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Global history of modern humanitarian action

Hero image description: Herbert Hoover and the European Relief Council Image credit:Underwood & Underwood Image license:Public Domain

This research project seeks to promote the use of history in the practice and policy-making of humanitarian action. The aim is to help the sector better understand its history and make greater use of historical analysis and lessons in current discussions and debates aimed at improving humanitarian action.

The study will engage with histories, cultures and contributions to humanitarian action beyond those of Western Europe, North America and other developed countries, to better understand the different ways in which care for others during conflict and natural disaster has evolved around the globe. With studies in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, it is intended the project will assist with engagement and dialogue.

At a time when the humanitarian system’s association with Western powers has faced strong criticism, yet there is little understanding of the variety of humanitarian histories, cultures and perspectives across the globe, history can help shape future responses, rethink aid architecture and provide a platform for engaging with a wide range of actors.

To join the project mailing list please contact [email protected] or join the debate by following the #aidhistory hashtag on Twitter. 


Simon Levine, Irina Mosel, Matthew Foley, Lilianne Fan, Hanna Krebs, Eleanor Davey, Eva Svoboda and John Borton

Supported by

  1. Aproximaciones a la historia del humanitarismo en América Latina y el Caribe

    Working papers

  2. Learning from the past to shape the future: lessons from the history of humanitarian action in Africa

    Working papers

  3. Neutrality and solidarity in Nordic humanitarian action

    Working papers

  4. Understanding humanitarian action in South Asia: responses to famine and displacement in nineteenth and twentieth century India

    Working papers

  5. Famine in North Korea: humanitarian policy in the late 1990s

    Working papers

  6. Ancient origins, modern actors: defining Arabic meanings of humanitarianism

    Research reports

  7. Histories of humanitarian action in the Middle East and North Africa

    Working papers

  8. Responsibility, legitimacy, morality: Chinese humanitarianism in historical perspective

    Research reports

  9. The 'Chinese way'? The evolution of Chinese humanitarianism

    Briefing/policy papers

  10. New players through old lenses: Why history matters in engaging with Southern actors

    Briefing/policy papers

  11. Continuity, change and contest: meanings of ‘humanitarian’ from the ‘Religion of Humanity’ to the Kosovo war

    Research reports

  12. Beyond the ‘French Doctors’: The evolution and interpretation of humanitarian action in France

    Research reports

  13. A history of the humanitarian system: Western origins and foundations

    Research reports

  14. Understanding humanitarian action in East and Southeast Asia: a historical perspective


  15. Humanitarian history in a complex world

    Briefing/policy papers