The Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies recently marked its 25th anniversary with a series of keynote speeches from esteemed academics and practitioners, highlighting the Centre’s interdisciplinary approach to humanitarian education. Prof. Yves Flückiger, Chancellor of the University of Geneva, and Prof. Joost Pauwelyn, Head of the International Law Department and Co-Director of the Centre for Trade and Economic Integration at the Geneva Graduate Institute, provided academic perspectives. Complementing them, Prof. Gilles Carbonnier, Vice-President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, brought a blend of academic insight and practical experience. These speeches, along with an insightful roundtable discussion titled ‘Addressing the aid experience: 25 years of Humanitarian Studies’, not only commemorated a significant milestone but also showcased the Centre’s pivotal role in shaping humanitarian education.
The roundtable brought together a diverse group of experts, including Dr Valérie Gorin, who moderated the discussion, Claire Hoang Sperandio of the International Committee of the Red Cross, William Empson from Médecins Sans Frontières Switzerland, Charles-Antoine Hoffman from UNICEF, and the Centre’s alumni: Mariam Ismail, Tala Ezz Edin, Arjun Claire, and Eric Wyss.
What is the value of humanitarian studies in a professional’s career?
The discussion initially delved into intricate questions surrounding the essence of humanitarian studies, probing into whether humanitarian experience can truly be taught or learned, evaluating the relevance of these studies in a professional’s career. Panelists from top international agencies unanimously emphasised the importance of the unique blend of theory and practice that defines humanitarian education and the necessity of academic training. Mrs Hoang Spreandio from the ICRC highlighted the significant investment in learning and development, emphasizing the importance of these initiatives in their operational framework. Similarly, Mr Empson shared the importance of the internal training portfolio that MSF Switzerland managed to build within the organisation.
Despite the existence of excellent internal programmes, both highlighted how external training programmes, like those offered by the Centre, complement in-house training by bringing a broader perspective, exposing professionals to global best practices, and fostering critical thinking skills that are essential in the ever-evolving humanitarian landscape.
Response to evolving Humanitarian crises
The conversation then traversed the dramatic shifts in the humanitarian landscape over the last 25 years, acknowledging how global crises have propelled the sector towards more structured and professionalised approaches. The evolving complexities and challenges faced by humanitarian professionals today demand a deep understanding of both the theoretical underpinnings and practical aspects of humanitarian work. In this context, our Centre plays a crucial role in providing comprehensive education, equipping practitioners with the necessary tools, knowledge, and skills to adapt and respond effectively to these changing dynamics in the field.
Dr Gorin elucidated the evolution of the Centre’s curriculum over the years, expanding from a foundational set of courses to an extensive range of certificates and short courses. These now address specific needs in areas such as protection, advocacy, humanitarian negotiation, sexual violence, and more recently, Digital Innovations, Planetary Health, and Accountability to Affected People. The panelists emphasised how the Centre’s course catalogue goes far beyond the scope of in-house training courses, highlighting once more its diversity and value in fostering critical thinking.
In line with adapting to modern needs, the Centre has embraced online learning, offering a range of courses accessible worldwide. This development was unanimously recognised by the panel as a crucial step in widening access to education, allowing professionals from various global locations to participate. However, they also stressed the invaluable experience of being on-site in Geneva.
Multicultural environment or the microcosm of the humanitarian field
The transition to discussing the Centre’s multicultural environment underscores its role as a microcosm of the global humanitarian field. Alumni shared their invaluable experiences in Geneva, highlighting how being physically present at the Centre offered them an unparalleled opportunity. They described engaging in rich, diverse discussions, not only within the classroom but also in the vibrant city of Geneva, known as the heart of international humanitarian action:
One thing I would say is that discussion did not end in the classroom. I remember how, during the ride from the class to our residence or the library, we would be still talking about some of the things we have learned. And there were times we would never agree on how we see a certain project design or a certain intervention we’ve studied in class. And it was really interesting because we had classmates from all over the world.Mariam Ismail (alumna 2013)
This physical immersion in a multicultural setting was seen as critical to their professional and personal growth, providing them with real-world insights and networking opportunities that online courses alone could not replicate, our alumni said.
They recounted how interactions with fellow students from various cultural backgrounds and professional experiences enriched their learning, mirroring the diverse nature of humanitarian work. This exposure to different perspectives and cultures in Geneva significantly enhanced their communication skills, cultural sensitivity, and ability to work effectively in diverse teams. Such experiences, they argued, were instrumental in preparing them for the realities of working in the humanitarian sector, where one must navigate complex cultural dynamics:
Eric Wyss (alumnus 2013)
The teaching programme and format highlight the localisation agenda promoted by the Centre, as mentioned by Professor Blanchet, in a final speech. This is a coherent strategy that is also reflected in the efforts invested in offering scholarships, making evidence and knowledge available to the highest number through open access scientific publication or the development of massive open access online courses (MOOC). These efforts will be extend in the coming years, as we realise how crucial it is for national responders to be equipped with the latest knowledge.