Conjunctures in the History of International Humanitarian Aid during the Twentieth Century
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Conjunctures in the History of International Humanitarian Aid during the Twentieth Century

Humanitarian aid is in many ways a malleable concept. It covers a broad range of activities, including emergency relief delivered to people struck by natural or man-made disasters; longer-term efforts to prevent suffering from famine, ill-health, or poverty; and schemes such as international adoption, specific campaigns against human rights abuses, and humanitarian intervention by armed forces. This essay focuses primarily on emergency relief. After a brief overview of the different terms and concepts of humanitarian aid, I discuss existing narratives of international humanitarian aid and identify crucial historical conjunctures during the twentieth century. My primary argument is that neither the history of humanitarian organizations, nor aid as a function of political economy, nor the evolution of global humanitarian governance provides a satisfactory historical explanation for the development of humanitarian aid during the twentieth century. Rather than such long-term narratives, the explanation may lie in the turning points themselves, in historical conjunctures and contingencies. This essay explores three such conjunctures to develop this view.

Terms and Concepts of Humanitarian Aid

Rather than clear-cut definitions of humanitarian aid, we find a complex constellation of terms and concepts. A historical study of the evolution and variations of the term has so far not been undertaken. It would have to include the analysis of the strategic use of language by aid agencies, governments, recipients of aid, and academics, because appeals and claims to humanitarianism served and continue to serve specific goals in specific situations.1 The power of the actors in this discourse depended on their resources, authority, and media access. The manner in which situations were framed and described (for example, in terms of ethics, religion, human rights, or markets) affected the kind of humanitarian policies which could be implemented at a particular time. Terms used—or not used, for that matter—could position humanitarian action within political contexts or could keep it out of politics. While a thorough investigation of historical usage would be highly desirable, the following observations regarding different terms and concepts are only intended to give a brief overview.

For the sake of argument, let me start with a narrow understanding of humanitarian aid as the immediate assistance provided to people in need. Immediately a whole semantic field comes to mind. “Relief,” “rehabilitation,” and “protection and prevention” are related terms.2 They all refer to a range of aims connected with the assistance given to victims of disaster. “Development aid” again introduces a long-term goal that goes beyond immediate needs, while “foreign aid” highlights the [End Page 215] foreign policy interests inherent in development projects.3 The need to legitimize aid becomes apparent when aid is framed in judicial terms as a “human right” or in social policy terms as part of a “global welfare policy.”4 In some circumstances assistance can only be given if military means are employed; we then speak of “humanitarian intervention” and the creation of “humanitarian spaces” in the midst of war zones.5

Surrounding this array of overlapping and often equivalent terms, various ideas, attitudes, convictions, ideologies, or emotions can be identified which have motivated those who provide humanitarian aid. Among them are “charity” and “philanthropy,” “humanity” and “solidarity,” or, with a view toward long-term aims, “civilizing mission,” “modernization,” and “global justice.”6 All of these concepts have different implications for the relationship between donors and recipients. If we look at the causes or catalysts of urgent humanitarian needs, they range from natural disaster, war, and displacement to famine, sickness, epidemics, poverty, and economic dependency. The term “complex emergencies” was coined in the 1990s to distinguish conflict-generated emergencies from disasters caused by natural forces and to emphasize that there are several causes and multiple actors involved, both local and international.7

Situating humanitarian aid among other related concepts broadens our understanding of the contexts in which various agents have argued over emergency relief. However, it is also necessary to review the term itself and its components. Although a narrow definition of aid as “assistance given to people in immediate need resulting from natural or man-made disaster” appears clear-cut...


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