Past panels

VAHS New Researchers Conference Panel:
Agency in the History of Charity and Voluntarism

Our first conference panel took place at the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research as part of the 2012 History Lab Annual Conference. The panel featured papers examining the theme of ‘agency’ in the history of charity and voluntarism, a growing field of historical research. It opened with a largely historiographical paper considering how agency is or could be employed in this area. The focus here was be on recognising the agency of recipients of charity in the past. Two further papers then offered insights from two different areas: nineteenth-century philanthropy and the post-war human rights movement. The former considered the degree to which philanthropic donors were able to exercise influence over the activities they funded at the supposed high point of Victorian philanthropy. The latter, meanwhile, turned to the later twentieth century, when a new principle of empowerment was redefining the charitable relationship, assessing the impact of NGOs applying human rights language and structures to British citizens. Consequently this panel used ‘agency’ as a way to rethink the power relationships at the heart of the British history of charity and voluntarism.

Agency and Social Control in the History of Charity
George Campbell Gosling, Oxford Brookes University

The growing interest in the history of charity has largely coincided with a growth of political interest in the role of civil society, following disillusionment with the welfare state by the end of the 1970s. Since the 1980s, much historical opinion of charity has been largely negative, seeing it as characteristic of the failings of the social provisions that predated the welfare state. A more positive view, inspired by the writings of Alexis de Toqueville would see civil society as a space in which different classes can negotiate a shared response to social ills. The critique that has dominated the work of historians, however, has rested on a reading of charity as an exercise in ‘social control’, whereby middle-class do-gooders would instruct the working classes in how to improve themselves. This view of Victorian and Edwardian philanthropy can be clearly seen in the works of historians such as Alan Kidd. The most powerful weapon for those adopting this critical view has been the negative reworking of the notion of the ‘gift relationship’. Where Richard Titmuss had earlier talked of the gift relationship in blood donations as fostering solidarity, the more influential interpretation here was that of Fernand Braudel: ‘He who gives, dominates’. In recent years, historians of welfare and charity have begun to question the passive role this view affords recipients of charity. This paper explored the opportunities for, and difficulties in, investigating the degree of agency recipients of charity have historically been able to claim for themselves.

Money and Agency in Nineteenth-Century Philanthropy
Sarah Flew, Open University

The nineteenth century saw a general move from individualist charity, in the form of the traditional endowed charity set up by an individual in their Will, to collectivist charity in the form of the voluntary organisation. The creation of an endowed charity allowed the individual philanthropist to have complete say over how their money was spent through the strict terms of the trust; this form of charity, however, required the philanthropist to have direct knowledge of both the geographical area and the problem that they wanted to alleviate. In contrast, in the nineteenth century it was difficult for the individual to have direct knowledge of the diverse social problems being experienced in the rapidly expanding urban centres. This led to the development of the voluntary organisation: this new charitable form acted as the intermediary between the philanthropist and the beneficiary. This change from endowed charity to collectivist charity meant that the individual had less direct influence on the charity; relegated to the position of just being one subscriber amongst many. Inevitably though, the wealthiest men and women were still able to influence the work of the charity through stipulations attached to their large donations. Importantly, though, this new form of charity made it possible for more ordinary people to get involved in charitable giving and to collectively have an impact. This paper explored the types of people that chose to give money to charitable organisations, what they hoped their money would help the charity to achieve and how much influence they were able to exert.

Human Rights, NGOs and Test Case Strategies
Chris Moores, University of Birmingham

This paper discussed British civil liberties organizations’ use of human rights language and structures of transnational governance from the 1970s. In particular, it examined the British civil liberties lobby’s use of international legal human rights institutions. Prior to the 1970s human rights politics was associated with a high politics of a legal/diplomatic elite, or by organizations such as Amnesty International, whose interested centred around the citizens of other nation states. During the 1970s British NGOs became increasingly important agents in applying human rights politics to British citizens. Arguably then, NGOs campaigning on human rights gave the subject a meaning beyond vague support for an abstract high-minded concept. However, in doing so, human rights got applied to test cases which were largely associated with socially, politically or culturally sensitive issues. Whilst the agency of these groups meant that human rights gained meaning through these applications, it became a subject that was associated with contentious issues. Furthermore, this politics reaffirmed that rights that would be confirmed, granted, and framed by legal institutions. In understanding human rights as located within a legally determinative, positivist framework, NGOs struggled in balancing the need to protect the rights of those most vulnerable to infringements by state institutions with asserting the importance of human rights in a broader social and cultural context.

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