Humanitarianism in Modern Britain: from Imperial Burdens to the Aid Industry

Speakers: Andrew Jones, Charlotte Lydia Riley, Anna Bocking-Welch

Chair: Matthew Hilton

There is a long history of British involvement in humanitarianism – the aid and campaigning to save lives, alleviate suffering, and protect human dignity around the world. From its origins in religious missions, anti-slavery campaigning and wartime relief, humanitarianism and international aid has been an important and enduring presence in the landscape of modern Britain. In recent decades this has matured into a highly professionalised sector, commanding substantial resources and global influence. However, despite growing interest from historians, there is still much we do not know about the historical dynamics, development, and political dimensions of modern British humanitarianism.

This panel investigates this history, featuring three papers from early career researchers working and publishing in this field. All three papers explore specific aspects of the history of British aid, and use these case studies to illuminate key issues in modern British studies highlighted in Birmingham’s collective Working Paper 1. Charlotte Riley discusses how the history of official aid and development policy in Britain (both pre-and post-colonial) can shed light on wider issues in British political and social history. Anna Bocking-Welch examines how popular engagement in internationalism was reframed in Britain after the Second World War, focusing specifically on civic participation in transnational humanitarian campaigns in the 1960s. Finally, Andrew Jones analyses the rise of a professionalised and technocratic humanitarian infrastructure in post-war Britain, and the insights this history can provide into public engagement, the rise of NGOs, and the legacies of imperial discourses in modern Britain.

Paper 1 Abstract: Charlotte Lydia Riley, University of York

‘This country is full of warm-hearted people’: Identity, Humanitarianism, and British Political History

This paper will explore how the history of aid and development policy in Britain can be used to shed light on wider issues in British political and social history.

From the 1920s, British colonial policy became increasingly articulated through a language of ‘progress’ and ‘development’. This was enshrined in British law with the Colonial Development Act (1929) and the Colonial Development Acts (first passed in 1940). During and after decolonisation, this approach was continued in Britain’s relationships with the newly independent nations of the ‘developing world’, and the legacies of colonial policies, rhetoric and ideology can be traced in the Ministry of Overseas Development (est. 1964) and the Department for International Development (1997).

This paper argues that, after the empire was ended, ideas about ‘civilising missions’ and imperial burdens did not melt away; instead, they were absorbed into a wider dialogue about Britain’s (and Britons’) place in the world. The construction of a British identity within the international community as a giver of aid, within a network of international and transnational humanitarian organisations, has been fundamentally shaped by the ongoing legacy of British colonialism and decolonisation. In turn, this international identity has shaped, and been shaped by, domestic British politics; as the paper will demonstrate, this identity has been most enthusiastically embraced by the British left. This paper will explore how these ideas about aid, humanitarianism and development can contribute to a broader understanding of political cultures and social values in modern British history, as well as a wider conception of Britain as an actor within a network of transnational ideas and supranational politics.

Paper 2 Abstract: Anna Bocking-Welch, University of Liverpool

Humanitarianism as Civic Internationalism in 1960s Britain

In the inter-war period there was a rich tradition of internationalist public ritual, best characterised by the pageantry of League of Nations Day and other civic events. Although the pageantry of internationalism declined after the second world war, this paper will argue that public engagement with internationalism did not disappear, but continued, instead, in new forms. Reframed and relocated in response to changing domestic and international circumstances, by the 1960s, civic participation in internationalism had come to focus on interpersonal relationships. Using the activities of the United Nations Freedom from Hunger Campaign and Christian Aid in the 1960s , this paper will show that humanitarian campaigns came to provide an important means by which the British public could articulate and participate in these forms of civic—or people-to-people—internationalism. To do this, it will focus on two key elements of public participation in humanitarian campaigns: claims and performances of solidarity with the recipients of aid; and the pursuit of knowledge about recipient countries and their populations. In both cases, participants saw their relationship to the humanitarian organisations that they supported as more than just financial. Both also raise important questions about the extent to which public support of humanitarian campaigns can be understood as political behaviour.

Paper 3 Abstract: Andrew Jones, University of Birmingham

The Humanitarian Industry in Britain

Humanitarianism is big business in contemporary Britain. Today, the leading international aid agencies are all household names, characterised by big resources, professionalised bureaucracies, and global influence. In 2014, Oxfam alone raised just under £400 million in income. The British public consistently donates large amounts to humanitarian causes, and the current official aid budget is unprecedented in size. Many observers refer to an aid ‘industry’ when describing contemporary humanitarianism, evoking notions of commercial activity and market dynamics which appear removed from traditional voluntarism. However, there is still much that we do not understand about how this infrastructure developed and took shape historically. This paper will provide a brief introduction to the emergence of this humanitarian industry in post-war Britain, which can be heavily attributed to an enduring cycle of major disasters in the global South. This was also problematic, as from as early as the 1960s many leading aid agencies wanted to move away from disaster relief work, towards tackling the long-term structural causes of global poverty instead. This apparent contradiction can be attributed to a number of structural constraints, which worked to shape and contain the development of British humanitarianism. It will be concluded that this history also sheds light on important themes in modern British studies, including the development of non-governmental activism; public engagement in global issues; and the impact of decolonisation and legacies and empire within the metropole.


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