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The Origins of Transnational Relief: Calvinism, the Red Cross, and Volunteer Humanitarian Work

  • Sociology Department Colloquium Bar Ilan University Ramat Gan Israel (map)

Humanitarian NGOs use the notions of impartiality, neutrality, and independence to evaluate their work and to distinguish themselves from other organizations. In this talk, I ask why the humanitarian sector adopted these particular categories when, historically, other ways of thinking about relief work were more acceptable. Based on archival research at the International Committee of the Red Cross, I trace the emergence of volunteer humanitarian societies as a social field in the mid-nineteenth-century. I show that a nineteenth-century strand of Calvinist doctrine shaped the logics governing the humanitarian field through its convictions about the nature of war, state and society relations, and charity. This doctrine informed the early Red Cross's advocacy and legal work, which laid down core ethical and organizational assumptions that value impartiality, independence, and neutrality as markers of proper humanitarian work. These assumptions were institutionalized in the humanitarian field and continue to underpin relief organizations today. Theoretically, I argue that the emergence of new social fields and new types of categories of evaluation has to be understood in its cultural and historical context.