Humanitarian encounters: Biafra, NGOs and imaginings of the Third World in Britain and Ireland, 1967-70
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O'Sullivan, Kevin. (2014). Humanitarian encounters: Biafra, NGOs and imaginings of the Third World in Britain and Ireland, 1967–70. Journal of Genocide Research, 16(2-3), 299-315. doi: 10.1080/14623528.2014.936706
This article examines the influence of the Biafran humanitarian crisis on British and Irish conceptions of the Third World. Drawing on evidence from NGOs in both countries, it argues that the explosion of non-governmental activity in this period, combined with the unprecedented attention afforded to the relief effort, crystallized a popular vision of the Third World that was rooted in Western internationalism and the legacies of the imperial world. The model of humanitarian action pursued by Oxfam, Save the Children, Africa Concern, and others, transformed non-governmental actors into key mediators between the West and the Third World. Yet, this article argues, the image they presented, and the tactics they pursued, can only be understood as part of a broader adjustment to a decolonized world. From very different beginnings (British postcolonial responsibilities versus a strong anticolonial narrative in Ireland) considerable similarities emerged between British and Irish NGOs. The response to Biafra was an extension of the missionary and colonial service ethos, and generated a model of relief that privileged humanitarian action over local political and human agency. That paternalistic approach further reinforced traditional attitudes to the Third World through renewed emphases on donation, dependency, expatriate volunteers, and Western concepts of needs and development . This article concludes, therefore, by arguing that Biafra played a vital role in the shift from imperial humanitarianism to neo-humanitarianism and the rise of liberal humanitarian governance. The vision of an inclusive common humanity the NGOs espoused was in practice rooted in a very Western understanding of humanitarian responsibilities and a very Western image of the Third World.
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