Global history of modern humanitarian action

March 2011 to March 2015

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. 


Ancient origins, modern actors: defining Arabic meanings of humanitarianism

Research reports and studies | November 2014 | Jasmine Moussa
This Working Paper examines how the evolution of the concept of ‘humanitarianism’ in Arabic. It also explores how humanitarianism has been practiced in the region and the effect of past and current trends, such as Western colonial ambitions in the Ottoman Empire or...

Histories of humanitarian action in the Middle East and North Africa

Working and discussion papers | September 2014 | Edited by Eleanor Davey and Eva Svoboda, authored by Dima de Clerck, Shaden Khallaf, Asher Orkaby, Emanuel Schaeublin, Keith David Watenpaugh, Tom Woerner-Powell and keynote lecture by His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan Bin Talal
There is a rich history of humanitarian action in the Middle East and North Africa, but it is often overlooked and poorly understood. This collection of papers offers an introduction to the history and concepts of humanitarian action in the Middle East and North Africa...

The 'Chinese way'? The evolution of Chinese humanitarianism

Briefing papers | September 2014 | Hanna Krebs
China’s rising economic power has meant that it is now playing a bigger role in humanitarian aid. This policy brief examines the history and cultural values at the heart of China’s approach to humanitarianism and the ways to address existing gaps between China and...

Humanitarian history in a complex world

Briefing papers | May 2014 | Eleanor Davey
What can we learn from the past? This HPG Policy brief explores how an understanding of humanitarian history can bring valuable skills, resources and insights to humanitarian practice and policy and help analysis of complex situations and crises.

A history of the humanitarian system: Western origins and foundations

Research reports and studies | June 2013 | Eleanor Davey, with John Borton and Matthew Foley
While knowledge of the past has direct operational, analytical and strategic implications, the humanitarian sector has a poor understanding of its history. Delve into HPG’s account of the history of the international humanitarian system to discover more.