Intensive course trains humanitarians for the field

Students discuss the aid report they are planning
Students prepare an aid report during the simulation.

May 11, 2023—Ninety current and aspiring humanitarian workers spent a soggy weekend in April simulating a humanitarian response to a complex disaster and conflict situation. It was the culminating experience in a two-week professional development course offered by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s Humanitarian Academy. The group included graduate students from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and other schools, in addition to humanitarian professionals from around the world.

A group of students in a meeting. One man is holding up his hand.
Teams participate in a simulated UNOCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) meeting.

The goal of the course and the simulation exercise is to provide students with the practical skills and experience they’ll need to work in global crisis situations. For the weekend, Harold Parker State Forest in North Andover, Mass., was transformed into a border region beset by disease, food shortages, and violence. Students were divided into 15 teams representing international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and for the first time, local NGOs. Over the course of the exercise, the students put what they’d learned in the classroom into practice as they worked together to meet the needs of a vulnerable population. 

During the simulation, participants interacted with some 130 volunteers who role-played refugees, local government officials, media, and others whom students would likely encounter in the field. Volunteers included students from previous years who had since engaged in humanitarian work and returned to share their knowledge and experiences.

Read more about the humanitarian professionals who volunteered at this year’s simulation.

This was the first in-person simulation since 2019 and the 16th one conducted since the event’s launch in 2004. It was canceled in 2020 and 2021 and held virtually last year. 

A group photo of simulation participants.
Simulation participants

“Coming back after a three-year hiatus due to the COVID pandemic was a challenge,” said Stephanie Kayden, associate professor in the Department of Global Health and Population at Harvard Chan School and deputy chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who helped lead the simulation. “But we worked through the logistics and were grateful to find that many of our volunteers from previous years were eager to return and help. The simulation this year was like a big family reunion.”

Amy Roeder

Photos: Courtesy of Harvard Humanitarian Initiative

*This story was updated in October 2023.