Students learn humanitarian response skills during weekend simulation

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 learning how to provide aid during 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 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 militia violence. Students were assigned to 15 teams representing international non-governmental organizations such as ICRC and Save the Children, and for the first time this year, several local NGOs. Teams put what they learned in class into practice as they worked together to meet the needs of the affected population.

Throughout the weekend, students 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 have gone on to do humanitarian work and returned to share their knowledge and experiences.

This was the first in-person simulation since 2019. During the pandemic, simulation exercises were held over zoom and in a hybrid mode.

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, co-director of the simulation and associate professor in the Department of Global Health and Population at Harvard Chan School. “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