Does the humanitarian community need a humanitarian academia?
by Peter Walker, Feinstein International Famine Center, Tufts University April 2004

For much of its short life, modern humanitarianism has been seen as a specialised arena in which various professions and services are practiced. More recently, however, the temptation, and maybe necessity, has grown to treat it as a profession in its own right. If humanitarianism is a profession, does it warrant an academic discipline?

What is a profession?

Today’s model for professionalism has at its heart individuals who try to provide an expert service. To do this, they need to be equipped with three things:

  • a solid set of values which are agreed upon by the profession;
  • a body of skills and knowledge accepted by the profession; and
  • a set of systems, organisations and administrations that allow the professional to provide his or her services reliably.

In the 1960s and 1970s, professionalism came under intense criticism for being elitist and decoupled from society. Professions have since come through this crisis – knowledge through action, and the use of reflection and intuition, is now recognised as essential to the pursuit of a profession. An art has been added to the science. Today, we expect professionals to be human; we expect them to relate to their clients, and to listen and learn from them.

If the client relationship represents the ‘downstream’ extension of the professional, then academia represents the ‘upstream’ source.

Professions need a repository for knowledge, a body that will teach and train new professionals and constantly try to push forward the frontiers of knowledge and practice in the profession. They need a yardstick by which to judge if new people seeking to enter the profession have a sufficient grasp of the values, knowledge and skills that lie at its heart. For most professions this upstream body is academia, with its ability to teach a set curriculum, award a qualification and carry out objective research.

Why view humanitarianism as a profession?

Is this a model for humanitarianism: a body of committed individuals with an agreed value set, knowledge and skills, providing services to clients whom they respect, treat with dignity and learn from, backed up by an academy that provides high-quality and consistent education, painstaking research and objective advice?

I believe this model works well, because it allows us to identify those things we need to preserve, and to see where the gaps are.

We have a core set of values: the notions of humanity, impartiality and independence run through all humanitarianism. We have a basic knowledge and skill set, captured in guidelines and field manuals, in the Sphere project and in International Humanitarian Law.

Downstream, we are at last starting to get serious about our relationship with our clients. The recent Global Study on Consultation of Affected Populations in Humanitarian Action, undertaken by the French research group Groupe URD under the auspices of ALNAP, points to the future, as does the creation and growth of the Humanitarian Accountability Project.

But what about upstream? How well is academia serving humanitarianism?

What does academia add?

Academia should add four things to humanitarianism.

  • First, a body of knowledgeable and skilful individuals carrying on relevant and essentially curiosity-driven research in order to enhance our understanding of the depth, breadth and complexity of the humanitarian field.
  • Second, a repository for knowledge, in the form of libraries, learned journals, databases and conferences.
  • Third, an ability to provide objective and critical advice, which is qualitatively different from that of private consultancies.
  • Finally, an ability to teach to a commonly accepted curriculum, allowing a student to graduate with a recognised and relevant qualification.

Academic research

Research in academia comes in two basic forms: that which is driven by curiosity, and that which is driven by the need to find answers to specific problems. Curiosity-driven research is traditionally seen as the purest and least susceptible to bias – one goes into a piece of research with no interest invested in any particular outcome. Problem-solving research is always open to the charge that researchers are looking for certain desirable end-states and certain desirable solutions, thus bringing an inherent bias to the work.

Which direction research takes is increasingly driven by how the research is funded. Curiosity-driven research has tended to be funded by the large national research councils and foundations, set up specifically to promote their own professions and disciplines. Humanitarianism is too young a discipline to have such institutional backing. Most research in humanitarianism is funded by agencies and foundations interested in particular problems. Often, the same agencies fund and implement humanitarian action.

In the past few years researchers, like operational agencies, have found themselves being drawn into contract rather than grant arrangements. This makes the role of academic research more valuable, as the academic environment, with its history of rigorous research, objectivity and professional checks, guards against bias and predetermined solutions.

Knowledge repository

Libraries, peer-reviewed journals, professional discussions in conferences, online journals and searchable databases all provide the basic academic backup to a profession. Once again, humanitarianism demonstrates its youthfulness. There is really only one dedicated peer-reviewed journal in humanitarianism – Disasters. There are on-line journals which accept papers on a non-reviewed basis – such as the Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, – and there are peer networks, like HPN and its websites and publications.

Humanitarianism is still reliant upon its grey literature: the reports, sitreps and other pieces which form the bedrock of study, but which are rarely published. Sites like Reliefweb, run by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, do an excellent job of providing access to a wide range of crisis-related reporting.

Of more interest to academics is the Forced Migration Online Project at Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre. This searchable database actively collects grey literature on humanitarian crises, refugee issues and complex emergencies, digitises it and makes it directly available to researchers through the project’s website, at

Academic and research associations and their related conferences are the mainstay of building an academic community in most disciplines. Humanitarianism has not got to this stage yet. There is no association of humanitarian researchers or academics and, although there are many subject-specific conferences to which academics are invited, there is no regular academic gathering on humanitarianism.

In May 2003, the Feinstein International Famine Center brought together scholars of humanitarian issues to review the standards, content and relevance of the academic programmes on offer, as well as the issues facing researchers in the field. The conference also considered the formal establishment of an Association of Humanitarian Scholars. The workshop made some progress, and its conclusions are available on the web (see

Academic advice

Academia plays a critical role in advising humanitarian practice. Often, agencies will choose to contract academics and academic bodies ahead of consultancies because of the more objective and rigorous approach they will bring to study (though often at the expense of rapid delivery). Academia needs these relationships to ensure that it stays in touch with the profession. Involvement in needs assessments, evaluations and field-based training is an essential knowledge-exchange mechanism for both the profession and academia.

Academic education

Finally, academia has a duty to provide the formal educational tools that allow humanitarianism to consistently obtain agreed-upon standards of values, skills and knowledge.

To date, most people practicing humanitarianism have come to it from other professions, from medicine, anthropology, accountancy or the military, for example. In effect, humanitarianism is a profession built upon other professions, and this is reflected in its educational structure.

Almost all formal academic degrees in humanitarianism are postgraduate Masters degrees. Many are derivatives of other degrees. Some courses are essentially variants upon disaster management, such as the Disaster Management Diploma at Wisconsin University, others are spin-offs of development studies degrees. Some, like the MA in Post War Recovery Studies at York University in the UK, are derived from the interests of a particular group of academics. Reliefweb provides a comprehensive listing of available degrees under its Humanitarian Assistance Training Inventory (see

Finally, there are a handful of degrees specifically tailored to provide a solid foundation in the theory and practice of humanitarianism. The Masters of Art in Humanitarian Assistance offered at Tufts University in the US is one such degree.

The Famine Center degree

The Master of Arts in Humanitarian Assistance is a one-year joint degree offered by the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at the Feinstein International Famine Center at Tufts. The programme is geared towards mid-career professionals who have significant field experience in humanitarian action. The programme’s mission is to offer an academic setting where professionals can further their knowledge and skills in the areas of nutrition, food policy and economic, political and social analysis as they relate to humanitarian action in famines, complex emergencies and other disasters.

There are eight courses. Three are mandatory courses:

  • Humanitarian aid in complex emergencies. This course puts complex emergencies and acute hunger situations within a global perspective.
  • Nutrition in complex emergencies: practice, policies and decision-making. This course examines the value of nutrition in humanitarian aid. It is meant to provide basic understanding and applied skills in nutritional and health issues affecting populations in complex emergencies.
  • Independent seminar in humanitarianism. This seminar analyses and synthesises the students’ field experiences.

In addition, one course is selected from the following:

  • Daily risks and crisis events: how people and planners cope with vulnerability.
  • Gender, culture and conflict.
  • International intervention for conflict prevention, conflict management and post-settlement peace-building.
  • International NGO management: tools and practice.
  • Seminar on global issues in forced migration.

Finally, students are allowed to choose up to four courses from within the available academic community in Boston.

Since its inauguration in 1999, students completing the degree have all returned to work in the humanitarian field at a higher level and with greater opportunities than before. The consistent offering of a recognised qualification is, we hope, making a substantial contribution to increasing the level of professionalism within the humanitarian endeavour.


Humanitarianism faces tremendous tests. Keeping true to our values and trying to constantly develop our expertise and ability to deliver assistance, protection and solidarity in crisis situations is an increasing challenge. A vibrant, critical and committed academic community is essential to supporting this endeavour, but it remains unclear whether staff, agencies and donors are really willing to move humanitarianism beyond an ad hoc arrangement to an internationally recognised profession and discipline.

Peter Walker is Director of the Feinstein International Famine Center at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University, Medford, MA, United States. His email address is

More information on the Famine Center’s Master of Arts in Humanitarian Assistance can be obtained by emailing, or by visiting

Related websites

The Sphere project: The Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP) International: The ICRC’s website on International

Humanitarian Law: The Global Study on Consultation of Affected Populations in Humanitarian


Disasters journal: The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance: Reliefweb: