The Moral Logics of Humanitarian Donations, 1863-1919

Shai Dromi, Harvard University

The late-nineteenth-century saw the mass expansion and rapid institutionalization of the humanitarian relief NGO sector. One of the main agents promoting this transition was the International Red Cross movement (est. 1863), which modeled relief work and established the norms that remain prevalent in the humanitarian relief community to the present day. While there is much work on the emergence of the humanitarian NGO model as such, less attention has been given to the origins and spread of the logics NGOs have used to appeal for donations and volunteers. This paper draws on nineteenth-century archival material from Red Cross societies as well as published appeals for donation in newspapers to outline the specific logics the movement was spreading in its first decades. Using pragmatic sociology, the paper highlights four prevalent logics: (1) the civic, which depicts donations as fulfillment of duty toward one’s co-nationals or, conversely, for humanity as a whole; (2) the domestic, which depicts donation as means to connect to loved ones who have been sent away to war; (3) the projective, which depicts donation as means to connect to a transnational network of charitable actors; and (4) the industrious, which depicts donation as means to help promote medical and scientific advances that will help the unfortunate. Altogether, these logics allowed fundraisers to link donations to the Red Cross to broad notions of moral responsibility. Since the Red Cross has been immensely influential in the shaping of the contemporary humanitarian field, these logics have remained salient in different ways throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

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 Presented in Session 230. Culture Logics and Frames