Humanitarianism, Human Rights and Human Dignity

Dr Agnieszka Sobocinska

About the project

Since 2015, I have been working on a major project: a global history of development volunteering from its origins in 1950 until the mid-1970s.

During the 1950s and 1960s, tens of thousands of well-meaning Westerners left their homes and families to volunteer in distant corners of the globe. Aflame with optimism, they set out to save the world, but their actions were intertwined with national and racial power in the overlapping contexts of decolonisation, globalisation and the Cold War.

Early volunteers attracted widespread publicity that portrayed the West as charitable and altruistic, and helped give rise to a popular humanitarian sensibility that grew in size and influence over coming decades. Yet, critics across the Global South protested that volunteers simply put an attractive face on neo-colonial power, and extended the logic of intervention embedded in the global system of international development.

This project places volunteers at the center of a ‘humanitarian-development complex’: a nexus of governments, NGOs, private corporations and public opinion that encouraged continuous and accelerating intervention in the Global South from the 1950s. Volunteers blurred the line between humanitarianism and economic development, and employed an emotional and moral lexicon in support of projects enmeshed in state, economic and cultural power. Yet, even as the humanitarian-development complex arose, individual volunteering experiences played out in often unexpected ways, as desire and resistance, and love and hate, intermingled in relationships that were simultaneously personal and political.

The major output for this book is a monograph, Saving the World? Western volunteers and the rise of the Humanitarian-Development Complex, published by Cambridge University Press in 2021.

This research has been supported by an Australian Research Council DECRA fellowship, a National Library of Australia Fellowship and a Visiting Fellowship at the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University.