Humanitarianism in Africa
Summary and Keywords
The history of humanitarianism in Africa has been shaped largely by the history of unequal power relations and the struggle between preservative and progressive approaches to the unintended consequences of intervention. As foreign powers and individuals became involved in identifying and aiding African “victims,” both action and inaction were fraught with political consequences that required further intervention. These interventions ranged from direct emergency assistance to longer-term development goals; from military aid to post-conflict state-building and capacity-building; from small-scale interventions by individuals through service missions to annual, multi-billion-dollar governmental aid packages. Although the scale and approach to humanitarian assistance varied dramatically over the continent and across two and a half centuries, humanitarian impulses were consistently based on the desire to help and were also consistently critiqued both in Africa and elsewhere. Imperialism and humanitarianism have been overlapping and interlocking ideologies in the African context, but independent African states, individuals, and marginalized groups have also made use of humanitarian language and ideology to further their own goals and promote their own causes across the modern period.
What Is Humanitarianism?
Humanitarianism is a concern for the treatment of others—often distant others—that reflects a belief in a set of universal, fundamental human rights. Although these specific rights have changed over time, the core impulse toward alleviating suffering and restoring dignity to victims of either natural or man-made circumstances remains at the heart of the ideology of humanitarianism.1
The origins of modern humanitarianism have been variously traced to the Reformation, the Treaty of Westphalia, the Enlightenment, and the establishment of the Red Cross, depending on the European or international focus of the humanitarian action.2 Early European humanitarianism in Africa certainly reflected the Enlightenment emphasis on a shared humanity across diverse religions and races. But it also stemmed from the importance of a belief in millenarian conversion and the “brotherhood of man” among Christian Evangelical Revivalists at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th.
In an African context, humanitarianism from the late 18th century through the early 21st century has been characterized by a variety of forms of external intervention, which have frequently been shaped by local humanitarian engagements directed by African religious and political concerns. These have included emergency relief, medium-term aid, development aid, refugee resettlement, state-building, and capacity building, as well as military intervention. It has been bilateral, multilateral, and African-led. Throughout the modern period, while approaches to humanitarianism in Africa have varied, they have consistently produced questions about power, sovereignty, and individual rights. African-led interventions, including religiously oriented humanitarian efforts, have been used to direct or challenge the dominant narratives of the “white savior complex” at important moments throughout the two centuries covered here. This article will look at the history of humanitarianism in Africa chronologically, examining overall trends in the approaches taken to external interventions, aid, and development, as well as African-led initiatives, with case studies to illustrate these trends.
Nineteenth-Century Humanitarianism in Africa
The history of external humanitarianism in Africa could begin with the establishment of an anti-slavery colony in Sierra Leone in 1787. A group in London made up of British and African diaspora activists, including Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano, proposed the colony as an effective way of dealing with a growing population of “Black Poor” in the city, demonstrating the power of democratic institutions (the initial colony was set up with a constitution that allowed for a form of self-government) and abating the slave trade by the presence of anti-slave trade activists on the coast. Although the initial colony collapsed shortly after it was established, the site became a hub of British humanitarian interventions in West Africa during the early 19th century and a model for future imperial humanitarian engagements with the continent.3
Anti-slavery naval patrols began operating off the West African coast in 1808 as a result of both the United States and Britain’s abolition of the slave trade. Ships captured by the patrols were adjudicated in Vice-Admiralty Courts in Freetown, which some scholars have seen as the origins of modern human rights courts.4 From 1814, an agreement with the Portuguese saw their legal participation in slave trading limited to the area below the equator and brought them into participation in a new Mixed Commission Court system that would adjudicate captured slave ships and resettle Liberated Africans. Sierra Leone’s governor, Charles MacCarthy, tried to implement a system, overseen by the colony’s missionary partners, the Church Missionary Society, as well as Wesleyan and Basel missionaries, whereby the enslaved people on board the captured ships were resettled as apprentices to the black settlers from the diaspora in Freetown and increasingly in surrounding “Liberated African villages.”5 The British navy provided sporadic backing to more aggressive policing efforts, destroying barracoons that were used for holding slaves. Most efforts by the British, French, and American patrols were frustrated by the ease with which smuggling took place in the smaller rivers. International rivalry over enforcement also played a part in undermining interventions.6
Activities aimed at stopping the Atlantic slave trade expanded from Sierra Leone, with further colonies established in Liberia by African Americans, and Libreville, Gabon, by French authorities, in part to compete with British dominance of the region. In all of these cases, the goal of intervention was to compel African leaders to sign treaties with the European powers promising to cease trading enslaved people, but establishing new commercial relationships and access for missionary organizations was equally important to the end project of spreading a set of civilizational values recognized as universal to humanity.7
Although the European nations were primarily concerned with intercepting each other’s slaving vessels, there were also attempts to negotiate new treaties with local African leaders in order to ensure that the supply of slaves from Africa was also curtailed. Treaties in which African leaders agreed to prevent their people from trafficking people came with incentives, including promises of trade, customary payments, and missionary educational provision. Refusal to sign anti-slave-trading treaties, however, could lead to military reprisals and funded coups d’état, as in the case of the oba of Lagos, Kosoko, whose city was bombarded by the British in 1851 and eventually annexed to the expanding British Empire.8
Civilization, Commerce, and Christianity
External humanitarianism in the 19th century was part of a project of “civilization, commerce, and Christianity,” which featured a prominent role for missionaries and business.9 Simply emancipating enslaved captives was seen as a halfway measure. The slave trade was widely understood to have devastated the politics, morality, and economies of African societies, and therefore humanitarian interventions would need to include long-term strategies for rehabilitation and recovery at both an individual and societal level. Missionaries played an important role in enacting these plans.
Missionary involvement in running the Liberated African villages in Sierra Leone peaked in the 1820s, but the model of these settlements persisted in other missionary endeavors elsewhere on the continent. In the Kat River settlement in the Cape Colony, the London Missionary Society established a similar project for recently emancipated Khoisan. Later in the century, the Church Missionary Society re-enacted its role in Sierra Leone in East Africa, setting up villages like Frere Town, named for advocate Sir Bartle Frere, for self-emancipated slaves even prior to formal British conquest of the territory that would become Kenya.10 These missionary settlements provided training specific to the kinds of labor that an increasingly racially inflected worldview believed were “useful” for formerly enslaved people to engage in: domestic work, agriculture, and manual labor, intended to inculcate a sense of industriousness in a labor force that missionaries and colonial officials believed to be “naturally lazy” as a result of their prior experiences of enslavement.11
These approaches reflected the concerns of humanitarians about the intertwined nature of what they believed to be the moral and political-economic decline of Africa. Throughout the 19th century, Africa became a site of commercial experimentation as well as philosophical “othering” in the emerging field of political economy, in which Africa’s perceived economic backwardness was cast as a foil that reflected the changing domestic priorities and economic values of European metropoles.12 While settler agriculture was spreading in places like Algeria and the Cape Colony, humanitarian plans for East and West Africa saw agriculture, and agricultural training, as a means of “rehabilitating” societies ravaged by the slave trade. They invested both private and public money in schemes to establish model farms and incentivize cash crop production along the Senegal and Niger Rivers as well as in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Together with the moral education provided by missionaries, this practical training was envisioned as aiding the transition to “civilization” among progressively minded humanitarians at the time.
Imperial Humanitarianism in Africa
While in the early 19th century the focus of most international humanitarian efforts had been on changing behaviors and “modernizing”—or in the terms of the time, “civilizing”—the world, by the 1860s a notable shift had taken place in humanitarianism toward a “preservative” approach that sought to support the existing governance structures and elites.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with increasing imperial control over the African continent, a variety of international organizations, often operating within the imperial state, were set up to help preserve the peoples, cultures, environments, and ways of life of the “traditional” societies they were colonizing. These were organizations that were often overtly critical of empire, such as the Congo Reform Association, aimed at overthrowing Leopold II’s violent and disastrous rule in the Congo, or the Aborigines Protection Society, located in Britain and aimed at protecting the “vanishing races” of the empire.13
Official government responses tended to bridge the two approaches—progressive and preservative—such as in the ways that refugee enslaved people were dealt with by imperial institutions: there was a careful balance to be struck between maintaining a humanitarian reputation internationally among “peer” countries and maintaining a tenuous hold on power in colonial societies where imperial officials were a tiny minority who relied on the support of local elites, who often objected to the supposedly universalist humanitarian values being imposed on them by the metropolitan authorities or by missionaries or other humanitarian activists.
These tensions in part reflected the rise of European humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross and Save the Children at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. For these organizations, questions of national sovereignty versus the needs of the individual victim were fundamental. In the African context, the conquest of the continent by European powers carried over the delicate issue of national sovereignty as British, Portuguese, French, Belgian, and German powers tried to avoid interventions in humanitarian crises—including numerous famines, genocides, and conditions of enslavement—within each other’s jurisdictions.
One notable exception to this was the development of a transnational movement in opposition to King Leopold II’s rule in the Congo. When the Berlin Conference of 1885 formally divided the continent among the European colonial powers, Leopold positioned himself at the center of the continent—in the territory that would make up the modern Democratic Republic of Congo—by promising that the territory would remain a free-trade zone for the other empires, and by assuring those leaders that he would eradicate the slave trade to the east. Leopold’s regime began to come under scrutiny, however, when several different sources—including the African American missionary Reverend William Sheppard, the Swedish missionary Edvard Sjoblom, and British campaigners Roger Casement and E. D. Morel, among others—began reporting to their national governments about abusive systems of labor and cruel methods of extracting resources from the population. By the turn of the century, international outrage had led to the creation of a transnational Congo Reform Association, which received support from famous writers and political leaders. By 1908, the association succeeded in unseating Leopold from his personal rule of the Congo Free State, and the colony passed to Belgian control.14
This example of intervention in the sovereignty of another colonial power was unusual, however, and the genocide of the Herero in German South West Africa (Namibia), or the famines that led to the First Chimurenga in British Southern Rhodesia, or the continuation of slavery in nearly all colonial territories well into the 20th century were not the object of humanitarian interventions by other powers. The balance between preserving “traditions” and promoting “civilization” sat uncomfortably among various humanitarian actors and made a consistent approach by either governmental or private initiatives unlikely.
African-Led Humanitarianism in the Colonial Period
Despite the continuities of these European and American engagements with Africa into the 20th century, it is important to remember that humanitarianism was not a purely external force in African history in this period. As with the humanitarianism present in Europe, quite a lot of the emphasis of African Muslim humanitarianism from the 17th through 19th centuries was in aiding coreligionists. Although the military jihads led by people like Nasr al-Din (1670s), or Abd al-Qadr Kane (1770s), or Uthman dan Fodio (1804), or Umar Tal (1860s) were not exclusively centered on humanitarian intervention, they all justified their missions as restoring religious authority and relieving the oppression—including the practice of enslavement—of “true” Muslims.15
Africans from the diaspora were involved throughout the 19th century in the establishment of anti-slavery colonies and humanitarian intervention on behalf of enslaved populations in Africa. Largely this was reflected in missionary work, resettlement plans, and commercial schemes to replace the slave trade with other forms of “legitimate” commerce.16 But by the mid-19th century, African Christian missionaries trained in Africa were another group who actively participated in humanitarian projects. So-called “New Christian Evangelists” were active in promoting the humanitarian universalism associated with anti-slavery interventions and missionary conversion.17 People like the Liberated African Reverend Samuel Ajayi Crowther argued for British intervention in Nigeria in order to protect recent converts and stop slave trading from Lagos. By the mid-19th century, many European missionaries were promoting the “euthanasia of the mission” through the conversion of “native missionaries” who would take the reins from their European counterparts. But the “euthanasia of the mission” was a consistent problem for both missionaries and other humanitarians, not only in the 19th century, as continually evolving ideas about human rights and modernity created a near-perpetual need for external intervention.18
Refugees also took on board the language of humanitarianism to argue for assistance in episodes like the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1936. The establishment of the League of Nations in the wake of World War I had mirrored a rise in internationalism but had also been intended to preserve the sovereignty of the member states. Ethiopia, as a member, called on the League for protection from Italian invasion, but the European member states largely supported, tacitly, the Italian premise for war—the Ethiopian state was still participating in the illegal slave trade despite its agreement to end the practice in exchange for League membership. However, Ethiopian refugees appealed to international NGOs like the Red Cross, the British state, the African diaspora, and the League of Nations Women’s Auxiliaries to argue that this was a humanitarian crisis that vastly outweighed the scale of purported slave-trading activity. Using the language, images, and media of earlier humanitarian campaigns, Ethiopians themselves were able in some part to shape the public perception of Italy’s invasion, even as they were unable to stop it.19
Pressure from an emerging group of African leaders in the 1920s and 1930s, in the wake of the establishment of the League of Nations and the emergence of arguments for self-determination, led imperial states to grant slightly more attention to questions of humanitarian “development” in fields like healthcare, education, and emergency relief. Though still a minor part of the actual imperial budget, internal pressures from the colonies themselves and external pressures from international organizations did create some impetus to begin to invest in long-term improvements through initiatives like the British Colonial Development and Welfare Act (1940).20
The Age of Multilateralism
After World War II, the establishment of the United Nations and increasing international interest in human rights in the wake of the Holocaust gave rise to a new wave of humanitarian activity in Africa. Despite the continued use of humanitarian language by African actors, the state became increasingly dominant in humanitarian discourse.21 Colonial governments were under increased pressure to emphasize the developmental nature of their role in Africa, which reflected a shift back toward a more interventionist, modernizing approach among humanitarians, and away from the preservationist humanitarian impulses of the high colonial period. A sequence of humanitarian crises around the continent shaped the paradigms of the late 20th century.
With independence came new tests for the question of national (and cultural) sovereignty versus individual, universal rights. National leaders seized on the developmentalism of the late colonial period to argue that they would be better placed to modernize their societies than the colonial governments, who had consistently put their own populations, and business interests, first. The prevalence of developmentalism and modernization theory emphasized the state as the fundamental unit and gave it responsibility for determining the humanitarian needs of its populations. The exigencies of the Cold War also affected the ways that bilateral and multilateral interventions and aid flows operated.
The first humanitarian intervention conducted by the United Nations in Africa took place in the decolonizing Belgian Congo from 1960–1963, as the country fractured into civil war with the secession of Katanga Province and the assassination of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. UN forces ultimately prevailed in retaking Katanga and ending the secession attempt, but the experience, in which the authority of the UN was challenged, had the effect of dampening any enthusiasm for future interventions at this scale. The role of the UN in the Congo Crisis had been to prevent the break-up of the newly sovereign state. Especially in the Cold War context of the second half of the 20th century, this was a priority for the international order, since secessionist movements threatened the balance of power.22
The secession of Biafra from Nigeria only a few years later, for instance, did not garner UN intervention even as it became a humanitarian emergency. Instead, the resulting civil war from 1967–1970 became the turning point for a re-emergence of earlier forms of humanitarian intervention in Africa, modelled on Christian relief efforts, led by transnational NGOs, and focused on individual rights and powerful advertising campaigns that relied on heart-tugging images of starvation and deprivation to raise awareness of crises. The Nigerian government had blockaded Biafra in order to win the stalemate that the war had entered in 1968, but this led to widespread civilian starvation. Biafra’s leadership appealed for humanitarian aid, and a variety of NGOs, including Oxfam and Save the Children, operated an airlift to provide supplies such as food and medicine to the Biafran population. Although rumors spread that arms were also being delivered either by the airlift itself or in planes that followed the emergency relief planes, even without the delivery of munitions the airlift has also been criticized for effectively prolonging the war by giving a new lease on life to the Biafran regime.23
Despite these concerns, the Biafran crisis launched an important new approach by NGOs, which now saw their priority as reaching individual victims of war, which might necessitate contravening the sovereignty of the state or of international agreements. This shift was led by Bernard Kouchner, who had been a medical volunteer with the French Red Cross in Biafra but found its approach to political sovereignty frustrating. Ultimately, he and others returned to France and set up Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), launching a wider “without borders” approach to humanitarian relief.24
This approach persisted during the prolonged and politically complex Ethiopian famines of the 1970s and 1980s. The early famines were initially caused by the elites of the old regime seizing land for themselves, while the later famines resulted from the redistributive and state farming policies of the Derg Marxist government and increasingly through the diversion of resources toward their fight against the Oromo Liberation Front. By the mid-1980s, international attention was drawn to the crisis by Live Aid (1985), a global concert organized by Bob Geldof, which raised GBP£145 million for famine relief. The single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” which drew on the celebrity appeal of its contributors, raised GBP£8 million. However, as with other independent humanitarian actions, NGOs became reliant on the government to provide security for aid workers and help to deliver the aid, giving rise to criticism that the aid was actually prolonging the crisis by effectively funding the Derg government.
By the time the Cold War came to a close at the end of the 1980s, Marxist, Soviet-backed regimes like those in Ethiopia and Somalia were crumbling without funding. The Somali situation reached a crisis point in 1990–1992, and UN military observers, followed by peacekeeping forces, arrived in the country in 1992 to help provide humanitarian assistance in the wake of full government collapse. The US-led mission faced heavy casualties in attempting to establish control over Mogadishu in 1993. Although the UN mission continued through 1995, the damage of the Battle of Mogadishu to the idea of the United States as a post–Cold War leader in global humanitarian intervention would have lasting ramifications for subsequent crises.25
All of these interventions gave rise to a major late-20th-century critique of humanitarianism: that it fueled, rather than ended, conflict. In the case of Congo, the role of the Cold War was clear in the interventions of foreign powers. But in Biafra and the Ethiopian famine, concerns about prolonging the war or violent and repressive regimes came to light after the fact. Both Mengistu’s government in Ethiopia and Ojukwu’s regime in Biafra required that arriving aid go through their control. The ineffectiveness of the American intervention in Somalia in 1993, in addition to the proliferation of post–Cold War conflicts across the continent, created some amount of temporary international paralysis with regard to intervention in African civil wars.
The Age of the NGO
That paralysis only came to an end in the aftermath of the one-hundred-day Rwandan genocide in 1994. The genocide resulted from an ongoing civil war between the Tutsi refugee–led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and the Hutu-led Rwandan Army over political control of the country, which had begun in 1990. Several successful campaigns by the RPF led to negotiations in Arusha, Tanzania that granted some power to the RPF in a transitional government and brought a UN mission into the country to oversee the transition. In light of the RPF invasions and fears of power-sharing among Hutu hardliners, a Hutu Power movement began to spread, with incidents of targeting killings sparking RPF retaliations. On April 6, 1994, President Juvenal Habyarimana was assassinated—though responsibility remains disputed—and by the next day, the Hutu Power movement had coordinated the murder of most of the remaining moderate Hutu leaders in government and issued orders on the extremist Radio Television Milles Collines for Hutu Power militias and ordinary people to begin targeting Tutsi around the country.26
Although the UN had been present in the capital throughout, the international response to the genocide was reluctant, and UN reports of the atrocities by those on the ground were discounted. The UN forces were prevented from using force. The RPF had responded to Habyarimana’s assassination by resuming its campaign. The Tutsi force reached Kigali one hundred days into the genocide, effectively ending it, but not before somewhere between five hundred thousand and one million people were killed. As the Tutsi forces pushed further south, however, Hutu began to flee to neighboring countries, including Tanzania and Zaire, where they were welcomed into UN refugee camps, adding to international confusion.
The resulting media attention to the unfolding crisis in Zaire led to a rapid mobilization by both established and new NGOs, who rushed to the refugee camp in Goma. The confusion of both Hutu and Tutsi refugees in the camp, however, led to an unstable situation in which aid agencies were unable to provide the security needed to provide effective relief. Inexperienced NGOs—including those termed “MONGOs” (my own NGOs) by critic Linda Polman—especially found themselves in dangerous conditions with little to contribute to a highly volatile political situation.27
By 1996, the Rwandan Government, now led by former RPF general Paul Kigame, pushed into Zaire in an effort to quash the quasi-government-in-exile of the Hutu operating in the camps. Ultimately this intervention, which was coordinated with Ugandan and Tanzanian leaders, led to the First Congo War and the removal of Mobutu Sese Seko’s regime. This “Great War of Africa” represented an important shift toward multilateral regional intervention.28
As a result of the increased sense that world powers were not able to clearly articulate their specific responsibility in situations of genocide, civil war, and other humanitarian disasters, in 2005 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the “Responsibility to Protect,” frequently referred to as R2P. R2P articulated two major commitments for all members of the UN. The first was that each state has the responsibility to protect its own citizens from crimes against humanity, a responsibility that the international community stands ready to support and encourage. The second was that the combined states of the United Nations have the responsibility to “use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means … to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”29 Although the doctrine did not expressly advocate military intervention in humanitarian crises—naming only “peaceful means”—governments subsequently debated the extent to which R2P could be used to justify intervention in situations where civil wars were leading to claims of ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity, such as the use of chemical weapons or famine and rape as tactics of war.
Attempts to formalize the rules of engagement in bilateral and multilateral humanitarian interventions have been the result of concerns about the balance between national sovereignty on the one hand and, on the other, a revival of particularly NGO-led developmentalism in the wake of Structural Adjustment Policies in the 1980s and 1990s. The gradual economic collapse of a number of African states as an initial boom of Cold War funding for state-led development projects dried up in the 1970s was followed by International Monetary Fund bail-outs with stringent limitations on the role of the state that often conflicted with the promises made by leaders with a tentative hold on the apparatus of the state. Funds were diverted away from hospitals, infrastructure, and education toward debt repayment, military build-up, and political favors. The hollowing out of the state that resulted led to a vacuum and NGOs and private contractors filled the void, providing medical care, education and, increasingly, investments in infrastructure.30
Since the Biafran War, the role of agencies like Médecins sans Frontièrs has been to identify and quickly respond to medical emergencies regardless of the domestic context surrounding the disaster. This form of intervention, which relies on disregarding state agency, has been lauded in the aid community for putting care of victims before politics. But critics have argued that the shift away from national sovereignty in favor of the rights of the individual within humanitarian ideology has created a further alienation of populations from the state as NGOs have taken responsibility for medical services and basic development institutions, and as post-conflict state-building has continued to emphasize particular approaches preferred by donor countries. As awareness spread about the unintended consequences of some of the interventions of the Cold War period, this fueled skepticism of intervention into politically complex situations. The persistent question of politics has disrupted the easier narrative of victim-savior that had dominated NGO discourse during their post-Biafra heyday. Humanitarian intervention and aid can have unintended consequences and can challenge state sovereignty in ways that perpetuate inequalities of power between the Global North and Global South, even as they attempt to rectify inequalities of power between individuals or between individuals and the state.
The pendulum of humanitarian ideology has continued to swing between preservative and progressive approaches, and the proliferation of NGOs and aid and development organizations has seen the two approaches overlap as well. State-focused aid tends to emphasize the preservation and development of “state capacity,” while individual and rights-based interventions often target progressive agendas, including the promotion of gender-based campaigns. Across the spectrum, however, there has been an increased emphasis on local perspectives and African initiatives.
The interventions of the early 2000s featured a rise of domestic and regional intervention. The Sierra Leone Civil War ended in 2002 when the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sent a military force that was backed by British peacekeeping forces and an enhanced United Nations presence.31 The Second Liberian Civil War ended in 2003 as a result of both domestic activism by a group called Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace and external pressure from ECOWAS, as well as the United Nations and United States. The crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan brought that country’s civil war to international attention—including a reprise of Bob Geldof’s success with Live Aid in a global event called Live 8—partially because of the activism of Darfur’s expatriate refugee population. These three examples bring to light the increasing role that the African Union and regional bodies like ECOWAS are playing in enforcing humanitarian norms and shaming international actors.
The continued growth of Christian evangelicalism has seen the rise of new nationally and regionally oriented campaigns for emergency relief, for instance in the several instances of East African famine in the early decades of the 2000s, when Kenyans for Kenya launched a charity appeal to aid those effected by famines in the northern part of that country. International organizations such as World Vision and Christian Aid also draw heavily on local leadership, but local churches and regional evangelical campaigns have also developed independent approaches to fundraising, including partnering with larger international affiliates. Similarly, contemporary Muslim humanitarianism has a broadened appeal in both East and West Africa and draws on funding and support from the Middle East, rather than Western International NGOs.32 These faith-based local NGOs offer African humanitarians the ability to draw on global resources while promoting local initiatives in a way that state-led interventions have sometimes limited through their focus on national sovereignty or Western donor priorities.
Medical emergencies like the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis, as well as the more acute outbreak of Ebola in West Africa in 2014, or the increasing number of environmental disasters caused by climate change, have generated calls for emergency medical relief but also for long-term infrastructural solutions of the type that require decades of government investment. This was especially apparent in the aftermath of the Ebola Crisis, when the pressures on existing medical facilities caused increases in deaths from normally non-fatal diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. In Sierra Leone, for instance, this resulted in general election campaigns that emphasized infrastructure investment and free health and education provision for target populations. In East and Southern Africa, the relationship between expanding, and well-funded, Christian humanitarianism and health policy has seen success since the start of the 2000s, when Pentecostal and other faith-based organizations began to shift their approaches to the epidemic.33 Local religious responses to these health crises have emphasized different approaches to questions of morality, preconceptions of health, and community stigma in ways that international secular NGOs had limited success with in the 1980s and 1990s. These developments have reflected both the realities of the source of much African-led humanitarianism, which centers on evangelical networks, faith-based organizing, and religious communities, and on the shifting priorities of various Global North governments—led by George W. Bush, who, during the 2000s, focused on a neo-conservative outsourcing of humanitarian provision from secular, governmental programs to a variety of non-governmental approaches including faith-based initiatives.
This shift was in part a response to critiques of inefficient and unwieldy government interventions. The increasing volume of critiques of humanitarian intervention and aid has generated campaigns to focus on “trade not aid,” to question the images of Africa perpetrated by some popular NGOs, and to promote private-sector investment in Africa. Some of the impetus for this change has been the impact of China’s investment on the continent, much of which has been solicited by eager African governments looking for no-strings-attached development funding. Chinese interventions in the Sudanese Civil War and Darfur genocide particularly caught the imagination of Western NGOs.34 The growth in US military support for governments in regions deemed to be susceptible to Islamic terrorism has also marked a return to Cold War–era strategic interventions that have raised questions about the humanitarian nature of aid and the influence of donor nation priorities in determining spending priorities.35 The nature of unequal power relations, therefore, continues to color humanitarianism in African contexts, even as African-led initiatives have multiplied.
Discussion of the Literature
Although there have been histories of anti-slavery activism, human rights movements, and of colonial “civilization, commerce, and Christianity” interventions, the study of humanitarianism has only fairly recently begun to draw out the continuities of engagement in the non-European world. From the mid-2000s onward, scholars began to examine the linked institutional and governmental histories of international humanitarianism in a simultaneous push from politics and international relations and from transnational and global history.36 Topics of study have ranged from the kinds of humanitarianism—medical, military, development aid—to the agents of humanitarianism, to the people deemed to be victims of humanitarian crises.
While politics and international relations scholars were honing their own definitions of humanitarian intervention, Responsibility to Protect, and humanitarianism in the early to mid-2000s, historians sought the origins of the humanitarian impulse. Karen Halttunen’s “Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain in Anglo-American Culture” identified the emergence of the victim-savior trope in the late 18th century. Gary Bass and Brendan Simms and D. J. B. Trim all focused more specifically on humanitarian military interventions and the historical origins of their justification. Both of these books, however, were largely focused on the European context. Michael Barnett’s Empire of Humanity was largely focused on the rise of humanitarianism in the 20th century, though it sought earlier origins in the European wars of the 19th century. Significant scholarly works have followed on from these forays into the origins, looking at specific aid organizations, interventions, and actors, while maintaining a transnational or often imperial history framework.37
African historians have approached the questions of humanitarianism’s origins from an understanding of colonial history, rather than European domestic politics.38 This has had the benefit of helping to explain the contradictions between sovereignty and individual rights, as well as the complex role of power in humanitarianism. For instance, Gregory Mann’s From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel makes the argument that the transition from colonial rule to independence to NGO dependence was not linear or natural but was a conscious decision consistent with aspects of anticolonial activism.39 Benedetta Rossi also looks at the Sahel region to argue that development projects “enabled political control on the cheap.”40 As Rita Abrahamsen argues from the Africanist perspective, “Development discourse thus helps legitimize interventions in the Third World in order to remodel it according to Western norms of progress, growth and efficiency, and whenever a new problem of underdevelopment is identified new practices of intervention are devised to rectify the deficiency.”41
An approach to humanitarianism in Africa that focuses on religion allows for continuities from the 18th to 21st centuries, as well as incorporating both external and internal priorities. Missionaries have posed a continual problematic for historians of humanitarian engagement in Africa, as their motivations and interactions have been variously interpreted as culturally imperialist, purely altruistic, and everything in between, as neatly explored by Derek Peterson and Jean Allman.42 As Nicholas Ibeawuchi Omeka outlines in the case of Biafra, historically appeals to a shared Christianity have frequently been used to shape external interventions in African conflicts. This has been true since the initial missionary interventions in the early 19th century emphasized the potential for African conversion, through the anti-slave-trading campaigns of the 19th century, which increasingly emphasized the Muslim (or occasionally Catholic) otherness of slave traders, particularly in eastern Africa.43 Recent campaigns against the genocide in Darfur, or the Nigerian-led #bringbackourgirls have highlighted the ways that conflict framed in a Muslim-Christian context can draw in international support.44 Despite the historiographical debates about religious humanitarianism as an external force, then, Muslim and Christian faith-based organizations have been crucial actors in challenging or redirecting the priorities of external interventions at various moments, as well as in offering a practical critique to the prevalent idea that Africa lacks the capacity for self-help.
Critiques of humanitarianism in Africa have, like the impulse itself, been in existence since the 19th century. Some critics, like Linda Polman or William Easterly, argue that humanitarianism is purely a function of the white savior complex.45 The neoliberal critique, espoused by people like Dambisa Moyo, posits that aid actually hinders the ability of states to build capacity and instead turns them into rent-seekers.46 This latter critique has appealed to a growing sense of “aid fatigue” among some donor nations fueled in part by the media’s depiction of Africa as an undifferentiated continent of victims and crises.47 Other critics are wary of the accountability of MONGOs led by celebrities or individuals, particularly as they relate to healthcare provision and vulnerable populations.48 Critics on all sides are wary of the use of aid as a war strategy, about the supposed “purity” of various victim groups, and of the delicate balance between sovereignty and intervention.49 These general critiques have mirrored historians’ own concerns with issues of power in both military and non-military interventions, the limitations of national sovereignty, and universal values.
Primary sources for the study of the history of humanitarianism in Africa are largely based in European collections of the colonial governments and NGOs involved, the archives of the African countries themselves and, particularly for the second half of the 20th century, in oral histories collected from participants.
Missionary sources are particularly useful for understanding the role of the “civilizing mission” in forming imperial humanitarian policy in the 19th century. The Church Missionary Society collection is based at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom. The London Missionary Society’s records are at the School of Oriental and African Studies. The Baptist Missionary Society’s collection is at Regent Park College, Oxford. Beyond Britain, the Basel Mission in Switzerland houses important missionary records from the 19th century. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions archive is held at Houghton Library, Harvard and covers the period 1810–1961.
International non-governmental organizations have their own valuable archives, which have varying levels of access for researchers. Specific organizations like the Congo Reform Association and the various anti-slavery societies had their own archives, which have been deposited in a variety of locations. The Congo Reform Association’s papers are held at the London School of Economics archives and special collections. The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society’s records are held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Save the Children’s collected archives from 1915–2006 are located at the University of Birmingham and include minutes, publications, films, records, and personal papers. The International Committee of the Red Cross archives, based in Geneva, Switzerland are also open to researchers. They include material beginning in 1870 and material relevant to the late 20th century, though often with restrictions on access. The United Nations Human Rights Committee collection, also based in Geneva, is another valuable source for investigating international humanitarian activities. Christian Aid’s archive is based at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London and covers the period of the mid-1940s to the 1990s. Oxfam’s archives are located at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University.
Other contemporary NGOs, including many health- and faith-based NGOs headquartered in African countries, may allow researchers access to archives on an individual basis. These include, for instance, records for the country-led offices of international NGOs such as World Vision or Partners in Health; national organizations, such as the Tanzania Muslim Welfare Network in Dar es Salaam and national HIV/AIDS commissions in various Eastern and Southern African countries; and the records of local churches and hospitals.
Government records can provide valuable insight into the policy decisions that drove humanitarian policies at different points in history. British anti-slavery documentation is largely in the Foreign and Colonial Office records at the UK National Archives in Kew, as well as in Parliamentary Papers, available online. The Foreign Office and the Colonial Office are valuable resources for the 20th-century history of British humanitarianism in Africa. The US Agency for International Development has collections at the US National Archives that include records from the Bureau for Africa and Europe, and the Bureau for Africa. The French oversees archives (Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer) are located in Aix-en-Provence and include colonial and postcolonial documents related to the civilizing mission, humanitarian interventions, and government aid. The League of Nations archive is based at the United Nations Office at Geneva.
African government archives themselves often contain rich troves of documentation from the colonial and postcolonial period. The Sierra Leone National Archives at Fourah Bay College, Freetown, contain a wealth of information about the management of the Liberated African Department. Some of these materials, as well as others from national archives in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zanzibar, and Zimbabwe have been published by the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme. Local newspapers also present African perspectives on conflicts, humanitarian crises, and intervention. Some of these are held in the national archives mentioned in this section.
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Kabia, John. Humanitarian Intervention and Conflict Resolution in West Africa: From ECOMOG to ECOMIL. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009.Find this resource:
Klose, Fabian. Human Rights in the Shadow of Colonial Violence: The Wars of Independence in Colonial Kenya and Algeria. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.Find this resource:
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(2.) Michael Barnett, Empire of Humanity (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011); Brendan Simms and D. J. B. Trim, eds., Humanitarian Intervention: A History (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Gary Bass, Freedom’s Battle: Origins of Humanitarian Interventionism (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2008).
(3.) Bronwen Everill, Abolition and Empire in Sierra Leone and Liberia (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
(4.) Jenny S. Martinez, “Antislavery Courts and the Dawn of International Human Rights Law,” Yale Law Journal 117, no. 4 (2008): 550–641; Tara Helfman, “The Court of Vice Admiralty at Sierra Leone and the Abolition of the West African Slave Trade,” Yale Law Journal 115 (2006): 1122–1156.
(5.) Padraic Scanlan, Freedom’s Debtors (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017); Maeve Ryan, “‘A Moral Millstone’? British Humanitarian Governance and the Policy of Liberated African Apprenticeship, 1808–1848,” Slavery and Abolition 37, no. 2 (2016): 399–422.
(7.) A. G. Hopkins, “The New International Economic Order’ in the Nineteenth Century: Britain’s First Development Plan for Africa,” in From Slave Trade to Legitimate Commerce, ed. Robin Law (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 240–264.
(8.) For more on the seizure of Lagos see Martin Lynn, “Consul and Kings: British Policy, ‘the Man on the Spot,’ and the Seizure of Lagos, 1851,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 10, no. 2 (1982): 150–167; Hopkins, “Property Rights and Empire Building: Britain’s Annexation of Lagos, 1861,” The Journal of Economic History 40, no. 4 (1980): 777–798.
(9.) Suzanne Schwarz, “Commerce, Civilization and Christianity: The Development of the Sierra Leone Company,” in Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery, ed. David Richardson, Anthony Tibbles, and Suzanne Schwarz (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007), 252–276; Andrew Porter, “‘Commerce and Christianity’: The Rise and Fall of a Nineteenth-Century Missionary Slogan,” The Historical Journal 28, no. 3 (1985): 597–621.
(10.) Bronwen Everill, “Freetown, Frere Town and the Kat River Settlement: Nineteenth-Century Humanitarian Intervention and Precursors to Modern Refugee Camps,” in The History and Practice of Humanitarian Intervention and Aid in Africa, ed. Bronwen Everill and Josiah Kaplan (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 23–42; Elisabeth McMahon, Slavery and Emancipation in Islamic East Africa: From Honor to Respectability (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Jan-Georg Deutsch, Emancipation without Abolition in German East Africa (Oxford: James Currey, 2006).
(11.) See for instance, Thomas Carlyle, “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country,40 (1849); Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830-1867 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
(12.) Pernille Roge, Economists and the Reinvention of Empire: France in the Americas and Africa, c. 1750–1802 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2019); Bronwen Everill, Not Made by Slaves: Ethical Capitalism in the Age of Abolition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020); Suzanne Schwarz, “A Just and Honorable Commerce: Abolitionist Experimentation in Sierra Leone in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries” (Hakluyt Society Annual Lecture, 2013).
(13.) Alan Lester and Fae Dussart, Colonization and the Origins of Humanitarian Governance (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Zoe Laidlaw, “Heathens, Slaves and Aborigines: Thomas Hodgkin’s Critique of Missions and Anti-Slavery,” History Workshop Journal 64, no. 1 (2007): 133–161.
(14.) Dean Pavlakis, British Humanitarianism and the Congo Reform Movement, 1896–1913 (London: Routledge, 2015); Kevin Grant, A Civilised Savagery (London: Routledge, 2004); and Adam Hoschschild, King Leopold’s Ghost (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999).
(15.) Paul Lovejoy, Jihad in West Africa during the Age of Revolutions (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2016); Rudolph Ware, The Walking Qur’an (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).
(16.) Lamin Sanneh, Abolitionists Abroad: American Blacks and the Making of Modern West Africa (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Sandra Greene, “Minority Voices: Abolitionism in West Africa,” Slavery and Abolition 36, no. 4 (2015): 642–661.
(17.) Bronwen Everill, “Bridgeheads of Empire?: Liberated African Missionaries in West Africa,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 40, no. 5 (2012): 789–805; Sanneh, Abolitionists Abroad.
(18.) Margaret Brock, “New Christians as Evangelists,” in Missions and Empire, ed. Norman Etherington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 132–152.
(19.) Bronwen Everill, “The Italo-Abyssinian Crisis and the Shift from Slave to Refugee,” Slavery and Abolition 35, no. 2 (2014): 349–365; Kevin Grant, “Anti-Slavery, Refugee Relief, and the Missionary Origins of Humanitarian Photography, ca. 1900–1960,” History Compass 15, no. 5 (2017), 1–24; Brett Shadle, “Reluctant Humanitarians: British Policy Toward Refugees in Kenya during the Italian-Ethiopian War, 1935–1940,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 47, no. 1 (2019): 167–186; Cedric J. Robinson, “The African Diaspora and the Italo-Ethiopian Crisis,” Race and Class 27, no. 2 (1985): 51–65; Brenda Plummer, Rising Wind: Black Americans and US Foreign Affairs, 1935–1960 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).
(21.) Derek Peterson, “Abolitionism and Political Thought in Britain and East Africa,” in Abolitionism and Imperialism in Britain, Africa and the Atlantic, ed. Derek Peterson (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2010), 1–37.
(22.) Claude Kabemba, “The Democratic Republic of Congo: The Land of Humanitarian Interventions,” in The History and Practice of Humanitarian Intervention and Aid in Africa, ed. Bronwen Everill and Josiah Kaplan (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 140–157; Christopher Saunders, “Humanitarian Aspects of Interventions by the United Nations in Southern Africa,” in The History and Practice of Humanitarian Intervention and Aid in Africa, ed. Bronwen Everill and Josiah Kaplan (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 158–175; Jeremy Rich, “Manufacturing Sovereignty and Manipulating Humanitarianism: The Diplomatic Resolution of the Mercenary Revolt in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 1967–8,” Journal of African History 60, no. 2 (2019): 277–296.
(23.) Kevin O’Sullivan, “Biafra’s Legacy: NGO Humanitarianism and the Nigerian Civil War,” in Learning from the Past to Shape the Future: Lessons from the History of Humanitarian Action in Africa, ed. Christina Bennett, Matthew Foley, and Hanna B. Krebs (London: Overseas Development Institute, 2016), 5–13; Michael Aaronson, “The Nigerian Civil War and ‘Humanitarian Intervention,’” in The History and Practice of Humanitarian Intervention and Aid in Africa, ed. Bronwen Everill and Josiah Kaplan (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 176–196; Nicholas Ibeawuchi Omenka, “Blaming the Gods: Christian Religious Propaganda in the Nigeria-Biafra War,” Journal of African History 51 (2010): 367–389; Arua Oko Omaka, The Biafran Humanitarian Crisis, 1967–1970: International Human Rights and Joint Church Aid (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2016).
(25.) Christopher Clapham, “Humanitarian Intervention in the Horn of Africa,” in The History and Practice of Humanitarian Intervention and Aid in Africa, ed. Bronwen Everill and Josiah Kaplan (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 120–139.
(26.) Gerard Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995); Alison Des Forges, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999).
(28.) Jason Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters (New York: Public Affairs Books, 2012).
(29.) UN General Assembly, “World Summit Outcome Document,” 2005, para 139.
(31.) Josiah Kaplan, “‘Reading’ British Armed Humanitarian Intervention in Sierra Leone, 2000–2,” in The History and Practice of Humanitarian Intervention and Aid in Africa, ed. Bronwen Everill and Josiah Kaplan (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 93–119; John M. Kabia, Humanitarian Intervention and Conflict Resolution in West Africa: From ECOMOG to ECOMIL (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009); Stephen F. Burgess, “African Security in the Twenty-First Century: The Challenges of Indigenization and Multilateralism,” African Studies Review 41, no. 2 (1998): 37–62.
(32.) Felicitas Becker, “Obscuring and Revealing: Muslim Engagement with Volunteering and the Aid Sector in Tanzania,” African Studies Review 58, no. 2 (2015): 111–133; Mayke Kaag, “Islamic Charities from the Arab World in Africa: Intercultural Encounters of Humanitarianism and Morality,” in Humanitarianism and Challenges of Cooperation, ed. Volker M. Heins, Kai Koddenbrock, and Christine Unrau (Abindon: Routledge, 2016), 155–176.
(33.) Ruth Prince, Philippe Denis, and Rijk van Dijk, eds., “Introduction to Special Issue: Engaging Christianities: Negotiating HIV/AIDS, Health, and Social Relations in East and Southern Africa,” Africa Today 56, no. 1 (2009): v–xviii; Felicitas Becker and P. Wenzel Geissler, eds., Aids and Religious Practice in Africa (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009); Erica Bornstein, The Spirit of Development: Protestant NGOs, Morality and Economics in Zimbabwe (London: Routledge, 2003); Katherina Hofer, “The Role of Evangelical NGOs in International Development: A Comparative Case Study of Kenya and Uganda,” Africa Spectrum 38, no. 3 (2003): 375–398.
(34.) Daniel Large, “China and the Contradictions of ‘Non-Interference’ in Sudan,” Review of African Political Economy 35, no. 115 (2008): 93–106.
(35.) Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, “Putting Africa’s House in Order to Deal with Developmental Challenges,” African Studies Review 53, no. 2 (2010): 12–15.
(37.) Halttunen, “Humanitarianism and the Pornography”; Barnett, Empire of Humanity; Fabian Klose, Human Rights in the Shadow of Colonial Violence: The Wars of Independence in Colonial Kenya and Algeria (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014); Emily Baughan et al., eds., “Empire and Humanitarianism,” special issue, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 40, no. 5 (2012); Lester and Dussart, Colonization and the Origins.
(41.) Abrahamsen, “African Studies and the Postcolonial Challenge,” African Affairs 102 (2003): 202.
(42.) Derek Peterson and Jean Allman, “Introduction: New Directions in the History of Missions in Africa,” Journal of Religious History 23, no. 1 (1999): 1–7.
(43.) Matthew Hopper, Slaves of One Master: Globalization and Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015); Gwyn Campbell, ed., Abolition and Its Aftermath in the Indian Ocean, Africa, and Asia (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005).
(44.) Eric Heinze, “The Rhetoric of Genocide in U.S. Foreign Policy: Rwanda and Darfur Compared,” Political Science Quarterly 122, no. 3 (2007): 359–383; Benjamin Lawrance, “Boko Haram, Asylum, and Memes of Africa,” Hawwa: Journal of Women of the Middle East and the Islamic World 13 (2015): 148–153.
(45.) Polman, Crisis Caravan; William Easterly, White Man’s Burden (New York: Penguin Press, 2006).
(49.) Aiden Warren and Damian Grenfell, eds., Rethinking Humanitarian Intervention in the 21st Century (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017); Juma and Suhrke, Eroding Local Capacity.