Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

A multitude of meanings in a mutual past


Rarely does a research project answer one of its key questions halfway through. This time, however, two years into work on the history of humanitarian action and after an event on the experience of the Middle East and North Africa, we have resolved our enquiry into whether there is ‘a common regional understanding of the meaning, origins and composition of humanitarian action’. The answer is no.

Of course, no one expected anything else, but the opportunity to consider the richness of this history – the wealth of the region’s traditions around the care for others, the depth of experience and expertise, and the variety of practice – made the point once again.

At the event, held in Amman, Jordan, concepts and moments of humanitarian action were discussed, from the nineteenth century to the present day, from Turkey to Yemen, from colonial governance to postcolonial government, international organisations and independent actors.

Motivation was a prominent theme. What inspires those who offer assistance to others at times of need? Is it important to understand their motives or is it the gesture that matters? This question was raised by Tom Woerner-Powell, whose research on El Amir Abdelkader, the Algerian leader and scholar, considers the legacy of Abdelkader’s humane treatment of prisoners of war in the 1830s and his work in protecting civilians from mass violence in the 1860s. His research certainly shows the significance of ‘humanitarian’ ideas outside of and prior to the foundations of the system as we know it.

Moving forward more than a century and the question of motivation still remained central. When Greece was struck by famine in the 1940s, aid came in the form of a Turkish cargo ship called the Kurtuluş – that is, ‘Salvation’. Governments, the ICRC and the Turkish Red Crescent, and private individuals, donated food and clothing delivered by the Kurtuluş. Was it solidarity, strategy, or simply help for those who were suffering? And does it matter?

What concepts and traditions have influenced humanitarianism in the region? Mohsen Ghafory-Ashtiany explained how disaster risk management converged with the teachings of Islam. Both emphasising the importance not just of developing knowledge but of making use of it for yourself and to help others. The role of zakat and other forms of Islamic charitable giving were raised. According to Emanuel Schaeublin, the multitude of meanings and practices of zakat make this form of giving a powerful resource, yet the humanitarian system has not yet learned how to accommodate it.

Tradition and history play an important role in attitudes to displacement in the Middle East and North Africa. The culture of hospitality and the strength of the tradition of asylum, as Shaden Khallaf noted, have been central in the treatment of refugees and IDPs particularly in the absence of codified legal frameworks. The concept of the ‘refugee’ however has changed over time, particularly in light of displacement from Palestine since the 1940s, and means different things to different people. This conceptual and cultural evolution is a recurring feature of the history of humanitarian thinking and practice, be it in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, North America or Western Europe.

How does the use of history and its meaning influence those undertaking humanitarian action today? Is the past an asset or a burden? It is probably both of these things, at various moments; too often, I think, it is neither. Keith David Watenpaugh emphasised that history is a tool that can help in understanding a context and in thinking about the tension between action and words. As Asher Orkaby highlighted, the reference to history can help us not to see things in black and white. History can illuminate the difficult yet close relationship humanitarianism has with politics. History can help us think about different forms of humanitarian action and the process by which different actors and ideas have been brought into contact with one another.

We were reminded in Amman, to steal a phrase from one of our speakers, that Western institutions and events are emblematic of humanitarianism but not constitutive of it. It was also clear that this is a shared history: not one Western history and a parallel history beyond the West, but a process of interaction, cooperation, competition, influence and mutual assistance.