Kevin O'Sullivan

Mar 18, 2022

The NGO Moment

The Globalisation of Compassion from Biafra to Live Aid

Cambridge University Press 2021

In this episode, Kevin O’Sullivan talks about his book on aid-focused NGOs from Ireland, Britain, and Canada in the 1960s-80s, The NGO Moment: The Globalisation of Compassion from Biafra to Live Aid (Cambridge University Press, 2021). He deems this era particularly crucial for the development of the NGO sector and its relationship to the Third World because it witnessed the internationalization of a particularly western form of compassion.

Professor O’Sullivan makes the claim that the years 1967 to 1985 witnessed an acceleration in the history of aid-focused NGOs. He highlights key crises (Biafra, East Pakistan, Cambodia, El Salvador, and Ethiopia) that gave NGOs access, legitimacy, and fame. He also dissects key intellectual approaches, as varied as liberation theology and Rawlsian liberalism, which influenced NGO operations, noting the process by which NGOs tended to domesticate radical theories and temper their more activist members. Kevin’s insightful analysis helps us understand how, despite much radical rhetoric and good intentions, aid-focused NGOs became part and parcel of a liberal international order that favors the salvation of biological life and market solutions to poverty over necessary structural reforms in the global economy.

Kevin O’Sullivan is lecturer in the Department of History and Philosophy at the University of Galway in Ireland. He is an expert in humanitarianism, aid, development, human rights, and global history. His previous book is entitled Ireland, Africa and the End of Empire: Small State Identity in the Cold War, 1955-1975 (Manchester University Press, 2012). He is also the Editor of the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy.

Felix A. Jimènez Botta is Associate Professor of History at Miyazaki International College in Japan. He can be reached at

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