Date of Award


Document Type

Honors Thesis (Open Access)


Colby College. History Dept.


Arnout van der Meer

Second Advisor

Danae Jacobson

Third Advisor

Britt Halvorson


In contemporary Western popular culture, humanitarian action often serves as the ultimate expression of altruism, compassion, and moral obligation. This research historicizes humanitarianism to understand the assumptions that underlie its affective appeal. Oversimplified narratives of aid work frequently fail to acknowledge the historical and geopolitical context in which this work occurs. I argue that humanitarianism, as both a discursive tool and code of practice, makes visible some legacies of the ‘civilizing mission’ – the ideology used to justify colonialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An exercise in comparative history, this research consists of three spatially and temporally distinct case studies in Southeast Asia in the long twentieth century. After a brief survey of the literature of the civilizing mission and humanitarianism, the first case study examines the U.S. government’s response to an outbreak of cholera in the Philippine Islands in 1902. The following chapter, a Cold War era case study, investigates the work of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) along the Thai-Cambodian border in the 1980s. The final case study explores the U.S.Agency for International Development’s (USAID) response to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami in Indonesia. Studied comparatively and in context, these seemingly disparate cases illuminate fascinating, sometimes uncomfortable historical continuities. In exploring the humanitarian dimensions of civilizing and the civilizing dimensions of humanitarianism, I seek to demystify what historian Michael Adas terms the “humanitarian mystique” and to offer ways forward in a field of discourse chronically plagued by historical amnesia.


humanitarianism, medical aid, civilizing mission, crisis, Southeast Asia, Médecins Sans Frontières, U.S. Agency for International Development