Tag Archives: emergency health

War, Health and Humanitarianism

How can we define humanitarianism?

What motivates humanitarian actors like Oxfam and the Red Cross?

How have relief and development organizations competed and collaborated to mitigate suffering from conflicts?

Is political neutrality feasible or necessary?

These and other questions will be addressed in the symposium, ‘War, Health and Humanitarianism’ on 16 June in the Weston Library Lecture Theatre, which brings together historians studying conflicts from the medieval period to the present day. Speakers will include Dr. Rosemary Wall, Bodleian Library Sassoon Visiting Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Global History at the University of Hull, whose current research focuses on conflict in Cyprus, Vietnam and Nigeria in the 20th century and British and French humanitarian responses.

For further information and to register see:


Unloading dried milk

Unloading dried milk for the starving people of Biafra at Fernando Po during the Nigerian Civil War, July 1968
MS. Oxfam COM/5/1/51
Credit: Duncan Kirkpatrick / Oxfam

Emergency Health Kits and Wellcome Pharmaceutical Supplies

Whilst sorting through the ‘project files’ in the Oxfam archive, I found several volumes relating to Afghanistan from the mid-1980s (Oxfam reference AGN 008, Vols. 1-5). These volumes all relate to grants made to the Islamic Aid Health Centre for Afghan Refugees (IAHC), whose head office was in Quetta, Pakistan. The majority of the grants were to enable the IAHC to supply clinics inside Afghanistan with medical supplies.

An initial description of the project’s objectives was: ‘Assistance with supplies of basic medicines and equipment and some funds to six clinics inside Afghanistan which provide rudimentary curative medical facilities to war affected people who otherwise would not be able to have access to such services’. The war referred to here is the conflict between Soviet troops, government forces and the Mujahideen from December 1979 to February 1989.

From its inception, when the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief awarded its first grant to alleviate the suffering of women and children in Nazi occupied Greece, Oxfam’s policy has been to direct aid to ‘where need is greatest, without distinction of nationality’ and ‘irrespective of the political framework in which that need manifests itself’.

There are a number of photographs accompanying the project reports and these help to document how Oxfam’s grants were being used. In a handful we can see the medical supplies that were sent to the clinics in Afghanistan piled high in offices or on the backs of pick-up trucks. Amongst the myriad of brand names and logos on the boxes, I was intrigued to spot some with the blue unicorn logo of the Wellcome pharmaceutical company (Wellcome Foundation Ltd).

Written on the back: ‘A’ unit Arghistan Clinic, 1986 (Bodleian Libraries, Oxfam Archive)

This was an interesting discovery as The Wellcome Trust is a generous sponsor of the work on the Oxfam archive being carried out here at the Bodleian Library. However, in 1995 trustees sold their remaining interest in Wellcome plc to Glaxo plc, an independent company which was known as GlaxoWellcome after the merger. Equally, Oxfam no longer supply medicines or medical equipment.

Written on the back: ‘Four ‘A’ units medicine for Ghazni clinic’, 1987
(Bodleian Libraries, Oxfam Archive)

Written on the back of both these photographs is a reference to ‘A’ units. A’ units were supplied to ‘established clinics inside Afghanistan’, as opposed to ‘B’ units which went to mobile clinics and ‘C’ units which were first aid kits for the Mujahideen.

These references stem from the World Health Organisation guide-lines for an ‘Emergency Health Kit’, and these files contain a copy of lists (A-C) itemising which drugs constitute each unit. There is also one table of likely symptoms and proposed treatment, and another of standardised treatment schedules. According to the WHO guide-lines ‘List A’ is the ‘Basic drug requirements for 10, 000 persons for 3 months’. Whereas ‘List B’ is ‘Drugs for use by doctors and senior health workers, in addition to List A’ and which can only treat 70-150 people. Finally, ‘List C’ is only ‘Basic medical equipment’, which in this case was for Mujahideen fronts where there were no medical workers.

There are five dense volumes packed with reports and photographs relating to IAHC projects, as in addition to medical assistance they were also involved in educational and agricultural projects. Most notably, there is a great deal of information about a Medical Training Course (MTC) which was run by the director of IAHC Dr. A. B. Haqani and the project manager Dr. Susan Welsby.