New Works in the Field

SHAFR’s Annual Conference: Discussing Philanthropy, Humanitarianism, and Human Rights

Editors’ Note: In late June, the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) took place in Washington DC; and in an earlier post on this site, we noted that some of its panels would be of interest to HistPhil readers. Here, Amanda Moniz provides us with a snapshot of conversations on philanthropy, humanitarianism, and human rights that took place at the conference. 

This blog examines the history of philanthropy, but references to humanitarianism keep cropping up and in such a way that suggests the two concepts are related but distinct. One difference, between the fields if not concepts, as a few HistPhil entries have suggested, is that the historical investigation of humanitarianism is in vogue, while the study of philanthropy needs some priming. From my perspective as a historian of the eighteenth-century Anglophone Atlantic world, the two words seem interchangeable, so why do others distinguish them? Conversations at the recent annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) got me thinking more about the historical relationship between those words and concepts.

The question of the vocabulary of beneficence came up at a panel, “From Humanitarian Relief to Human Rights? New Perspectives on American Non-state Assistance to Europe in the Great War.” Chaired and with a comment by Stephen Porter (University of Cincinnati), the panel featured Michael McGuire (Salem State University), Cedric Cotter (University of Geneva), Jaclyn Granick (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva), and Kimberly Lowe (Lesley University). In their discussions of wartime and postwar relief organizations, a few panelists used the word “philanthropy,” so I asked what they meant by that term and how they distinguished it from “humanitarianism.” Philanthropy, thought one scholar, refers to a private, moral obligation, while humanitarianism could denote either private or state activity and is thus moral or legal. Another panelist views philanthropy as aiming to be transformative, while humanitarianism, in his view, deals with emergency relief and does not have a transformative element. Stephen Porter noted that Merle Curti, in American Philanthropy Abroad, published in 1963, included state-provided aid in his understanding of “philanthropy.” In the last few decades, that meaning of the word has been lost, while the concept of humanitarianism has grown in prominence.

Defining humanitarianism and human rights, and examining the relationship between them, was the focus of a roundtable organized by Julia Irwin (University of South Florida). Chaired by Sarah Snyder (American University), the panel included Michael Barnett (George Washington University), Gary Bass (Princeton), Elizabeth Borgwardt (Washington University in St. Louis), and yours truly. Scholars working on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries drew clear conceptual distinctions. Human rights are, first and foremost, legal entitlements; they can be policy priorities; and they operate within long-term agendas. Humanitarianism, by contrast, belongs to a moral code; it can create a compulsion to act; and it concerns itself with short-term, urgent goals. In practice the lines are often blurred, as Irwin and others noted. While some NGOs and government agencies, for political, ideological, or bureaucratic reasons, insist on keeping the two subfields apart, other organizations and individual activists work in both arenas. Moreover, as Snyder observed, humanitarian crises have prompted human rights activism, while human rights have expanded the space for humanitarian action. Eighteenth-century Americans and Britons, I noted, could encompass causes we would distinguish as either human rights or humanitarian with the idea of “philanthropy.” Love of mankind, or moral concern for suffering strangers, could spur activists to pursue the abolition of the slave trade, to spread new techniques to save drowning victims, or both.

The activities my subjects and Merle Curti alike termed “philanthropy” are now called, most often, “humanitarian.” Philanthropy, for its part, typically now brings to American minds big foundations or large benefactions by wealthy individuals. What does the shift in language tell us about changes in beneficent agendas? Eighteenth-century men and women opted for the word “philanthropy,” as Conrad Edick Wright has explained, to express the universal aspirations that waxed strong in the late eighteenth century. The era that saw a huge expansion of state-funded, international relief operations and the elaboration of human rights law jettisoned that idealistic term for a word that, to my ears, sounds bureaucratic. What about “humanitarianism” captured contemporaries’ expectations and agendas? Understanding this vocabulary shift more fully might add to our broader understanding of the distinct, but intertwined, developments in the fields of philanthropy, humanitarianism, and human rights alike.

-Amanda Moniz

Tomorrow on HistPhil, Amanda Moniz considers how the history of eighteenth-century Anglo-American philanthropy changes our understanding of the developments in nineteenth-century beneficence that Abigail Green explores in her article “Humanitarianism in Nineteenth-Century Context: Religious, Gendered, National.”

Amanda Moniz is the Assistant Director at the National History Center in Washington D.C. Moniz received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 2008 and held a Cassius Marcellus Clay Postdoctoral Fellowship at Yale University from 2008 to 2010. Her book, The American Revolution and the Origins of Humanitarianism is under contract with Oxford University Press. (photo credit: David Betts, Metropolitan Photography).



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