Developing Humanitarian Medicine: from Alma Ata to Bio-Tech, a history of norms, knowledge production and care (1978-2020)

HCRI Professor commences ambitious new five-year project to historicise humanitarian medicine as a set of emergency interventions.

Developing Humanitarian Medicine
*Photo courtesy of MSF Cambodia Archive

Prof. Bertrand Taithe is leading a group of researchers based at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at The University of Manchester on a new research project on the history of humanitarian medicine as a set of emergency interventions.

The project seeks to generate significant shifts in understanding its scientific and organisational specificity and role in developing clinical norms, debating ‘rights-based’ approach to health access and leading campaigns for access to drugs while deploying bespoke biotechnological tools.

This history will inform humanitarian practice and contribute to ongoing debates on how humanitarian medical providers engage with pharmaceutical and biotech industries to disseminate, repurpose, and research drugs and diagnostic tools. The project will develop four work packages building up from patient-centred clinical norms and concerns on care to experimental initiatives in humanitarian setting and state-led norm-setting diplomacy through emergency medical teams (EMTs) initiatives.

The project will place historical records, their use and preservation, at the heart of humanitarian practices and transform the way that researchers and practitioners deploy evidence from the very recent past.

The project will draw from archives (existing NGO archives, public records, personal papers collected in the Humanitarian Archive at the University of Manchester John Rylands Research Institute and Library) and will create new archives through oral history and project field work.

The project started in September 2023 and has a duration of 5 years. A full project website will be launched soon. The project is funded by the Wellcome trust (226515/Z/22/Z).

Project team/contact

The Humanitarian Archive

The Humanitarian Archive is relatively new and currently consists of a few small collections of individual humanitarians’ papers which have been deposited over the past few years, including those of Elizabeth Wilson, the founder of Hudfam (the Huddersfield based sister branch to Oxfam). These documents, both paper and digital, which relate to humanitarian activities worldwide in the 20th and 21st centuries, give a unique insight into the more recent developments of humanitarian aid.

Rather than collecting archives from large organisations, the Humanitarian Archive’s focus is on individual humanitarians and smaller, UK-based NGOs which show how norms in humanitarian practice were developed and solidified or shed light on topics, areas, and points of view which are less well evidenced.

Read Archivist Flora Chatt’s introduction to the Humanitarian Archive here.