Research themes

Humanitarianism, development and the discourses of rights

History has much to add to our present, pressing discussions of humanitarianism and human rights. Lessons from the past have been ignored, over-simplified or distorted, fuelling tensions between the donors and recipients of aid that persist to this day. Recent scholarship however has begun to analyse the historical contingency of humanitarian intervention and development programmes, and to chart how decisions have been made in response to local, imperial and international, as well as legal and moral understandings of rights and intervention. Vocabularies of 'rights' are a global commonplace today, acknowledged and invoked by most of the world's societies and governments. How far was the global spread of rights achieved under the auspices of, or fashioned against, experiences of empire and the end of empire? How far have Western and non-Western languages of 'rights' interacted, and what have they owed to discussions concerning other contentious issues, such as integration, discrimination and gender? In pursuing this question, we see an opportunity to provide a critical historical perspective on the evolution of aid, intervention and development, and to reintegrate their histories in the nineteenth- and twentieth- centuries.