International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA)

February 1, 2010
By Dorothea Hilhorst, Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction, Wageningen University and General Secretary of IHSA, and Alex de Waal, Program Director at the Social Science Research Council, New York and President of IHSA .

The field of humanitarian studies – the study of how humanitarian crises evolve, how they affect people, institutions and societies, and the responses they trigger – is growing exponentially. The International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) was established in February 2009 to promote dialogue between policy actors, implementing agencies, academics, consultants, policy researchers, and reflective practitioners, engaged in the study of humanitarian crises caused by natural disaster, conflict or political instability.

Addressing a range of different disciplines – including international relations, international law, development studies, anthropology, conflict studies, public health and forced migration studies – the association provides a platform for debate amongst the broader humanitarian community.


Humanitarian studies: a growing field

Since the early 1990s, the nature and discourse of humanitarian crises have evolved from post-Cold War optimism to the analytical challenges posed by the numerous intra-state conflicts of the 1990s, followed by the Global War on Terror and its associated conflicts. Perceptions that disasters occur rarely and without warning, have also changed over the years. Recurring floods and droughts, exacerbated by climate change, have highlighted the often cyclical and chronic nature of disaster.

Humanitarian crises can be triggered by conflict, political instability or natural hazards. Their causes are shaped by political, economic and social processes and international developments. In turn, crises also profoundly affect societies, as studies of the political economies of crisis have concluded. Livelihoods are disrupted, large-scale migration is triggered or increased and wide-spread violence causes death, destruction and lasting trauma. International and local power relations and institutions are reconfigured as well. Response mechanisms have likewise undergone rapid developments. Communities in crisis develop peace initiatives and disaster risk reduction strategies. Donor governments have increasingly promoted “integrated” responses, combining diplomatic, military and development initiatives. New judicial instruments have also been developed, such as the International Criminal Court of Justice and UN-Resolution 1325 which promotes women’s leadership in the resolution of crises. In the domain of natural disasters, we see a mounting attention to disaster preparedness and climate change adaptation.

The IHSA seeks to address the gap between research focusing on international interventions, including humanitarian assistance, and research that aims to unravel the dynamic processes of societies undergoing crises.

Areas of interest to IHSA include:


  • causes, dynamics and effects of humanitarian crises;
  • politics and discourses of humanitarian crises;
  • responses to crises: local responses, political, military and humanitarian interventions;
  • humanitarian response policies, programmes and organisations;
  • policies and practices of disaster preparedness and early warning
  • policies and practices of rehabilitation, and the linkages with development, peacebuilding, and security;
  • legal issues pertaining to humanitarian affairs;
  • experiences and lifeworlds of affected communities, refugees and internally displaced people, and the refugee regimes employed towards them.


IHSA membership

To enhance the alignment between humanitarian knowledge, policy and practice, IHSA welcomes consultants, policy researchers, and reflective practitioners among its membership. An important objective of the IHSA is to organize and convene, biennially, the World Conference of Humanitarian Studies and to promote relevant, good quality publications.

The next World Conference of Humanitarian Studies will be held in June 2011 in Boston, USA. It will be hosted by the Feinstein Center, Tufts University, in collaboration with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, the Social Science Research Council and the School of International and Policy Affairs at Columbia University. To attend the next World Conference(s) of Humanitarian Studies for a reduced fee, then please become a member of IHSA by visiting the website (  Membership is free until May 2011.


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