Principles, challenges of offering humanitarian aid are focus of new online course

Participants in the 2016 RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) disaster relief simulation in July, shown here at a humanitarian-military coordination meeting, included Julia Brooks (far right) and Vincenzo Bollettino (center, standing, grey and white shirt) of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and David Polatty of the U.S. Naval War College (rear, center, green shirt).

August 8, 2016 — A new free online course from Harvard University will explore the principles guiding humanitarian response to modern emergencies as well as the challenges faced by responders when providing aid.

Humanitarian Response to Conflict and Disaster—offered through HarvardX, the University’s branch of the online education platform edX—begins August 30, 2016. Already, more than 9,000 students from 175 countries have enrolled.

Through interviews, discussions, and case studies, the course will cover topics such as rapid population displacement, violence against civilians and aid workers, civil-military engagement, and neutrality of humanitarian workers during combat. The course will be co-taught by Jennifer Leaning, François-Xavier Bagnoud Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights and director of Harvard’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, and Michael VanRooyen, chair of emergency medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI). Other course contributors will include experts from Harvard, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Oxfam America and the U.S. Naval War College.

“From the Syrian refugee crisis to the West Africa Ebola outbreak, humanitarian emergencies have reached unprecedented dimensions and proportions,” said VanRooyen. “This course is designed to raise the bar for leaders in the humanitarian field, in policy roles, and in the armed services who will face increasingly difficult challenges while serving vulnerable populations around the globe.”

VanRooyen and his team at Harvard have responded to some of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history—in Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

One of course’s emphases is on improving interactions between humanitarians and the military during emergency responses, because these sometimes precarious partnerships have grown in importance over the years, according to Benjamin Davies, senior program manager at HHI and one of the course’s designers.

“Historically, humanitarians and military personnel do not have many opportunities to share information in order to improve coordination during disasters,” said Davies. “It is critical to raise the level of discussion, which means getting the right people in the room to speak frankly about their experiences.”

David Polatty, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College who recently helped create that institution’s new Civilian-Military Humanitarian Response Program, agreed. “We are at a critical moment in history where international militaries and humanitarian organizations find themselves challenged by a seemingly insurmountable number of conflicts and humanitarian crises, with over 65 million people currently displaced across the globe,” he said. “Militaries are going to be interacting with the international humanitarian system more and more moving forward. Innovative educational programs that can be accessed by civilian and military responders around the world are going to be absolutely crucial to help us improve coordination and collaboration, so we can more effectively solve complex problems and ultimately alleviate suffering.”

Register for “Humanitarian Response to Conflict and Disaster” at!

photo: Benjamin Davies/Harvard Humanitarian Initiative