Professor Doris Schopper , CERAH Director and Professor at the Faculty of Medicine, UNIGE
In the 1990s, in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide and the ensuing mass mobilization of new humanitarian actors, the need to ‘professionalize’ humanitarian action emerged. With it emerged a range of efforts in setting joint standards, developing guidelines, and training programmes. There simply were no academic courses on humanitarian action, but thanks to the vision of two University of Geneva professors, Timothy Harding and Jean-Jacques Wagner, a first post-graduate training in humanitarian action was delivered in 1998. Ten years later, a formal partnership between the University of Geneva and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies strengthened the CERAH as a centre devoted to the development of critical thinking and analysis to enhance the quality of humanitarian response, through both education and research.
Now twenty years on, the CERAH has become a true reflection of the current humanitarian world in all its diversity – of actors, approaches, and cultures – with increasingly complex realities. Each year, more than 200 humanitarian professionals join our programmes – from Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, South Sudan, Mali, Kenya, and Mexico, to name but a few – bringing a wealth of shared experience. This diversity is reinforced by our collaboration with many humanitarian partners, including the ICRC and MSF, who have been committed to the CERAH since its inception.
The interactive dynamics of our courses push participants to reflect on their practice in humanitarian action, critically analysing the profound changes it is facing. Time and again, I am struck by the commitment and profound sense of humanity of our students, also sensing how difficult it may be at times to retain the essence of what it means to be a humanitarian professional in the midst of profound political, societal, and technological changes, compounded by a looming climate disaster. In the 1970s, humanitarian action was mainly seen as the ’selfless’ helping of others. In the 1990s, after the end of the cold war, humanitarian action became ever more an instrument of politics and power, with the politicization and militarization of humanitarian aid fiercely debated.
Today, humanitarian action is criminalized: rescue of refugees crossing the Mediterranean is a criminal act; people seeking refuge in Europe are imprisoned in Hungary with no access for humanitarian organizations; hospitals are bombed because they provide care to those affected by conflict. On the flip side, scandals of abuse and exploitation by humanitarian actors require very serious attention and redress.
Despite this political cynicism and justified calls for reform, the humanitarian aid sector can and should fundamentally believe in working to relieve the suffering of others. This implies that in the ‘other’ we do not see a stranger, but a fellow human being, a member of a common community, worthy of humane treatment. Humanity, the underlying principle of all humanitarian action, is thus to be defended against all odds, providing an ethical compass in troubled times. The CERAH is committed to learning all we can from the past 20 years, responding to the current rapidly evolving humanitarian sector, and continuing our mission to help elevate today’s and tomorrow’s humanitarian professionals and leaders through academic training and research.
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