So you want to do disaster relief? Simulation tests the mettle of humanitarian aid workers-in-training

HHI's Women in War Research Coordinator Jocelyn Kelly, SM '08, works with students on the International Rescue Committee team. Photo: Patrick Holloway

May 6, 2011

“Guys, we have a kidnapping scheduled at 5:30,” Harvard School of Public Health doctoral student-turned-militia leader Mey Akashah announces. Tension has been rising over the course of the day between militia members and teams of humanitarian aid workers, played by students, who are attempting to provide relief to refugees in cholera-ridden camps along the fictional Egunda and Worani border. Akashah and the rest of the volunteer militia, most of whom have encountered real militia members while doing field work in the world’s most volatile regions, have spent the past few hours harassing the humanitarian teams. Now, eyes hidden behind dark glasses and plastic gun in hand, Akashah says that it’s time to crank it up a notch. After the waiting student is whisked away from her stunned colleagues—letting loose a scream for effect—Akashah struts into the group to demand a ransom.

The incident is one of many well-choreographed moments that animated the Humanitarian Studies Initiative’s crisis simulation, held in the Harold Parker State Forest in North Andover, Mass., over the weekend of April 15-17. Co-hosted by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, the simulation is in its tenth year of operation within HSI, and is directed by faculty members from both Harvard and Tufts. Students participating in the simulation enroll in either the credit-granting course Humanitarian Studies: Theories and Practice, offered in January by both HSPH’s Department of Global Health and Population and Tufts, or The Humanitarian Studies Course, which is offered in April and is open to the public.

Mey Akashah, SM ’05, SD ’11 (second from left), and other militia members.
Photo: Patrick Holloway

After spending two weeks in the classroom learning the nuts and bolts of humanitarian work from conducting a rapid health assessment and managing the logistics of a field operation, to understanding human rights law and the drivers of gender-based violence, students discovered how difficult it can be to transfer classroom learning into practice in the field.

For the simulation, students were assigned to a non-governmental organization such as Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders and given responsibility for a task such as shelter or medical services. While spending the damp weekend camping and dining on field rations, the students worked in teams and in partnership with competing agencies to develop a service delivery plan for the refugees, who were played by volunteers.

HHI Program Coordinator Brian Daly with HHI’s Stephanie Rosborough, MPH ’06, who played the role of the director for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Photo: Patrick Holloway

“It’s one thing to have a plan on paper and another entirely to carry it out in the woods when you’re cold and miserable,” said HHI faculty member Stephanie Rosborough, MPH ’06, who serves as director of the HSPH-affiliated International Emergency Medicine Fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School. Rosborough directed the simulation for the first time this year and added new story elements such as a visit from a demanding celebrity humanitarian.

“Being out in the field is a really stressful situation. You live and work for 16-hour days with the same people for months at a time,” said Rosborough. “People go in expecting that you will have to meet the population’s overwhelming needs and that you will see hard things. But you don’t realize how important team work is and how hard it can be to maintain morale and keep everyone going in the same direction.”

The militia members added an element of chaos throughout the weekend, at times wreaking havoc with the teams’ well-orchestrated plans. For students aiming to work in countries such as Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, learning to safely interact with militia members is an essential skill. After each encounter, Akashah and the other experienced aid workers in the group critiqued the students’ performance, offering tips on how and when to give a bribe, and on the importance of keeping attitude in check during a potentially dangerous situation.

“Disaster relief is one of the few occupations that you can’t intern in,” said Nick Cooper, SM ’10, who took the course as a student and returned as a volunteer for the past two years. “The simulation allows you to acquire the knowledge and practical experience without endangering the lives of thousands of people.” Cooper currently serves as field study coordinator for the Haiti Child Protection Project at the Harvard University-wide François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights.

Stephen Morris, who is currently earning a MPH degree at HSPH through the International Emergency Medicine Fellowship, found the HSI course helpful even though he’s had years of experience as an aid worker in active conflict and post-disaster situations. “When you’re working out in the field, you tend to get very insular in the project you’re working on. It’s very easy to lose track of the bigger picture. The course helps you pull back and ask what has been shown to work, what is effective, and how can we work together as a team for a more cohesive effort.”

Recent alumni of the program are now employed as program managers and coordinators with international relief organizations such as the World Health Organization, Oxfam America, the International Rescue Committee and Save the Children.

— Amy Roeder (note: Roeder served as a militia member during the simulation)