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How can academia support the humanitarian sector to develop capacity at the local level?


©ICRC, Burkina Faso, Barasalogho medical centre. A doctor whose team consults more than 150 children a day for cases of malaria and malnutrition.

The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) held in Glasgow put climate change in the spotlight. To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, every sector must contribute. The humanitarian sector is no exception and needs to monitor and mitigate the impact of its work on climate change too. Academic research and renewed education programmes can help.

A recent survey carried out by The New Humanitarian found that there is no standard way of measuring the impact of humanitarian programmes on climate change. It is a huge industry, which relies heavily on a massive logistics process to get aid to where it is needed, ensuring these choices and practices do not cause further damage to the environment and the planet. The survey notes that “aid workers have had a front row seat to witnessing and responding to disasters driven by climate change’’.

It is also well recognised and outlined in a recent Lancet Migration paper that climate change is detrimental to planetary health and disproportionately affects those most vulnerable. The paper explains that ‘’Faced with the consequences of disasters, conflict, resource and power inequities, and limited livelihood and service opportunities, large numbers of people are being displaced from their homes. Infectious diseases, access to food and water, sanitation and hygiene, safe housing and communities, injuries, and mental health are some of the many health issues encountered as a result of forced migration’’.

In recent years, there has also been various discussions about localising humanitarian programmes, meaning changing the balance of power and activities to where crises happen. However, although there was much talk about this at the World Humanitarian Summit and a pledge to direct 25% of funding to local organisations, progress towards this has been slow. Then, the COVID19 pandemic happened. It has forced humanitarian organisations to rethink how they carry out their programmes and has made organisations change their practices much quicker than planned. Some NGOs estimate their international human resources deployment was reduced by 80% during the pandemic, meaning a much greater reliance on national staff.

“This shift requires a huge effort to empower and train national humanitarian responders”, Professor Karl Blanchet, director of the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies, highlights. In addition, the humanitarian landscape is constantly changing and facing new challenges: a mix of protracted crises, record numbers of displaced people, more disasters triggered by climate change, and an increase in armed conflicts, to name just a few.

In this rapidly evolving landscape, how can we ensure that humanitarian workers receive relevant and continuous training?

Research-based education programme curriculums

Knowing what is happening in the field is essential to design and offer education programmes that are relevant to humanitarian responders. The Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies is hence implied in various operational research, Prof. Blanchet explains. For instance, diabetes is the “invisible” health condition in Afghanistan: the non-management of diabetic patients at primary health care has dramatic health consequences for patients such as amputations and represents significant extra costs for the health system. “This is one of the reasons why I was working with the Ministry of Health in Afghanistan on an Integrated Package of Essential Health Services (IPEHS) before the arrival of the Taliban”, Prof. Blanchet says. Some research is also being carried out on attacks on healthcare, closely with the research team at the Aga Khan University. According to WHO data, for the year 2020, 89 incidents were reported in 46 districts. “These incidents all vary by nature: facilities closed due to fighting, threats to health personnel, kidnapping and violence against health staff or looting of health centres”, Prof. Blanchet stresses.

With the takeover by the Taliban, the research work carried out by the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies had to adjust. Prof. Blanchet is hence taking part in the discussions on how to shape the future health system in the framework of provisional plans for the WHO and the World Bank to fund health facilities directly in Afghanistan.

Speeding up the localisation of humanitarian response

“It is only by being well anchored into the reality that you can reflect changing needs into both research and education programmes portfolio”, Dr Valérie Gorin, Head of Learning at the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies, points out. In this respect, academia can support the humanitarian sector to develop the capacity at the local level for more effective aid, and hence playing an active catalyst role in local capacity strengthening and support for localisation to happen. “As we move forward and adapt to our changing environment, more and more training programmes are being held within regional hubs in Africa and the Middle East, which also implies working closely with humanitarian partners. Localised training is the way forward.” A residential course in Uganda has, for instance, been developed in partnership with the UN Refugee Agency, Refugee Law Project, International Committee of the Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders on addressing sexual violence in conflict and emergency settings. Distance learning also has a role to play, with people having less time to study and needing more flexible study options.

In consultation with local academic institutions, humanitarian organizations, and local expert organizations on the ground, the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies is designing education programmes that fit the local context and learning culture, meet local and national needs, and are delivered closer to where humanitarian staff operates. “When the local capacity is in place, the humanitarian sector as a whole can perform better and be more effective in aid and help end the need for humanitarian response in the long term, hence contributing to addressing global challenges as climate change”, Prof. Blanchet also concludes.

This article has first been published in the NewSpecial Magazine (2021 december edition).