A sympathy for strangers: Oxfam and the history of humanitarianism

On Tuesday 31st October the Oxfam Archive Assistants attended a lecture at St Antony’s College by Princeton University’s Professor Jeremy Adelman, entitled Towards a Global History of Humanitarianism. Professor Adelman’s focus was primarily the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but his narrative had implications for the way we might view contemporary humanitarian agencies such as Oxfam.

 

Historians have not always been kind in their assessments of international humanitarianism. Alex de Waal was broadly critical of the role such agencies have played when dealing with famine on the African continent: by supplying aid externally, he argues, they inadvertently undermine the democratic accountability of African governments, disincentivizing humanitarian intervention or crisis prevention as a way of preserving political power.[1] To an extent, Adelman spoke in a similar vein: abolitionists may have helped stimulate the rise of humanitarianism in the nineteenth century but colonial penetration itself was often justified in terms of humanitarian intervention, where the white settler was morally and ethically obliged to ‘civilize’ the unsophisticated ‘native’. Humanitarian discourse, Adelman argued, is by its nature racialized, and it invariably reinforces the self-image of Western nations as occupying the apex of a civilizational hierarchy.

 

This might seem somewhat damning of all Oxfam does and stands for. However, Adelman also spoke of a ‘sympathy for strangers’ which grew out of increasing global connectedness and integration as telegraph cables, railways and steamships curtailed the spatial and intellectual distances between disparate peoples. The camera was, according to Adelman, a fundamental technological innovation in this respect and the relationship between photography and humanitarianism has in many ways been central to the development of charities like Oxfam. Borrowing from Susan Sontag, Adelman suggested that ‘moral witnesses’ – i.e., photographers – record public memories of pain, creating a connection between the ‘victim’ – the subject of the photograph – and the viewer.

 

In the 19th century missionaries armed themselves with Kodak cameras, and by producing lantern slide shows of their experiences in foreign climes hoped to raise money for future missionary work. But in the Congo Free State, rendered a personal possession of King Leopold of Belgium in 1885, missionaries began to use their cameras to record atrocities committed against Congolese rubber plantation workers. In the face of international scrutiny – which admittedly was somewhat more self-interested than compassionate – King Leopold was forced to cede Congo as a personal asset. It could certainly be argued that such photographs exploited the pain of others, titillating public interest at home without any true empathy for or understanding of the Congolese people. According to Susan Sontag, the ‘knowledge gained through still photographs will always be some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist’.[2]

 

 

But the power of the photograph to reinforce moral or empathetic feeling can be – and has been – used for the genuine betterment of others. From 1957 to the early 1960s Oxfam sent simple Christmas ‘appeal’ cards to its donors, featuring a simple ‘thank you’ message and photographs of individuals helped by the charity. A card from 1958 showed a huge-eyed little girl, sitting wrapped in a coat and woollen socks with a spoon stuck into a beaker of food. The caption read ‘This little Greek girl was found as a baby hungry and dying… Now she is properly fed… because Oxfam sends food, and years ago was able to plant black-currant bushes in her village which are now bearing fruit.’ This photograph does not simply broadcast the pain of strangers. It broadcasts hope, and promises resolution through charitable action. While a healthy scepticism and constructive interrogation of the conduct of international agencies is to be encouraged, we should be careful not to overlook and devalue the charitable efforts inspired by genuine ‘sympathy for strangers’.

[1] Alex de Waal, Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa (1997)

[2] Susan Sontag, On Photography (1973)

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