The Diploma of Advanced Studies (DAS) in Humanitarian Action: a space for reflection


The Course Director of our Diploma of Advanced Studies (DAS) in Humanitarian Action, Professor Julie Billaud, explains what the course covers in terms of content, how it works in practice and what it offers to its participants.

Could you tell us what the course is about?

This Diploma aims to offer professionals and aspiring humanitarians a critical understanding of humanitarianism learning from various disciplines (history, anthropology, global health, law, international relations, and political sciences) and an ability to contextualise humanitarian action in today’s world. During the course, we explore various forms of “humanitarianisms” (faith-based, secular, grassroots) and their role in the way the world is governed today, as well as the political economy at play in relationships between affected populations, States, non-State armed groups, international organisations, and international and local non-governmental organisations. Our programme addresses the power dynamics embedded in past and present humanitarian interventions and the tensions and contradictions in human enterprises based on compassion and the desire to do the good in the world.

Which kind of “need” does the course cover?

Humanitarian professionals work in a fast-paced environment with little time to step back and reflect on their work. It is not uncommon that, after a few years of working in high-pressure, physically and psychologically demanding contexts, humanitarian professionals start experiencing a feeling of inadequacy, of being powerless when confronted with huge, often overwhelming crises. They start interrogating themselves about the very nature of “humanitarian action” and their role within it. They sometimes ask themselves if the idealistic objective of “making the world a better place” is actually achievable.

Our Diploma offers a space to pause and reflect on participants’ experiences. During the course, participants can step back and take the time to analyse their work. The course is often the only exposure they will have to critical thinking on humanitarian action. Our job is to equip them with the theoretical tools to be able to better understand the nature of humanitarianism, with all its potentials and limitations.

Additionally, humanitarian work is carried out in extremely complex and sensitive contexts that require in-depth, critical analysis. We help participants reach a more sophisticated, nuanced way of thinking, with less “black or white” assumptions and a more refined interpretation of the complex world we live in.

What happens in class?

We always have professionals from different backgrounds in class: from healthcare to engineering, from communications to project management. Another strength of this programme is the cultural diversity of our cohort. Each year we have participants from many different countries. Each of them brings their experience and their point of view on the topics discussed during the course and, as the course Director, I build on their experience to foster dialogue. Part of our objective is to deconstruct participants’ preconceptions. This, in practical terms, means exposing them to different points of view that sometimes challenge the cultural ideas in which they were socialised. For example, during one of the modules, we invited an anthropologist to talk about sex work. It was fascinating to see how participants slowly started to question their own definitions of love and relationships thanks to a respectful, engaging debate with the lecturer and their peers.

What is the benefit of taking the course in Geneva, the “capital” of the humanitarian world?

We want our participants to make the most of their time in Geneva, that’s why part of our programme is dedicated to external learning activities. This includes visits to NGOs and UN agencies headquarters, joining conferences, UN sessions and film festivals. We also offer networking opportunities by inviting in our classes experts working for various research and education institutions, NGOs and international organisations.

What kind of lecturer takes part in the course?

We expose participants to a variety of perspectives. Our participants discuss with anthropologists, global health experts, political scientists, economists, and policy experts from the academic and humanitarian sectors during the course. We also invite lectures covering topics that are not traditionally seen as belonging to the field of “humanitarian studies” but that bring an extra layer of understanding to the contexts in which humanitarians perform their work. This year, for example, I invited anthropologist Dennis Rodgers to talk about his long-term research with gangs in Nicaragua. The aim was to sensitise participants to the multiple correlations between violence, vulnerability and poverty.

How does the course work from a practical point of view?

The programme consists of five modules covering key debates in humanitarian studies. During the course, participants engage in a series of workshops designed to develop information-gathering and processing, critical thinking, analytical writing and networking skills. These workshops will help participants write three assignments that constitute the core of their final dissertation. The overall aim of the dissertation is to stimulate a critical and original reflection on issues linked to humanitarian action through specific writing exercises.

During the five modules, mornings are generally dedicated to the analysis of theoretical concepts and discussions of academic texts, while afternoons are usually spent conversing with module organisers on the topic discussed that day or working on case studies in small groups. Discussing real-case situations with experts enables participants to test the ideas and concepts they have learned and to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

The next edition of the DAS in Humanitarian Action starts on 8 September until 12 December 2022. Application deadline: 31 May 2022 for non-OCDE countries / 30 June 2022 for OCDE countries.

More information about the course and its programme is available here.