Second Canadian Workshop on the History of Humanitarian Aid

Aid practitioners, archivists, and academics recently came together in Canada to explore how the history of humanitarian aid is researched, collected, and taught.  Will Tait, a PhD candidate at the University of Carleton, shares his thoughts on the event and its outcomes.

The Second Canadian Workshop on the History of Humanitarian Aid took place on 30 May 2015 at Carleton University in Ottawa.  The event built on a workshop held last year where historians  from across Canada, archivists from Library and Archives Canada and Carleton University Archives, a well as humanitarian practitioners from Partnership Africa Canada, Oxfam, and MATCH International Women’s Fund met to welcome Dr Kevin O’Sullivan from the National University of Ireland.  Kevin was a catalyst for the first workshop in 2014 when he travelled to Canada to conduct research.  In his latest book O’Sullivan has likened Irish and Canadian use of soft power through aid and development1.  Under the organisation of Dominique Marshall, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Carleton and former President of the Canadian Historical Association, a website was created after the 2014 meeting to link a growing online collaboration of aid practitioners, archivists, and academics interested in preserving the history of humanitarian action both in Canada and elsewhere.  O’Sullivan returned to Carleton this year to brief the workshop and members of the Canadian Network on Humanitarian History (CNHH) on developments in the field and to continue to expand collaboration with European partners.

Aid practitioners from MATCH, Oxfam, and Africa Canada Partnership engage with Library and Archives archivist (right) and historians Ruth Compton-Brouwer (centre) and Kevin O’Sullivan (foreground)

Aid practitioners from MATCH, Oxfam, and Africa Canada Partnership engage with Library and Archives archivist (right) and historians Ruth Compton-Brouwer (centre) and Kevin O’Sullivan (foreground)

The themes of the 2015 workshop concentrated on approaches to researching, collecting, and teaching the history of humanitarian aid.  The event coincided with the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences 2015 which was held at the University of Ottawa.  The number of humanitarian historians presenting at Congress was indicative of the growing interest in the field.  Several members of the network spoke about their research at Congress.  Sarah Glassford, Shirley Tillotson, and I took part in the ‘Public, Private, Political: Charitable Organizations and Citizen Engagement’ Roundtable, while Stephanie Bangarth and Jill Campbell-Miller headed the roundtable on ‘Capitals and Peripheries: Historical Perspectives on International Development’.  Dominique Marshall gave her Presidential Address on the ‘Dessins d’enfants et aide humanitaire: expressions et expositions transnationales’.  See here for for more information about the presentations.

CNHH founder Dr Dominique Marshall

CNHH founder Dr Dominique Marshall

A key theme of the workshop was developing a framework for pairing researchers and graduate students with interested NGOs such as Oxfam Canada, MATCH, and the African Canada Partnership to examine their own histories.  Sarah Glassford of the University of Price Edward Island reported on her longstanding relationship with the Canadian Red Cross and her role as a professional historian in her own right and volunteer archivist for the organisation.  Sarah’s work with the Red Cross encouraged discussion about the need for trust to be established between researchers and NGOs, while at the same time preserving critical analysis of aid practices and institutions.  This discussion prompted us to consider developing a  ‘toolkit’ to guide researchers and NGOs in building collaborative relationships.  This toolkit will focus on respect between researchers and their partnered aid organisations and methods for NGOs to archive and collect their histories in order to empower these groups.  The toolkit will also show how NGOs can create a space for students and academics to access material and showcase research.

Historian Kevin O'Sullivan

Historian Kevin O’Sullivan

This final component of the proposed toolkit was an element in plans for the new website for the Canadian Network on Humanitarian History which was launched in July 2015.  The website is a platform for knowledge mobilisation, displaying the value of humanitarian histories for both researchers and aid agencies.  The site encourages sharing of methodologies and information for syllabi, teaching resources, and material for workshops.  The hope is to develop modules for the sharing of ideas for university courses and to cultivate discussion between academia, archives, and practitioners of aid.

For more information on the Canadian Network for Humanitarian History please join us here or contact Dominique Marshall at

1. Kevin O’Sullivan, Ireland, Africa and the End of Empire: Small State Identity in the Cold War 1955-75 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013).
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