What is the Non-state Humanitarianism network?

Mary_Robinson_in_Somalia_(2)From the actions of nineteenth century missionaries and colonial officials to the recent food crisis in the Sahel region of West Africa, non-state humanitarianism has become one of the defining characteristics of international action. But how can humanitarian aid draw on its history to respond to current challenges and present-day norms? Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the ‘Non-state humanitarianism’ network investigates humanitarianism’s past and the uses of that past in a pan-European framework, while combining it with alternative perspectives of humanitarianism from the global South.

The network connects two emerging strands of historical inquiry – from the academic world and from within the humanitarian sector – in a spirit of conversation and collaboration, to examine these questions in a transnational historical context. Building on the firm belief that history’s focus on causality and long-term processes of change is indispensible for appreciating the complex dynamics of socio-cultural change, the network contributes a deeper understanding of modern humanitarianism. It provides an historical complement to the wealth of available analyses – internal and external – of the contemporary humanitarian environment. Its broad spectrum of participants – from network partners in the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and the University of Manchester Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI) – ensures that the network and its outputs harness the variety of existing historical approaches to humanitarianism.

To achieve its goals, the network brings together participants from across the UK and Europe in a series of virtual discussion groups (via the network website, Twitter feed and email list) and two-day workshops. The network’s online activities include the generation of research questions and thematic clusters; the pre-workshop circulation of papers; and on-going discussion before, between, and after the workshops. The involvement of postgraduate and early career researchers – in the form of an online research database, short presentations at the workshops and opportunities for conversation and collaboration with NGOs – will contribute to the sustainability of the network and its outputs.

The first of the workshops, at the University of Birmingham on 15 March 2013, centred on the question of methodologies: how we approach – and should approach – the history of non-state humanitarianism. The second workshop, at National University of Ireland Galway in June 2013, explores sources and uses for humanitarian history in a discussion about archival best practice and the value of these archives for NGOs and historians.

The third workshop took place at ZZF Potsdam on 28-29 November 2013, and focused on the intersections between national and international forms and languages of humanitarianism. In keeping with our aim to create a coherent, and genuinely collaborative research agenda for our subject, but also to ensure its practical relevance and impact, our final workshop took place on 7-8 April 2014 at the offices of Save the Children UK in London. Under the theme ‘Between the global and the local in humanitarian action’, it offered an great location for reflection and collaboration between historians and practitioners on the tensions between the global and the local in the humanitarian action.

The findings of the four workshops will inform a series of collaborative publications, including the production of a research agenda for humanitarian history, and how it might be used by the sector. They will also provide a strong foundation for the network’s activities beyond this initial phase: as a platform for future transnational conversation, discussion, and collaborative research, and as the basis for stronger ties between the academic and practical worlds of the NGO sector.