A history of the humanitarian system: Western origins and foundations

Research reports and studies
June 2013
Eleanor Davey, with John Borton and Matthew Foley

The idea of using history to shed light on the present has significant and growing support within the humanitarian community, but remains the exception rather than the rule.

This HPG Working Paper provides an introduction to the emergence of the international humanitarian system and the factors that have shaped its evolution. It argues that greater knowledge of the system’s past will help practitioners and policy-makers think through today’s challenges and will contribute to a more effective platform for future reforms.

For those working in the humanitarian sector, this Working Paper offers an overview of major developments in the history of the humanitarian system from its origins in the mid-nineteenth-century until the close of the twentieth century. It draws attention to key moments of relevance to current reflection about the system and the issues that have been the subject of critical reflection.

For students and historians of humanitarianism, it provides a review of current scholarship and makes an appeal for greater engagement with the concerns that shape humanitarian practice today.

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