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.
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