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How did humanitarian aid and development NGOs come to be associated with such a wide range of solutions to global poverty? What can that expansive definition of ‘aid’ tell us about the aid sector? Based on work for my book, The NGO Moment: The Globalisation of Compassion from Biafra to Live Aid (Cambridge University Press, 2021), this paper traces the origins of the NGO sector’s dexterity to the late 1960s and early 1970s and the marriage of campaigns for solidarity and economic justice to more traditional concerns with charity, welfare and emergency relief. The emergence of a new generation of aid workers in the late 1960s and early 1970s posed an intellectual challenge to the concept of ‘aid’. Left-wing critiques of charity, the influence of intellectuals like Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich and Argentinian economist Raúl Prebisch, and a new emphasis on poverty and inequality in transnational religious circles, converged in a common discourse that placed ‘justice’ (broadly defined) at the heart of debates about the sector. The emphasis on reform in those discussions was key. Ultimately, this paper argues, this story is one of compromise – of how ideas of advocacy and reform were absorbed and rearticulated by the NGO sector. But what form did this anti-poverty campaign take? The paper concludes with a reflection on the NGO ‘movement’ this period created, and what this has meant to the sector’s long-term fortunes.

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