From Lake Chad to Iraq, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) provide relief around the globe, and their scope is growing every year. Policymakers and activists often assume that humanitarian aid is best provided by these organizations, who are generally seen as impartial and neutral. In Above the Fray, Shai Dromi investigates why the international community overwhelmingly trusts humanitarian NGOs by looking at the historical development of their culture. With a particular focus on the Red Cross, Dromi reveals that NGOs arose because of the efforts of orthodox Calvinists, demonstrating for the first time the origins of the unusual moral culture that has supported NGOs for the past 150 years.
Drawing on archival research, Dromi traces the genesis of the Red Cross to a Calvinist movement working in mid-nineteenth-century Geneva, showing that the organization’s founding members were convinced by their faith that an international volunteer program not beholden to the state was the only ethical way to provide relief to victims of armed conflict. After illustrating how Calvinism shaped the humanitarian field, he argues for the key role preexistent belief systems played in establishing social fields and institutions. Ultimately, Dromi shows the immeasurable social good that NGOs have achieved, but also suggests that alternate models of humanitarian relief need to be considered.