MA Humanitarianism and Conflict Response / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
The History of Humanitarian Aid

Course unit fact file
Unit code HCRI61202
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This course will introduce students to the history of humanitarians and humanitarianism, engaging with the history of the humanitarian system, the Non-Governmental Organisations and faith-based organisations, famine relief and war humanitarianism. The course will engage with the methodological and historical debates of some of the most salient moments of the history of humanitarian aid between 1863 and 2010. Students will be encouraged to develop their own critical skills through regular reading notes and they will be invited to develop their own essay titles in order to develop independent research skills.


  • Deepen critical reasoning and intellectual curiosity 
  • Strengthen written and oral communication skills 
  • Engage critically with a wide range of academic literature in humanitarian studies  
  • Reflect on the long-term influence of the past on public debates, policy frameworks, and humanitarian action 
  • Understand the wider usefulness of humanities and social science for the humanitarian sector 

Learning outcomes


    Teaching and learning methods

    The principal teaching and learning methods will be the lecture and the workshop. Lectures will be available asynchronously but will be delivered face to face when circumstances allow (recorded videos, guided readings, etc.). Workshops will include class exercises and student-led discussion. 

    All materials will be available on Blackboard. Lecture material will be available. 

    9x1 hour lectures 

    9x2 hour workshops

    Knowledge and understanding

    At the end of the course the students will have: 

    • Undertaken a survey of the history of modern humanitarianism as an idea or ‘ideology of compassion’ 
    • Engaged with a social and cultural history of international governmental and non-governmental organisations in humanitarian crises from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day 
    • Developed an analysis of the impact of humanitarian intervention 
    • Investigated the intellectual currents of modern humanitarianism 
    • Explored some of the complex issues arising from humanitarian work during times and in sites of crisis and conflict 
    • Engaged in scenarios of humanitarian work in order to better understand the constraints under which various actors operated 
    • Assessed historically the importance of humanitarian movements in modern world (especially western) history 

    Intellectual skills

    • Critically engage with a wide range of disciplines and materials around humanitarian emergencies and responses 
    • Familiarise yourself with many different geographical and chronological settings 
    • Develop a critical understanding of the methodological challenges of history writing and their relevance beyond the discipline. 
    • Develop critical reading skills 
    • Develop critical research skills by identifying an essay research question 
    • Further develop awareness of current humanitarian issues around the history of aid 

    Practical skills

    • Gain a strong understanding of reading notes writing 
    • Demonstrate analytical and debating skills with peers and tutor 
    • Demonstrate efficiency and creativity in writing and researching self-determined questions 
    • Show effective use of library resources and search engine to gather information 

    Transferable skills and personal qualities

    • Interpretation and argumentation (written and oral) 
    • Communication 
    • Interpersonal skills 
    • Project and time management 
    • Cultural and ethical awareness 

    Assessment methods

    Assessment Task

    Formative or Summative


    Reading Notes

    Formative and Summative


    Essay Proposal







    Feedback methods

    Feedback Method

    Formative or Summative

    Written feedback on assignments


    Written feedback on essay proposal


    Informal guidance during workshops


    Peer review and oral feedback during class


    1-to-1 feedback during office hours

    Recommended reading

    Barnett, Michael. Empire of humanity: A history of humanitarianism. Cornell University Press, 2011. 

    Dal Lago, Enrico, and Kevin O’Sullivan. "Introduction: Towards a New History of Humanitarianism." Moving the Social 57 (2017): 5-20. 

    O'sullivan, Kevin, Matthew Hilton, and Juliano Fiori. "Humanitarianisms in context." European Review of History: Revue européenne d'histoire 23.1-2 (2016): 1-15. 

    Paulmann, Johannes. "Conjunctures in the history of international humanitarian aid during the twentieth century." Humanity: An International Journal of Human Rights, Humanitarianism, and Development 4.2 (2013): 215-238. 

    Borton, John and Davey, Eleanor, ‘The Use of History by humanitarians and the potential benefits of history to the humanitarian sector’, in P. Ramos Pinto and B Taithe, eds, The Impact of History, Routledge, 2015 (uncorrected proofs attached) 

    Taithe, Bertrand, ‘Humanitarian History?’ in R. MacGinty and J. Peterson eds, The Humanitarian Handbook, Routledge, 2015 (forthcoming) see attached) 

    Laqua, Daniel (2014) ‘Inside the humanitarian cloud: causes and motivations to help friends and strangers’, Journal of Modern European History, 12, no. 2, 175-85 

    Barnett, Michael, and Thomas Weiss (2008), ‘Humanitarianism: a brief history of the present’, in Barnett and Weiss eds, Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1-48  

    Study hours

    Scheduled activity hours
    Lectures 9
    Practical classes & workshops 18
    Independent study hours
    Independent study 123

    Teaching staff

    Staff member Role
    Bertrand Taithe Unit coordinator
    Jessica Hawkins Unit coordinator

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