Aid in the archives

Historians of voluntary action, as this website makes clear, often find their interest kindled by headlines in the daily news. In the case of humanitarian action, this can happen with alarming regularity, as conflicts and natural disasters all too often echo past crises and previous experiences. And, although it can sometimes seem like a distraction, keeping up with current issues is undoubtedly an effective way of refining and improving your historical research.

There is also a move to have more history built into political life in the broadest sense. This is the aim most notably of the History & Policy forum, which attempts to deepen the historical engagement of public policy. In the humanitarian sphere, key actors such as NGOs, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the United Nations, have delved into their own archives (or allowed access to others) as a way of shedding light on their own practice and identity. We’re also seeing more attempts to promote links between academic researchers and other experts, through standing networks such as ELRHA (Enhancing Learning and Research for Humanitarian Assistance) as well as seminars, conferences, and research projects.

Yet, despite these initiatives, historians often have difficulty getting their findings across to a potential audience concerned with humanitarian issues in today’s world. In many cases the language and frameworks used by the different communities engaging with humanitarian issues present an obstacle to greater sharing of information and reflection. This is by no means unique to humanitarian studies – far too many areas of academic life suffer from being quarantined in the so-called ‘ivory tower’ (who holds the keys is a question for another day). But it is a particular challenge in a discipline with a very pronounced cult of the field, where academic studies risk being dismissed as too theoretical, abstract, or removed from reality. The difficulties for historians were laid out starkly at an event I attended last year: one researcher, having asked what she could do to make her work relevant to today’s humanitarianism, was told she should simply suspend her studies and get out into the field.

Depressing as this attitude may be, it should be taken as a challenge, not a dismissal. And with so many historians now turning their attention to humanitarianism and its forms, there is a vital opportunity for greater dialogue across different communities of researchers and actors. This is the aim of a special issue that will bring a historical perspective to Disasters, the leading journal for the analysis of conflict and natural disaster response. Entitled Aid in the archives: academic histories for a practitioner audience, it aims to bring together historical studies of relevance to debates in current practice and policy debates. I am preparing the issue with a colleague from ALNAP, experts in improving humanitarian practice today. We are committed to doing it by thinking about humanitarian practice yesterday.

The call for papers is here and the deadline for proposals is 10 March 2013. So start writing – and help us get history into the aid debates.

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