Ryan W. Heyden
As historians have engaged in a widespread and heated discussion about the history of human rights and its relationship to contemporary political and social developments around the world, many have also turned to humanitarianism. With new and protracted conflicts raging in the Middle East and other parts of the world, and with the growing number of natural disasters caused by a rapidly changing climate, humanitarian workers and organizations are busier than ever before. And yet, the scholarly literature on humanitarianism and the labours of humanitarian workers since the 1700s was, until the last decade or so, focussed mainly on humanitarian aid delivered to various sites of conflict after the end of the Cold War. Political scientists were the primary researchers pushing this field of humanitarian studies. Thankfully, historians have joined this scholarly discussion, adding a much-needed historical perspective. Historians at all levels are trying to understand the origins and development of humanitarianism, asking many vital questions: what has mobilized empathy for those suffering during war; how has humanitarianism been used and abused by the West in its effort to colonize the Global South; how can we understand the often-fraught gender and power dynamics involved in humanitarian campaigns and in the administration of aid; and, what is the relationship between humanitarianism and human rights? Scholars are also historicizing humanitarian institutions – like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières, CARE, and older institutions that tried foster “humanitarian sensibilities” like religious groups (missionaries) and the abolitionist movement – and asking how they fit into this budding historical narrative?
This rather brief outline of the field and its vital questions are merely a sampling of the work being done by historians around the world. It is also a snap shot of some of the themes I took away from this year’s iteration of the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy. In July 2018, I had the privilege of travelling to the University of Exeter in the UK and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Public Archive and Library in Geneva, Switzerland with the generous support of Care for the Future, the Leibniz Institute for European History, the German Historical Institute in London, and the ICRC. During my two-week intensive workshop and archival work, I had the pleasure of meeting and exchanging views with established scholars, newly-minted PhDs, and fellow PhD Candidates. I learned a lot during what can only be called a two-week academic adventure! While I could probably write ad nauseum about what I learned, my archival finds, and the people I met, I want to draw attention to a few lessons.