National Centre for Australian Studies (NCAS) Senior Research Fellow Dr Agnieszka Sobocinska delivered the prestigious 2016 Reese Lecture at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College London, on November 9.
Agnieszka’s lecture, entitled Beautiful Humanitarians: The Public Faces of International Development in the 1950s and 1960s, traced the contribution of volunteering programs to popular conceptions of international development in Australia, Britain and the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. As she explained in her lecture, the Volunteer Graduate Scheme, established in Melbourne in 1951, sent young Australians to assist the postcolonial development of Indonesia.
Motivated by internationalist and anti-colonial ideals, it captured the support of governments and ordinary citizens alike. Its influence also spread abroad, inspiring similar programs including Britain’s Voluntary Service Overseas and the United States Peace Corps. In the early 1960s, volunteers were endlessly profiled in the media and were even integrated into popular culture, featuring in television sitcoms and magazines such as Vogue. This coverage engaged public interest in international development, helping to create a climate of support for future appeals from Biafra to Band Aid. It also helped construct a new genre of humanitarian glamour, with distinct political effects.
Blurring the lines between modernisation and humanitarianism, this coverage popularised an image of beneficent Western intervention still favoured by development agencies and celebrities including Angelina Jolie and Bono. It also added moral legitimacy to the interventionist paradigm of international development that served to occlude its roots in colonialism and the Cold War.
The Reese Lecture at the Menzies Centre is given annually in honour of Dr Trevor Reese, a distinguished historian of the British Commonwealth and Australia and Reader at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. Agnieszka holds ARC DECRA funding for a research project tracing the rise and influence of development volunteering programs during the 1950s and 1960s.