Activists Abroad: US NGOs and International Politics since 1945

AHA Session 41
Thursday, January 7, 2016: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Room A704 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atrium Level)
Nick B. Cullather, Indiana University Bloomington
Paul Adler, Harvard University
Sheyda Jahanbani, University of Kansas
Patrick William Kelly, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Julia Irwin, University of South Florida

Session Abstract

With the “transnational turn” in U.S. historiography, it has become accepted wisdom that historians must look beyond the physical borders of the nation to fully understand its past. Yet, despite the increasingly global perspectives informing so many U.S. historians’ works, significant gaps in the scholarship remain. One such “scholarly void,” as identified by Akira Iriye in his book Global Community, concerns the histories of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and their role in both U.S. and global history.

U.S. NGOs shaped history by acting as institutional conduits, facilitating the movement across borders both of tangible goods (money, material, and people) as well as ideas (political, intellectual, and cultural). While the history of U.S. NGOs’ internationalism reaches back at least to the nineteenth century, since World War Two there has been a remarkable growth in the number, type, and impact of such organizations, especially those working in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (the “Global South.”) As the U.S. government fought a global Cold War, it promoted visions and policies concerning human rights, humanitarian relief, and economic development that were partly molded by the activities of U.S. NGOs. In some cases, NGOs acted as willing partners in U.S. diplomatic efforts, while at other times they served as among the U.S. government’s harshest critics. 

As the participants on this roundtable will contend, examining the histories of internationally-focused U.S. NGOs can help scholars achieve new understandings about how U.S. citizens have attempted to become “global citizens.” In what ways have NGOs connected different actors and ideas? How have they navigated complex political landscapes where local, national, and transnational actors intersected? Each of the panelists specializes in a different sector of the sprawling NGO world, while also looking at how those organizations’ interacted with various local, national and transnational actors. In analyzing the histories of NGOs, we each draw on the vast output by political scientists, anthropologists, and sociologists (among other disciplines) about these organizations. However, we will also address Professor Iriye’s critique that much of this existing literature “remains ahistorical.” Since World War II, we ask, how have U.S. NGOs changed in form, size, and influence? How did interactions with Global South individuals, activists, and governments shape U.S. NGOs’ approaches to their own work? And in what ways have globalizing forces, such as the advent of jet travel and improved communications technology, aided the expansion of global civil society and U.S. NGOs’ place in it?   

To discuss these themes in greater detail, we propose a roundtable which will focus specifically on U.S. NGOs’ humanitarian and political activism directed at the Global South during the second half of the twentieth century. Each of the three participants will first present brief papers based on their original research. Then, we will open up the session to a discussion with the audience about the issues our work raises.

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