Humanitarian Internationalists and the Rise of Global Conscience

Humanitarian Internationalists and the Rise of Global Conscience

Matthias Schulz, Geneva, Switzerland (Université de Genève, Département d’histoire générale)
Université de Genève
From - Until
15.09.2011 - 17.09.2011
Matthias Schulz

What do Henri Dunant, Clara Barton, Marcel Junod, Count Folke Bernadotte, Egglantyne Jebb, Herbert Hoover, Fridtjof Nansen, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, Bernard Kouchner, Bob Geldorf and many others have in common? They could be called “humanitarian internationalists”. At some point in their lives, they reached out to other human beings living far beyond the frontiers of their own country by organizing large-scale aid, via national or international organizations, to suffering people in another corner of the globe.

While several studies have recently broadened the field of “transnational” history, many of them follow an institutional approach and put the emphasis on the similarities of a large variety of international or non-governmental organizations – for example humanitarian, human rights, environmental, development, wildlife protection, sanitary or other organizations – rather than on the particularities of one branch of internationalism. On the contrary, this international conference seeks to shed light on the particularities of humanitarian internationalism during the 19th and 20th centuries. In addition, the conference proposes a prosopographical approach of analysis.

Humanitarian internationalism as we know it today encompasses organized acts of solidarity for large groups of human beings in distress, typically being the victims of an emergency caused by war, expulsion, famine, or natural disaster. It is related to, but distinct from human rights-based advocacy; its approach is essentially need-based. One of its major branches is based upon the Geneva tradition of humanitarian law of war which emerged in 1863/1864, but there are also distinct American and French traditions of international humanitarianism, for example. In which context did humanitarian internationalism develop? If its basic tenets have been “transferred” across borders, how do its norms and practices vary across time and space? How did the communications revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries transform international humanitarianism? How did it shape global conscience in times of upheaval?

To respond to these questions, the organizers propose a prosopographical approach because the ethical, intellectual framework and practices of transnational humanitarian agencies are typically shaped by leading individuals and “core groups” whose formative experiences brought them to share the basic conviction that human beings everywhere deserve to be saved from utter distress. These individuals comprise philanthropists, academics, medical doctors, officers, politicians, social workers, rock stars or even adventurers, who somehow found their way into humanitarian internationalist organizations – or founded them. By focusing on such individuals, the conference shall throw into relief the specific cultural, political and socio-economic contexts which give birth to humanitarian internationalism and its concomitant global conscience. Furthermore, the study of those individuals' practical work renders visible some of the shortcomings of humanitarian internationalism, which may be linked to particular intra-institutional dynamics and principles, constraints imposed by donors, intricate problems encountered “in the field”, or the lack of autonomy from governments. Hence, the structural and institutional constraints of humanitarian internationalism shall not be neglected. On the contrary, they are the daily business of humanitarian internationalists.

Ideally, the contributions to the conference will examine founders, leading figures or long time delegates of transnational movements or humanitarian organizations such as, for example, the abolitionist movement, the International Red Cross Movement (ICRC, Federation, national organizations), Save the Children Fund, Union international de secours aux enfants, CARE, CROP, and other American relief organizations, the Jewish World Council, World Oecumenical Council, and other church organizations (active not only, but also in relief operations), OXFAM, or Médecins sans frontiers. Individuals, who concocted, led or “personified” government-based organizations – such as the American Relief Administration and Technisches Hilfswerk – or who led international organizations like the Nansen Office for Refugees and its successor organizations, the UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs, ECHO or leaders of other transnational actors engaged partly or exclusively in emergency work also promise insights into the historical particularities of humanitarian internationalism. Contributions should analyze the formative experiences, the intellectual principles, as well as the practices of humanitarian internationalists within their specific temporal and cultural contexts and characterize the contributions they made to the rise of global conscience.

If you are interested in presenting a paper at the conference, please submit a pertinent abstract (1 page) which includes references to sources used, indications about your related ongoing research, as well as a short CV, by September 30, 2010, to:

Participants will be asked to submit their draft papers by August 31, 2011. The working languages of the conference will be French and English.


Contact (announcement)

Prof. Dr. Matthias Schulz

Université de Genève, Département d'histoire générale
Rue Saint-Ours 5, CH-1211 Genève 4, Switzerland

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