Davide Rodogno on the Troubled History of Western Humanitarianism

“Western humanitarians pretended to act upon a kind of tabula rasa, when in fact there was no tabula rasa there, and there was a very long Ottoman humanitarian tradition.”

In this conversation with guest contributor Nikola Pantić, Davide Rodogno discusses his new book Night on Earth: A History of International Humanitarianism in the Near East, 1918-1930 (Cambridge University Press, 2021). The conversation focuses on the reasons why the Middle East became a popular destination for Western humanitarian agencies in the first decades of the twentieth century, how these agencies operated among the local populations, what role religion played in these missions, and the ways in which the writing of history can give some agency to those whose voices have been omitted in the archives of these humanitarian institutions.

Davide Rodogno is a Professor of International History and Politics and the Head of the Interdisciplinary Master Programs at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, the Director of the Certificate in Advanced Studies in Advocacy in International Affairs at the Geneva Graduate Institute. He specializes in researching international organizations and associations, philanthropic foundations, and transnational networks and movements since the 19th century. His research interests include the history of human rights, of minorities, of crimes against humanity and International Law, the concept and practice of international development programmes, state-building and international administration since creation of the League of Nations.

Nikola Pantić is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Center for Religious Studies (CRS) of Central European University.

Nikola Pantić: It might be both appropriate and worthwhile to start with a question about the book’s title, Night on Earth. This is also the title of a Jim Jarmusch movie which is a collection of brief stories about taxi drivers and their passengers in various cities. Elaborating on this allegory, your introductory paragraphs emphasize the role of miscommunication between international agencies and the recipients of humanitarian assistance. Could you tell us more about this issue? What types of miscommunication did you encounter and how did they play out in their historical contexts?

Davide Rodogno: Those who have seen the movie will remember that those crazy taxi drivers were taking passengers from point A to point B. If you have ever lived in a city for long enough and you must take a taxi, as a passenger you will always have ideas for the shortest way to get from A to B. Of course, the taxi driver knows the shortest way as well and she or he is in the driving seat. In the end you might argue with the taxi driver, but she or he will decide the shortest road to take you from A to B. This is where miscommunication can happen: the passenger might have ideas, but their ideas are not taking into consideration. In this metaphor the recipients of the humanitarian aid are the passengers. The taxi is the vessel – the humanitarian institution and the humanitarian worker is the driver. He or she is in the driving seat and will decide how to get you from A to B. The taxi is where miscommunication begins, where tensions and distortions take place. Miscommunication is a particularly appropriate in the Ottoman context since so many different languages were spoken.

That is what I basically meant by the title, but there is more. In particular, I had the idea of having short episodes like many movies did back in the 1960s and 70s. There is a very long cinematographic tradition of movies arranged around short episodes. This seemed to offer a very interesting narrative framework for such a huge topic that was impossible for me to deal with in an exhaustive way. Last but not least, the post-1918 was in so many respects Night on Earth.

Considering that you have already brought up the Middle East, may I ask why would you chose to work on the Middle East and the post-Ottoman landscape? Your chosen region allows you to focus on a plethora of ethnicities, religious confessions, and political groups, and this level of variety amounts to one of the densest social milieus in the world. How is this region indicative of global trends in humanitarian activities of the time? You indicated in the book that humanitarian organizations of the period frequently functioned as political representatives of Western ideas in the Middle East and other regions. How does the work on these organizations in the Middle East contribute to the global trend of studying humanitarian organizations in the early twentieth century?

There is a clarification that I need to start with: contemporaries used to refer to this region as the Near East; but the geographical, political and cultural boundaries of this space conspicuously varied. The Near East meant different areas to different people. In the mental geography of the many institutions that I have been working on, the Near East included the Southern Balkans from Greece, Bulgaria, sometimes even Romania, to the Caucasus, to what is today for us the Middle East, from Egypt to Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, etc.

Secondly, this area is extremely interesting because the Ottoman Empire is one of the three empires that collapsed during or shortly after the end of the First World War. Of course, Russia ended its war in 1917, but it will become a theatre of international humanitarian action during the famine of the 1920s when faith-based institutions like the Quakersas well as state-funded agencies such as the American Relief Administration, will set up humanitarian aid operations. Meanwhile, in the Austro-Hungarian lands, humanitarian actors were notably present before the end of the war and shortly after the end of the war – we can mention once again the role of the American Relief Administration in Vienna. The mass arrival of international humanitarian organization happened after 1918 and their operations steadily declined after 1924.

The Ottoman Lands are being studied separately by historians but, in fact – and I go back to the mental imaginaire of these Western humanitarians – these lands were considered to be one. My idea was to study what was happening and I did not pay too much attention if this was happening in Georgia or in what would soon become the Soviet Republic of Armenia or in Greece, or Lebanon and Palestine, because these institutions found ways to be present and active in many of these areas.

Thirdly, this geographical area is very rich, if like me you are interested in the meanings of sovereignty. The history of the mandates, the independence of Turkey, the processes of sovietisation or the role of the Refugee Settlement Commission all happened in Ottoman Lands.

International humanitarian institutions operated in these areas wherever sovereignty was relatively weak or contested and when there was a space in which they could expand their activities. Once sovereignty became stronger, for instance when Turkish nationalists won the war or when the Soviet authorities gained power, humanitarians were no longer persona grata, so their organizations moved on and went elsewhere.

Lastly, this area is extremely interesting if you think about historical research in the last ten years. 1918 is a meaningful date for Western Europe, but for these areas 1918 is not the end of anything. If anything, it is only the beginning of the continuation of so many wars. Actually, many humanitarians that were operating in Central and Western Europe moved down to the Balkans and to other former Ottoman Lands after 1918 precisely because the war was over in those theatres of war and they could deploy and continue to have a raison d’êtrein these areas where humanitarian aid was needed by civilian populations.

Your work encapsulates in very precise strokes how many dominant geopolitical trends looked like in the period, as well as the movement patterns of different organizations and different fronts. Is there any way to assess the responses of the Ottoman state administration, that is, what remained of it after 1918, to the initial activities of these organizations? Have you encountered anything about this during your research?

I have encountered many awkward silences in the archives related to the presence of the Ottomans. Ottoman authorities and charities were not mentioned at all, while in fact we know very well that for a long time many of the activities of the international humanitarian institutions took place on the basis of what the Ottomans were doing – in terms of welfare, in terms of humanitarian aid for the poor in the case of famines etc.

Western humanitarians pretended to act upon a kind of tabula rasa, when in fact there was no tabula rasa there, and there was a very long Ottoman humanitarian tradition.

We should not underestimate the bureaucratic inertia that continued even when the Ottoman Empire officially ended. And, if you think about places like Istanbul, the Ottomans were there when the city was militarily occupied by the Allies and they coexisted, I mean the Ottoman humanitarian tradition coexisted with the massive presence of international humanitarian institutions, as well as with faith-based institutions, whether Jewish, Muslims or Christian, Armenian or otherwise.

The richness of actors in undeniable, but if you take the perspectives of international humanitarian workers documented in the archives at face value, you will not see most of them, because the documents predominantly or exclusively focus on the organization’s own activities. As it still happens in the twenty-first century, these humanitarians reported back to their headquarters, showing to their donors everything good that they had been doing while concealing or hiding what all the other actors were doing. In other words, you find a very specific perspective in the archives of humanitarian organizations that forces you to see things in a certain way, which does not necessarily correspond to what was happening on the ground.

This opens the path for a question about the American and European organizations which you analyze in your book. These organizations were striving to provide food, shelter, and clothing to the distressed Near East populations during the early years of the interwar period. You compare these organizations to clouds – they were carried around by the political winds in Eurasia, forced to respond to contemporary events and circumstances, often in conflict with various political parties, and unable to extend their reach to every social nook and cranny on the ground. In a perspective broader than the Night on Earth framework, how apt were these organizations in answering the actual demand on the ground?

This is a very difficult question. My students at the Graduate Institute very often come to my office, telling me that they would like to work on the impact of the International Committee of the Red Cross (the ICRC) or the American Red Cross here or there and would like to measure the impact, but we should be extremely cautious regarding their actual impact because I do not think it can be measured accurately. There are so many distortions in terms of the parameters and the data one has to rely on that such measuring becomes impossible.

A quick look at archival sources will show you an inordinate amount of success stories, the achievement of perfect plans simultaneously suggesting there was still some work to be done because the recipients of aid were not able to continue doing what they were supposed to do. Already in these early years of the 20th century humanitarians had a communication strategy, which continues today, showing business was unfinished so that they could get more funding and continue their work.

Let me give you a specific example that shows how difficult it is to measure the impact of their activities. Let’s take the American Red Cross, or the Near East Relief, or even the International Committee of the Red Cross, a Swiss organization. It was extremely easy for these organizations to work close to areas that were technologically and logistically suitable in terms of seaports, railway nodes etc.

Wherever their actions deployed, if a railway or a train station existed, they would be able to deliver food, drinkable water, or blankets. But if there were famines in a very remote area, it became extremely difficult for these people to do something, and very often they did not even go there.

In their reports they claimed that they were present in an entire region, in fact they were in and around a port, a railway station or a city. Their impact might have been significant near a port, but very limited in more inland areas. Humanitarian organizations’ statistical data claim an organization helped tens of thousands of people. Was it really the case? Other reports mention the activities of an ambulance, and ambulance very often meant a donkey with a nurse helping five, ten, fifteen people. Could they really relieve thousands of people?

We should not forget either that the vast majority of these institutions did not help Muslim civilian populations, which, as we know, constituted the vast majority living in the Ottoman Empire. They were, just like the Christians, the Jews or everybody else, in need of humanitarian help. It was not as if the Ottoman authorities were so wealthy and ready to help them out.

Nonetheless, they were left aside, and in the statistics provided by these institutions the Muslim populations just do not exist. Due to this way of accounting, you will never know how many people were actually helped, but also you will never know if the next person who was dying did not receive any kind of humanitarian help.

You can be very cynical or dismissive and say that the nature of the work of international humanitarians in the Near East was insufficient. Yes, it was. At the same time, some of these operations were amazingly complicated and some organizations delivered, they helped some people, so it would be very wrong to conclude that they did not do a thing. Of course, there were cases of corruption, embezzlement and dysfunctions of all sorts, but in other cases they helped out civilians in need.

Your answer contains fragments of my next set of questions which has exactly to do with the institutional mindset of these organizations. It is clear that these humanitarian agencies cherished nationhood and the nation-state and contemporary understandings of these political ideas. In addition, the narratives of these agencies were obviously often laden with racism and often were expressed in religious terms. You show through your research that they also frequently tied the idea of civilization to modernization. In your book you show that the concept of “civilization” was frequently tied to the level of industrial development within a certain region. It is obvious how some actors in the field could be tied together – as you just explained, railways were important for delivering assistance. This touches again on the idea of humanitarian agency. How else did these organizations measure how “civilized” a region was?

They did not need to measure the level of industrialization of the Near Easterners for a very simple reason: humanitarians were certain that these people were uncivilized and in need of being civilized, of course, in the kind of civilization that they could offer. There were many strings attached to the concept of civilization which was, as you rightly pointed out, racist. This is why none of the humanitarian institutions operating in the Near East offered programs of industrial “modernization.” The modernization Near Easterners were offered was based on improved agricultural methods and techniques. These

programs were based on models implemented in the colonies, corroborating the idea that humanitarians had a colonial attitude. Some programs the US humanitarian institutions set up, had previously been employed in the American South for autochthonous populations of the American continent and for Afro-Americans, in the Philippines, Cuba or Haiti.

In their reports, the populations of the Near East were portrayed as filthy, there were no windows in their houses, they had no “modern” midwifery and the way babies were delivered was considered brutal and uncivilized. There are all sorts of comments that very clearly show that this was the perception that these Western humanitarians had when they arrived, some of them for the very first time, in the Near East. At the same time, we should not forget that so many of the humanitarians in this area were missionaries whose ultimate agenda was to convert local people to Christianity.

I would indeed like to raise a question about religion next. In your book you bring up the concept of secularity, which was looked at from several different angles, especially in its relation to the humanitarian organizations. Earlier in our conversation you mentioned Muslims and it is clear in the discourse of the Western humanitarian agencies that there was adversity towards them. What was the dominant view of other Christian confessions that were present in the region, such as the Orthodox or the Copts? In what ways could the activities of these organizations be called truly secular?

The question of religion was the reason why I stayed away from anything that has to do with the concept of “the birth of modern humanitarianism.” I do not believe in it, unless in this idea of “modern” we include missionaries too. In fact, many of the allegedly modern humanitarians were actually missionaries, while they could be medical doctors, they could be educators, they could be agricultural experts, they could be veterinaries, they could be nurses etc.

I do not believe for a second that the idea of a completely secularized Western humanitarianism appeared in the Near East at the end of the First World War.

Here I would like to go back to the point about racism once again. It is true that there was an anti-Islam, anti-Muslim posture, which could be detected in the rise of many, in fact most of the protagonists of the story that I tell in the book. But the disdain and disregard as well as contempt that so many humanitarians had for their Christian recipients of aid equally deserves to be mentioned. It is not as if the Armenians, because they were Christians, were considered to be so much better than the Muslims. Or the Greeks as Orthodox, and there an Orthodox Christian question comes up, were treated very differently from the Muslim Turks etc. Moreover, many delegates of, for instance, the ICRC expressed their antisemitism openly. The local Christian or Jewish populations were still considered very uncivilized. Again, this applies to the Greeks as well, regardless of how the Greeks perceived themselves. This was one of the reasons why Greek authorities had many tensions with Western humanitarians, especially with the Americans and the British, or even the Swiss.

This also has to do with your question about the ways in which these humanitarians saw the nation-state and the extent to which they considered local populations as not yet ready to become independent.

In the book I insist on this humanitarianism as being designed to go beyond short-term relief, encompassing the idea of rehabilitation. The latter, with its civilizational objective is a term that would be replaced with “development “by international organizations after 1945.

Until now we discussed the concept of religion, the concept of the nation-state and its contemporary context as well as the very faulty concept of civilization. All of these were laden with racial connotation. You argue in your book that the operation of these humanitarian agencies facilitated the establishment of global anthropological and geopolitical boundaries. How much of this development was influenced by these organizations, and how much did they simply reflect the already existing political and socio-anthropological distinctions?

Both of these things are correct. Individuals working for humanitarian agencies shaped many things, because many of them were extremely well-connected with both the policy making world and the academic world. Many of them were university professors, and many of them were very close to or even paid by philanthropic foundations, like the Rockefeller Foundation.

It is interesting to consider who these people were and to see how they influenced the ways in which the Near East was perceived back home by larger audiences. These humanitarians (and Near East experts) published a lot, and the institutions that they were working for had all sorts of media outlets: pamphlets, bulletins, newsletters, etc. They organized public meetings that were held in big cities in the United States, in London, in Paris, in Geneva, and elsewhere. They clearly influenced the way in which the Near East was perceived by broader audiences. We should not forget that there is a very long tradition of missionaries informing public opinion, by which I mean elite public opinion. These people had specific views on the Near East which, to some extent, are still circulating today, particularly in terms of discrimination and in terms of misperception of very large communities of our planet.

Further, I would like to ask you about the method that you are using in Night on Earth. You use a transnational approach to history based on research in multiple archives. Could you tell us more about how you approached the history of humanitarianism?

This is where I would like to be extremely modest and humble. I could do the work that I did only thanks to my colleagues, Ottomanist historians who know many different languages. They did excellent work on which I could rely to refine my knowledge of local humanitarian practices.

I built on that knowledge the research in various archives. In some cases, some institutions’ archives do not exist at all. The Near East Relief archives are not located in a single place, I had to go to New York, to Tarrytown, the Rockefeller Archive Centre. For the American Red Cross, I had to go to the National Archives and to Palo Alto (Stanford). I have visited missionary societies’ archives and various state archives. Since I live and work in Geneva, it was very easy for me to go to the ICRC Archives, to the League of Nations archives, to the Save the Children microfilm collection that happens to be located at the library of the Institute where I work. I could compare and contrast these sources.

Your book ‘Night on Earth’ has one particularly curious omission – the voice of humanitarian actors in the field, the people who were working for these institutions in the Near East. Could you explain your view on why these voices were silenced? We can sometimes read immaculately established catalogues on raised funds, collected charity and donations, but we do not have anything about their distribution, for instance, or anything on what was given to or taken from the locals. Why are your sources at times silent on the details of distribution?

 The real question is if they really cared about the locals. Some of them did, and I go back to the missionaries once again, because some of the missionaries had been raised and lived all their lives in these areas. Of course, they had a preference for whoever they were helping and did care about a very specific group of people. They spoke about them and referred to them. But very often you have these bird-eye views that show the voices of the recipients of aid were not heard, and that was almost by design. This has been the case for many decades. It has been probably only in the last twenty or thirty years that institutions like Doctors Without Borders have completely changed the way they operate.

Very often I had the impression that the recipients of aid back in the interwar period were objects rather than subjects. If anything, the humanitarians believed they should have been grateful because they had been saved. We were talking about the silences, and I have been reminded of Primo Levi’s novel The Drowned and the Saved (1986).

The humanitarians dealt with the saved, but in huge conflicts, like those in the Near East, the number of the drowned was extremely conspicuous. You will hardly find the drowned in the archives. And when you find the saved, they very often were treated like statues. No agency of these people is recorded, and they do not have ideas.

If we would go back to the issue of miscommunication, and the metaphor of the taxi, the taxi driver and the passenger, the passenger might have had ideas on how she or he would like to be saved, but these ideas were not considered. This was the case certainly not just in the Near East, but also in many other places around Europe and in Soviet Russia.

Unlike taxi drivers who might or might not form labor unions at certain points in time, Night on Earth groups various actors with various approaches – international, national, patriotic, and religious. It would be interesting to talk about the possibilities of such research in other domains of transnational history, along with the benefits they might bring to scholarship. Chapter 2 of your book shows that many different humanitarian organizations had overlapping ideas and attitudes about the Ottoman Empire, Turkey, and the Middle East. What were the internal and external disagreements these organizations faced?

It is difficult to find traces in the archives of collaboration and cooperation. It is always very easy to find many documents on conflicts, competitions, etc. So I do not know whether this rule applies especially to the humanitarians, but I can tell that many humanitarians hated each other, they did not want to cooperate with each other, they wanted their slice of the cake and they wanted their slice to be bigger than that of any other actor operating in a given place. There were plenty of resentful ideas and prejudices that each of them had about the others. It could be Americans among themselves, the American Relief Administration writing extremely badly about the Quakers or the American Red Cross, and the American Red Cross vis-à-vis the ICRC, and the ICRC vis-à-vis the Save the Children, etc. That is a very old history which certainly does not only apply to humanitarianism. We will see that this is still the case today, certainly in the world of international organizations, but I am pretty sure this applies also at the domestic level, when we study conflicts of power.

Power, and money, and authority were quintessential factors determining whether a given humanitarian institution would operate in the Near East. The traces of deliberately isolating the League of Nations in Greece are extremely clear – nobody wanted to work with Fridtjof Nansen. British diplomats in Greece and British humanitarian agencies there boycotted and sabotaged so many of the actions that Nansenwanted to do, just because they did not want to be under the authority of Nansen and of the League of Nations. This story is very ugly, but also very typical. And in the end, blaming the League of Nations for being dysfunctional and unable to operate was easy.

The same goes for money. You can blame these institutions for not being able to do this and that, but if the amounts of pounds or Swiss francs at their disposal was modest, there was only so much that these people could do. In situations where the black market was extremely well-organized and where inflation was very high, what these institutions with foreigners that had sometimes just arrived in a given country could do was, as you can imagine, very limited – they were not locals, they did not know where to go, what to do, where to purchase stuff.

This is a part of the story which seems extremely boring, just like the history of logistics tends to seem extremely boring. But if we wish to understand humanitarian aid, we need to go into the history of political economy or what was happening in a given place. That means the history of logistics and military history, which is unfortunately rarely studied these days.

If we fail to understand geography and the ways in which Mustafa Kemal proceeded from A to B, and where people were fleeing because we do not look at geographical maps anymore, and because we are into a certain kind of transnational and global history, then we have a problem of understanding why, how, when and where humanitarian institutions operated in the Ottoman lands.

Night on Earth aims to set a general direction for future research, so maybe a whole field will develop. If the research goes on to tackle different regions, we might get something out of it. But the historians are also often doing research on what is trendy, so not everything that would be needed captures their attention.

In this case, I would encourage historians to be anti-cyclical.

I agree wholeheartedly. And for my last question, I would be interested to hear what you found out about the motivation of individuals to do humanitarian work. We have already discussed politics, we discussed society and its development, or the lack thereof, and we have discussed religion. How did these factors figure in one’s individual motivation to work in one of these organizations?

It is a great question and connects pretty well with the idea of anti-cyclical history. Who writes biographies today? There are very few PhD students who would do so in many departments around the world. It is out of fashion for sure. But for instance, if we wished to study motivation, this would be extremely useful, especially when we know that the vast majority of the autobiographies by humanitarians are hagiographic.

What fascinates me about these people, women and men, is their complexity.

Their savior complex is very present in what they did. They might have been driven by a religious impulse, a civilizational or more secular impulse, or maybe the two got intertwined at some point. There was also the idea of doing good, and most of them truly believed in that. Very few people that I came across were cynical about it.

They could be nationalists, imperialists, in favor of colonies, in favor of la mission civilisatrice, but at the same time, they thought that what they would be doing in the Near East would bring peace, prosperity and civilization, that is, education, better health, better living conditions etc. We should take very seriously these motivations.

They could be people who thought that they were doing good things, and at the same time they could be very racist, or very imperialist. If we wanted to simply take a moral stance when we study them, we would fail to understand this complexity and this richness. I think that this is what drew me to them. I do not think that I could ever be a humanitarian myself, but I was attracted by these individuals, and their stories, and what they were doing, and where they were coming from.

We are talking about a very tiny elite of highly educated white people. This is the profile of the huge majority of men and many women too who were equally white and very often equally racist as the men, and very often equally imperialistic too. I am not here to glorify women humanitarians that were there, because they were the siblings of their male counterparts. Of course, they had many other political motivations, for example, the right to vote, and this added further layers of complexity to the motivations of women, which were not necessarily identical to the motivations of men. Women also had political domestic agendas which were important and helps us explain why they became humanitarians.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Laura Moreno Martos, Vilius Kubekas, Ferenc Laczó, Karen Culver and Lucie Janotová.

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