Above the FrayThe Red Cross and the Making of the Humanitarian NGO Sector

Above the FrayThe Red Cross and the Making of the Humanitarian NGO Sector

Shai M. Dromi

Print publication date: 2020

ISBN: 9780226680101

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


Humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) present themselves as servants of the most longstanding and universal human values. And yet, the idea that NGOs like Médecins sans Frontières, International Rescue Committee, or Oxfam should provide humanitarian relief is relatively new and—when proposed in the mid-nineteenth century—was surprisingly controversial. Above the Fray examines the origins of the political and organizational culture that provides humanitarian NGOs today with extraordinary influence in international politics. Drawing on archival research, the book traces its origins to a mid-nineteenth-century Geneva-based orthodox Calvinist movement. The book shows that the founding members of the Red Cross—essential figures for the emergence of the humanitarian sector—were convinced by their Calvinist faith that the only way relief could come to the victims of armed conflict was through an international volunteer program that would be free of state interests. These early activists were the first to advocate the establishment of volunteer relief societies in all state capitals, and they were the ones to propose the 1864 Geneva Convention, which has become the ethical standards for humane conduct on the battlefield. The analysis follows the remarkable international spread of humanitarian ideas over the second half of the nineteenth century, and shows how the Red Cross project struck a chord in numerous quarters for different reasons—national, professional, religious, and others—and popularized the notion of organized humanitarian volunteer societies. The book highlights the imprint of mid-nineteenth-century Calvinism that contemporary humanitarian relief organizations and policies continue to bear.