Disability, development, and humanitarianism

 

A picture from 1971 showing the ICRC prosthetics workshop in Sanaa, Yemen, from the rich audiovisual archives of the ICRC (picture by M. Convers).

Sam de Schutter
Leiden University
Fellow of the 2017 Global Humanitarianism Research Academy

Cross-posted from Rethinking Disability

Today “the world faces the largest humanitarian crisis since the end of the second world war”, the UN under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs recently declared. This statement shows that humanitarianism is very much alive today, but that it apparently also has a history. But why am I writing about that on a blog related to the history of disability? That is because I participated in the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy (GHRA), organized by the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz and the University of Exeter, in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross. Over the span of two weeks in July, spent both in Mainz and Geneva, this event brought together thirteen scholars from all over the world working on issues related to humanitarianism, international humanitarian law and human rights. I was lucky to be one of them, and got inspired to write this short blog about it.

So what was I doing there? My research is on the history of development interventions by UN agencies, aimed at people with disabilities in Tanzania and Kenya. I can certainly relate my subject to human rights, being part of a project that aims at unravelling how disability rose to the mainstream of international human rights discourses. But humanitarianism? I must admit that I did not have a clear idea about what humanitarianism entails before I joined this academy. During the two weeks of discussions and lectures however, it soon became clear that maybe no one has, or at least that different people have very different ideas about it. Certain themes and concepts nonetheless consistently appear throughout different writings on the history of humanitarianism, and I can certainly relate my own research to them: fostering sympathy across borders, mobilizing people through transnational organizations, lobbying for state interventions, and especially the relief of ‘the suffering of distant others’. It thus became clear that looking at my research through the lens of humanitarianism might be a fruitful exercise. I was however equally intrigued by the questions whether and what a disability perspective could contribute to the history of humanitarianism. It was mainly during the second week of the academy that I started to formulate a preliminary answer to these questions. Continue reading “Disability, development, and humanitarianism”