Shai M. Dromi. Above the Fray: The Red Cross and the Making of the Humanitarian NGO Sector

Via Zoom

Humanitarian nongovernmental organizations routinely present themselves as servants of the most longstanding and universal human values. Yet, while their values -- impartiality, neutrality, universality -- are certainly ageless, their social organizations are a much more recent phenomenon. In fact, the idea that humanitarian organizations like the ones we know today should provide emergency aid did not emerge until the nineteenth-century, and was surprisingly controversial when initially proposed by the Red Cross movement. In this talk, I examine the origins of the organizational cultural framework that first enabled humanitarian NGOs and has supported their work for the past 150 years. Drawing on archival research, I trace its origins to an orthodox Calvinist movement that thrived in Geneva in the mid-nineteenth-century. The specific religious principles of the movement directly shaped the principles of the early Red Cross and, in turn, the 1864 Geneva Convention, which has become the ethical standards for humane conduct on the battlefield. I outline the ways the Red Cross program disseminated internationally, and draw implications for the sociology of development as well as for the study of social fields.

Shai Dromi is a cultural and comparative-historical sociologist with research on international humanitarian organizations and movements, transnational advocacy, and political culture. His research looks at how global organizations and movements emerge, at their international dynamics, and at their interface with nationally-specific institutions and culture. In addition, his research examines how organizations, professions, and groups generate beliefs about the common good, and how those beliefs translate into concrete institutional arrangements. His first book, The Religious Roots of Transnational Relief: Calvinism, Humanitarianism, and the Genesis of Social Fields, was published by the University of Chicago Press, and his articles appeared in journals such as Sociological Theory and Theory & Society.