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]


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.

Paulmann’s introduction provides a useful summary of the key terms, concepts, and historiographical developments in humanitarianism studies, and will serve as a valuable primer for historians new to the field. He also outlines six persistent dilemmas [28-29] he regards as relevant to the essays in the volume and the current ‘crisis of crisis relief’: (1) how the distance of ‘spectators’ from those who suffer determines the capacity of the former to help the latter; (2) the media’s role in humanitarian action and its often problematic relationship with humanitarian organisations; (3) the problem of translating the complex political causes of disasters into humanitarian narratives of suffering; (4) how political actors ‘instrumentalize’ humanitarian aid; (5) the fluctuating competition and cooperation between aid agencies; and (6) the impact of outside intervention on local coping mechanisms and agency. He also poses a provocative question for historians: how does the ‘humaneness’ and real-world impact of humanitarianism challenge objective scholarly enquiry? In other words, should historians ‘reflect on the positions we are thereby occupying’ when providing a critical perspective of the sector [30]? This, it would seem, is the historian’s own dilemma.

One dilemma which could also fruitfully be added to Paulmann’s six key dilemmas is alluded to in nearly all the essays, particularly in the two chapters in the first section, ‘Multiple Foundations of International Humanitarianism’. This dilemma concerns the problems associated with translating humanitarianism’s universalist ethos (preventing human suffering without distinction to gender, nationality, or race) into national and local contexts. Although the foundation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1863 arguably marked the arrival of international humanitarianism, Matthias Schulz uses new archival evidence to demonstrate that the ICRC did not automatically herald a new era of internationalist cooperation between states. Rather, European governments co-opted the Red Cross Movement for their nation-building projects, with national Red Cross societies effectively becoming tools of their states, while the ICRC itself missed opportunities to challenge state sovereignty and to promote a more active form of ‘Genevan internationalism’ prior to the outbreak of the First World War. Daniel Maul’s chapter on American Quakers traces the significance of the Society of Friends to the rise of humanitarian internationalism in Britain and America, highlighting the growth of internationalist sentiment in the Society since their leading role in the anti-slavery movement in the early nineteenth century. However, the differences and tensions between American and British Quaker interpretations of patriotism, pacifism, and professionalism during the First World War highlight how transnational ideals may be refracted in different national contexts, even within the same religious group.

The chapters in ‘Humanitarianism in the Shadow of Colonialism and World Wars’ explore case studies in interwar humanitarianism, ranging from the role of the League of Nations in relieving Ottoman Christian refugees in Greece in the aftermath of the Greco-Turkish War; the birth and evolution of the Save the Children International Union; and the difficulties the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency faced after the Second World War in creating a truly international relief agency which could rebuild Europe. Caroline Reeves’s chapter is particularly noteworthy for showcasing one of Paulmann’s six dilemmas, ‘the politics of aid’, which concerns the tendency for humanitarian organisations to compete with each other for resources and to disagree on the appropriate strategy for an aid operation. The American Red Cross’s (ARC) involvement in the hostage crisis in Shandong, breaching Red Cross protocol on intervening in foreign countries and undermining the sovereignty of the Chinese Red Cross (CRC), was justified on the grounds that the CRC lacked the professionalism and the ‘civilisation’ to help the western hostages. Reeves demonstrates the problems associated with the Western humanitarian desire to be at the forefront of relief work, which in this case was rooted in the imperialistic paternalism the ARC felt towards their Chinese counterparts.

A consistent theme of the five chapters in ‘Humanitarianism at the Intersection of Cold War and Decolonization’ is the humanitarian turn towards ‘the Third World’ in the aftermath of the Second World War. Shobana Shankar’s essay on medical intervention in Sub-Saharan Africa also demonstrates how many ideas and practices from colonial missionaries endured and were re-shaped by new organisations like the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). This period also witnessed the rise of more ‘activist’ forms of aid work, a theme explored in Florian Hannig’s chapter on the ‘border breaching missions’ of the radical group Operation Omega in East Pakistan, and Michael Vössing’s essay on the media battle over German aid to Vietnamese ‘boat people’ refugees, between the German Red Cross (GRC) and the Deutsches Komitee Not-Ärzte. Both authors highlight another of Paulmann’s dilemmas; ‘activist’ organisations like Operation Omega and Deutsches Komitee Not-Ärzte sought media attention to generate awareness of humanitarian problems, but in a manner that challenged the more ‘traditionalist’, ‘non-political’ approach of organisations like the GRC.

The three authors in the final section, ‘Dilemmas of Global Humanitarianism’, reflect on some of the trends in humanitarianism in the post-Cold War era. Alain Guilloux’s chapter, for instance, studies the changing nature of Asian humanitarianism. Since 1945, many Asian countries refused to engage with humanitarianism, influenced by legacies of colonialism and western domination of ‘global humanitarian governance’ [396]. Today, however, many Asian nations have moved from aid-beneficiaries, to aid-providers. Although ambivalence over liberal-western forms of humanitarianism remain, Guillox contends that ‘Asia is likely to further influence the shaping of global humanitarian governance’ in the future [394]. Eva Spies concludes the volume by studying development organisations’ preoccupation with the notion of ‘participation’, aptly demonstrating Paulmann’s final dilemma regarding outside intervention and local agency. The participation of local actors in development projects has become key to the strategy of many western organisations. Yet Spies demonstrates the difficulties western development workers often have in balancing their ‘expertise’ and personal values against respecting the agency of these local actors, and the tensions over ‘participation’ that can result.

Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid includes an impressive array of historically and geographically diverse case studies exploring the inherent tensions within the practice of humanitarianism throughout its modern history. The volume also leaves space for further study of histories of humanitarianism in the Third World. Perhaps owing to issues of access to archives in the Global South, most chapters focus primarily upon western organisations, albeit in non-western settings. The inclusion of chapters on nineteenth-century humanitarianism in a work on the twentieth century does credit to Paulmann’s argument that chronological boundaries in humanitarianism’s history are porous.[5] Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid’s breadth of topics, innovative chronological coverage, and incisive questions will make this a key text in what has fast become a vibrant field of study.


[1] On the ahistoricism of the humanitarian sector and the value which history can provide, see John Nicholas Borton, ‘Improving the use of history by the international humanitarian sector’, European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire 23:1-2 Special Issue: Humanitarianisms in Context: Histories of Non-State Actors, from the Local to the Global (Mar. 2016), 193-209; Eleanor Davey, with John Borton and Matthew Foley, ‘A History of the Humanitarian System: Western Origins and Foundations’, HPG Working Paper (June, 2013).

[2] Since the 1990s, there has been an extensive socio-economic literature written on the problems specific to modern aid work, like maintaining neutrality and impartiality when responding to the post-Cold War ‘new wars’ or conflicts associated with the ‘War on Terror’. Others have provided more fundamental criticisms on the negative side-effects of humanitarian aid, including its capacity to fuel violence, encourage dependency, or ignore the structural causes of suffering. See Fiona Terry, Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action (London: Cornell University Press, 2002); Linda Polman, The Crisis Caravan: What’s Wrong With Humanitarian Aid (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010); David Rieff, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (London: Vintage, 2002).

[3] Barnett himself acknowledged this limitation of his monograph, Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism (London: Cornell University Press, 2011), pp. 15-16.

[4] For a more detailed explanation of Barnett’s periodisation of humanitarianism see Empire of Humanity, p. 29. For Paulmann’s criticisms see Johannes Paulmann, ‘Conjunctures in the History of International Humanitarian Aid during the Twentieth Century’, Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism and Development 4:2 (2013), p. 222.

[5] On the nineteenth century, see, for instance, Fabian Klose’s new edited volume, The Emergence of Humanitarian Intervention: Ideas and Practice from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).


Cite this blog post
Fabian Klose (2016, September 7). Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid in the Twentieth Century. Humanitarianism & Human Rights. Retrieved June 18, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/piuq

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