Through the Red Cross to the near East Relief: American Humanitarian Institution-Building in the Late Ottoman Empire

N. Yasemin Bavbek, Brown University

Most work on transnational movements locate the origins and proliferation of transnational humanitarian and developmental movements in the post-Second World War world order and focus on donor-recipient relations from a North-South perspective. However, recently, some scholars have emphasized the 19th century origins of humanitarian practices and ideologies. In this paper, I focus on American humanitarian institutions established in the late Ottoman Empire during the second half of the 19th century to the early 20th century. These institutions aimed to generate funds from the American public in particular to deliver basic resources, orphanages, medical care, and shelter to especially non-Muslim populations displaced through Ottoman state violence. Through unpacking the complicated relationship the Ottoman state established with American humanitarian organizations, I compare three major instances of American institution building; the aftermath of the Hamidian massacres of 1894-1896, the Armenian massacre of 1908, and the Armenian Genocide of 1915. These three ‘events’ show the transformation of the global field of humanitarianism and overseas American institution building while unpacking the local effects of these networks. I approach Ottoman humanitarian politics from within global power relations, showing how global-local interactions shape processes of state formation and humanitarianism. This paper also questions how social justice was understood by humanitarian actors at the turn of the 19th century and how practices of humanitarianism were entangled with global inequalities. I argue that the transformation of practices, motivations, and principles of humanitarianism provides a reflexive edge to map the limits and potentials of contemporary transnational humanitarian practices.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 26. Sovereignty as a Cultural Project