Saturday, January 25, 2020

Shai M. Dromi's "Above the Fray"

Shai M. Dromi is a lecturer at the Department of Sociology at Harvard University, where he teaches courses in the areas of organizations, global and transnational sociology, and cultural sociology.

Dromi applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Above the Fray: The Red Cross and the Making of the Humanitarian NGO Sector, and reported the following:
Readers opening Above the Fray to page 99 will encounter a full-page reproduction of a sketch that appeared in The Sunday News Tribune in 1898. It depicts a smiling woman in nurse’s uniform pushing a wheelchair with a child seated. A young girl—perhaps 10 or 12 years old—holds the chair for support as she hobbles along on a crutch. The caption reads: “Peace hath her duties no less than war – A Red Cross nurse off duty, passing her vacation at New York’s seaside home for children.”

While browsers flipping to page 99 would only get a partial idea of the whole work, they would be touching on one of the central themes in the book: the honor that involvement in nineteenth-century Red Cross activities conferred on volunteers. The Red Cross Movement, which was established in 1863 as a network of volunteer aid societies for the war wounded, gained considerable international standing over the late-nineteenth-century. It popularized the image of the humanitarian aid worker as a courageous and impartial figure who represents common human (implicitly Christian) values in the face of rampant warfare. Red Cross societies offered volunteers significant symbolic rewards, such as medals and news coverage, which appealed in particular to women. While barred from front line military service, women found in Red Cross societies an alternate route to the battlefield. While this route confined women volunteers to caring, emotional duties in line with gender expectations at the time, it also allowed them to receive honors and social distinction that resembled those of veterans. With the influx of volunteers and donations, many Red Cross societies expanded their work from battlefield relief to other activities such as caring for the sick and for orphans at home.

The rapid expansion in size and influence of the humanitarian sector is explained, in part, by the way multiple types of professionals—nurses, journalists, international lawyers—leveraged their involvement in humanitarian activities to reap social rewards. This, in turn, reinforced the prestige of humanitarian organizations and drew additional volunteers and donations. Media depictions—such as the one on page 99—demonstrate the honorable social standing a Red Cross nurse could gain at the time, and the public interest in this then-new sector.
Visit Shai M. Dromi's website.

--Marshal Zeringue