Jennifer Leaning
Visiting Scholars and Scientists

Jennifer Leaning

Senior Research Fellow

FXB Center


My academic focus has centered on exploring the ways in which civilians in war and crises can be protected from the extremes of suffering and assault. A related area of research and policy interest has been to define and apply the concept of human security in pre- and post-conflict settings. I have translated my evolving understanding of these issues into efforts at Harvard to build academic programs that will embed attention to the humanitarian impact of conflict and disaster in productive and stable systems of education and inquiry.

I have undertaken research on protection of civilians by drawing from the fields of human rights, international humanitarian law, and public health to construct a theoretical and policy framework that supports and amplifies the humanitarian enterprise. My basic findings are derived from empirical field investigations and population-based surveys as well as from archival and documentary research in the general area of the humanitarian impact of past major crises and the success or failure of previous efforts to provide humanitarian relief. My research suggests that it may be possible to reduce human suffering in acute and chronic crises by appropriate policy and operational attention to promotion of human dignity, technically and socially adept provision of relief and stability supports, and consistent adherence to international legal norms in war. Major categories of this research include:

a) the management of major disasters (with particular focus on acute medical and public health decision-making in domestic and international settings);
b) the population and environmental effects of the means and methods of war (with particular focus on grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, mass atrocities, genocide, landmines and unexploded ordnance, and weapons of mass destruction); and
c) the demography of forced migration (with particular attention to the 1947 Partition of India—the largest and least explored instance of forced migration in the 20th century—as well as investigations into more recent instances of population displacements in the Balkans, Darfur, and Democratic Republic of Congo).

My second main area of research and policy formulation is on human security. Here my efforts have centered on the definition and application of this concept in countries emerging from major disaster or conflict and in oppressive regimes where early warning of impending conflict may prove useful to the international community. My research and writing on this topic have advanced a psychologically grounded notion of human security, one that extends beyond the provision of core human needs and protection from acute harm to the creation of supports for home, community, and a sense of hope in the future. This work has proved useful to USAID in forming its development strategy for societies in transition and has served as the basis for my assessments of early warning in crisis settings and critiques I have advanced of post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The third area of my work has been to create educational programs and initiatives that will allow my colleagues and me to build an ongoing platform for training the next several generations of researchers, analysts, and practitioners in the field of humanitarian response. Over the past 15 years I have developed a number of new courses in disasters, war, and human rights and have established, with the engagement of others, a certificate training program at the Masters level in humanitarian studies (involving Harvard, MIT, and Tufts). My work with a broad range of civil society organizations and initiatives has given me access to and familiarity with humanitarian and development initiatives around the world. In this past year, with my colleague Michael VanRooyen as co-director, we have set up the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, a university-wide program that brings the faculties and students of Harvard University and the affiliated hospitals into a networked research and training approach to the field of war and disasters. My participation in leadership roles in a variety of programs within the University (Chair of the Executive Committee of the Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research Program at the Harvard School of Public Health, Education Director for the International Emergency Medicine and Health program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Senior Advisor for International and Policy Studies at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study) and in external settings domestically and internationally supports my negotiation across boundaries and disciplines to gather the best possible talent for taking this humanitarian training effort far into the future.


COVID-19 vaccines for Palestinians.

Watt G, Giacaman R, Zurayk H, Bjertness E, Holmboe-Ottesen G, Ghattas H, Nuwayhid I, Leaning J, Yudkin JS, Elessi K, Sullivan R, Afifi R, Khader YS, Shannon HS.

Lancet. 2021 02 13. 397(10274):579. PMID: 33516283


Vaccinating in conflict zones

Hammering out temporary ceasefires in conflict zones will be necessary to vaccinate enough people against COVID-19 so that the pandemic can be brought to an end, according to humanitarian professionals.

Stories from Aleppo: Medical workers under siege

March 23, 2017 – The stories told by health workers from Syria were heartbreaking. They spoke of making desperate attempts to save people injured in a chemical attack on a hospital… of struggling to save people’s eyesight after…