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

Briefing papers
July 2012
Eleanor Davey

In recent years humanitarian actors and scholars have been describing and analysing with increasing urgency their sense that their world is changing. Many analysts point to the rise of ‘new’ or ‘non-traditional’ actors, originating from and based in the global South, whose presence on the international stage is often pointed to as both desirable – indeed, essential – and potentially problematic.

What is absent from this encounter between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ is an appreciation of history; the humanitarian system is facing a critical juncture in its evolution, but not for the first time. A historical perspective, this Policy Brief argues, will help to sharpen thinking about humanitarian actors from across the globe – North as well as South – and their place within the broader system. It outlines the key questions informing ongoing HPG research on the global history of modern humanitarian action, which aims to make the history of humanitarian action from a Southern perspective accessible to international actors, with a view to improving the sector’s knowledge of its own past.

Key messages:

  • The formal international humanitarian system has reached a critical juncture: the importance of Southern humanitarian actors has been widely recognised but reactions to their presence have been varied. It is important that the international system seek to understand and be open to the diverse cultural, political and contextual forces that have shaped these actors.

  • Greater attention to the past will facilitate sharper reflection on the current system and clearer understanding of key stakeholders within and beyond it. Recognising the diversity and divergence of the system’s history will create a stronger platform from which to engage with actors that have developed outside of this system.

  • Like the Northern system, Southern actors have been shaped by past experiences. An understanding of these experiences over time and their cultural and political context will enable more effective dialogue and partnerships.