Joint ANSO / IHP and Geneva Global History Seminar
Davide Rodogno

Night on Earth: A History of International Humani- tarianism in the Near East, 1918-1930

Davide Rodogno, Geneva Graduate Institute
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Room S5, Maison de la paix, Geneva Graduate Institute

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The Joint ANSO / IHP Tuesday Seminars series is co-organized by the Anthropology and Sociology and International History and Politics Departments at the Institute to discuss global questions from historically and ethnographically-informed perspectives.

The Geneva Global History Seminar is organized by and for historians in the faculties and doctoral programs of the University of Geneva and the Graduate Institute. It is open to all who are interested in historical questions in a global perspective.

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This research examines cases  when, in the aftermath of the First World War, short-term relief programs aimed at providing food, shelter, clothing and basic medical aid – a bed for the night, to use David Rieff’s phrase – to distressed civilian populations turned into ante-litteram development projects or state-building attempts. My argument is that in the 1920s and 1930s, European and American humanitarian associations undertook programmes that went beyond relief. The tentative title of the book is a clin d’oeil to Jim Jarmush’s 1991 eponymous movie since the events I write about took place at the same time in different geographical areas.

The institutions I study defined their humanitarianism as encompassing a continuum between relief and rehabilitation and, sometimes, they set up agricultural, educational, public health programmes. Breaking conventional historiographical caesuras, I argue that ‘development’ programmes undertaken by international agencies existed well before 1945 and the birth of the United Nations. Development revolved around the principle of ‘self-help’, which contested older ideas of charity. Contrary to the idea of self-empowerment, seen today as the opposite of social engineering, early-twentieth century humanitarian actors saw self-help as an essential ingredient of their social engineering ambitions and as a way to ensure peace and prosperity in the areas in which they operated.

My research has a broader purpose: I wish to avoid the history and politics of humanitarianism to turn into a parochial and self-referential field of study. I wish to connect it with contiguous historiographies and histories: political and diplomatic, social and culture, gender, colonial and imperial. My research is informed by other disciplines such as international law, political science and anthropology. I wish to know more about the 21 grams, i.e., the specific weight of this ever-controversial –ism. I am persuaded that humanitarian-centric accounts are incorrect and fail to adequately contextualise humanitarianactions.  The significance of the project lies in its contribution to our understanding of the history and politics of Western humanitarianism, humanitarian and/cum development aid. I hope my research will be relevant for scholars interested in the history of the twentieth century, of non-state actors and of international organisations, of Western humanitarianism and of human rights.


About the Speaker

Dr Rodogno was a Research Fellow at the London School of Economics (2002-2004), Foreign Associate Researcher at the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent in Paris (2004-2005), RCUK Academic Fellow at the School of History, University of St Andrews (2005-2010), and SNSF – Research Professor (2008-2011). Associate professor (2011-2014) and full professor since 2014 at the Graduate Institute, he served as head of the International History and Politics Department (2014-2017). His doctoral thesis was published in Italian in 2003 and in English as Fascism’s European Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2006). Rodogno was grantee of the Rockefeller Archives Centre in 2011; he was grantee of the SNSF ‘Sinergia’ programme on a project entitled Patterns of Transnational Regulations. He researches the history of humanitarianism, human rights and racism, international organizations, philanthropic foundations, and international public health since the nineteenth century. In 2011 Rodogno published Against Massacre: Humanitarian Interventions in the Ottoman Empire (1815-1914), the Birth of a Concept and International Practice (Princeton University Press). During the summer of 2012 the Kofi Annan Foundation mandated Rodogno to write a confidential report documenting the experience of the United Nations and League of Arab States Joint Special Envoy for Syria. More recently, Rodogno co-edited and authored a volume on the history of Humanitarian Photography, a volume on Transnational Networks of Experts in the Long Nineteenth century, and another on the League of Nations’ social work. In 2021 he published Night on Earth – A History of International Humanitarianism in the Near East 1918-1930. From 2017 to 2021 Rodogno was grantee of an FNS project on Minority Protection in Belgium, Italy and Spain; and since 2018 of another FNS grant on the Rockefeller Foundation fellows as heralds of globalization (1910s-1970s). Since 2019, the History of International Organizations Network Internet (a platform Rodogno co-funded) regularly informs on activities related to the Centenary of International Organizations in Geneva. Rodogno started a collaboration with the Museum of the Red Cross and co-funded a podcast start-up that collaborates with the Festival et Forum International des Droits Humains (FIFDH). Since October 2020 he is the Head of the Interdisciplinary Programs of the Graduate Institute.