and the Third World’ [28].[3] Secondly, Paulmann seeks to challenge Barnett’s three chronological ‘Ages of Humanitarianism’ for being too rigid and for tending to ignore overlaps and ‘contingencies’ in the history of humanitarianism.[4]

Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid structures its chapters according to four chronological periods: ‘Multiple Foundations of International Humanitarianism’ contains chapters on humanitarian aid from the nineteenth century to 1919; ‘Humanitarianism in the Shadow of Colonialism and World Wars’ spans the interwar years up to the end of the Second World War; ‘Humanitarianism at the Intersection of Cold War and Decolonization’ covers the period 1945 to 1990; and, ‘Dilemmas of Global Humanitarianism’ examines topics relating to modern-day humanitarianism. The boundaries between these chronological periods are not fixed, with several chapters highlighting, for example, how ideas and practices spanned the interwar and Cold War years.

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