Les articles de nos expert-es

A Centre in Geneva to promote the use of evidence in humanitarian action


The new Geneva Centre for Humanitarian Studies (former CERAH) intends to build more bridges between research conducted around the world on humanitarian action and the practitioners working on the frontline. Professor Karl Blanchet, who was appointed as the new director of the centre in September 2020, has just launched a new branding for this UNIGE-Graduate Institute joint center. Karl presents his vision of tomorrow’s higher education in a humanitarian context.

Karl Blanchet

Prof. Karl Blanchet, Director of the Geneva Centre for Humanitarian Studies

Par Brigitte Perrin, UNIGE

« We do not expect humanitarian practitioners to become researchers, that’s not what they need. But it has never been so important for people working in the field to understand and use evidence generated by top-universities », stated Karl Blanchet, the Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Studies. He just unveiled a new name, a new identity and a brand-new vision for the former Centre for Education and Research in Humanitarian Action (CERAH). This Center, created in 2008 by the University of Geneva and the Graduate Institute, had the objective to offer high-level, continuous education for humanitarian practitioners.

Increase access to education to frontline workers

The new name reflects a new vision for the Centre: “We are currently assessing how to transform our courses to increase access and availability of this knowledge to frontline humanitarian workers and organisations”, explains Karl Blanchet. “The humanitarian system is changing very fast. We need to be agile and respond in time with the right intervention, and this is getting more and more complicated”. Flexibility is key not only in terms of format of the courses by offering distance learning courses organised in Kenya and Jordan; but also in terms of length and focus: short courses on specific disciplines like sexual violence, communication, climate emergency and negotiation are providing humanitarian workers with the knowledge they need at a specific moment, but it also gives them the opportunity to question their practice, listen to local lecturers and professionals, and to take the time to read scientific literature. When they complete one course, they can join another one, or apply to one of the diploma programmes (Executive Master, Diploma or Certificate). The key objective is to encourage a critical assessment of humanitarian practice in order to improve humanitarian response globally. We shouldn’t forget that 90% of the humanitarian responders are national staff.

“In such a stressful environment, people need to pause at some point”

Karl Blanchet spent half of his career in international NGOs, notably at Handicap International (HI), where he was the Director of the UK office back in 2005. Before, he worked in the field in Sarajevo, Rwanda, Somalia, Cambodia and West Africa. “After these years spent working on humanitarian response, I felt the need to refresh my knowledge and I started a Master in Public Health in Developing Countries at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) What surprised me the most at that time is how little evidence was used by NGOs.” After being the Director of HI, Karl went on for a PhD on the topic “How to measure the sustainability of programmes when there is so much turnover of staff and funding is unpredictable”. The Swiss Red Cross funded his research in Ghana. “This research gave me a sound understanding of the professionals’ constraints. When working in such a stressful environment, people need to pause at some point, to find sense in what they are doing, and then they need to be able to start again, being fresher. This is exactly the time when professionals need to enroll in continuing education. It is an individual journey.”

Making sure evidence research will be used by policy makers

After his time spent on his PhD, Karl worked at LSHTM for almost 15 years, first as a lecturer, then as the Director of the Health in Humanitarian Crises Centre. After convincing his hierarchy, he started a fellowship at IHEID to start engaging in policy dialogues with WHO, MSF, ICRC, UNFPA and other international organisations in Geneva. His objective was to make sure evidence developed in London would be used by policy makers here in Geneva. That is how he came across the Centre’s job vacancy for a new Director. “We want our course participants to be able to search in a research database, write something that is evidence-based, and well argued. They should be able to navigate research and access to the right experts who have digested the evidence. Finally, they need to know where to look for the latest evidence”, explains Karl Blanchet.

“Back in 2016, The World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul focused on localisation of aid, recalls the Director. The conclusion was that we should invest more on local actors. We have, consciously or not, failed to do it. Our Centre now aims to become an example of how to invest in local actors, both by what we teach and the way we teach. Our motto for the coming years is to be an instrument in the localisation of humanitarian aid through increasing the number of lecturers coming from affected countries, the organisation of free webinars, building online platforms to contribute to promote global knowledge, and invite more international actors to policy dialogues. The location of the Center at the heart of International Geneva is of course a clear advantage to achieve this”

A new focus on Health

The Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies is currently developing a range of new courses addressing health issues and is planning to foster interdisciplinarity, notably with the UNIGE Institute of Global Health (ISG), to ensure all the participants get at least some knowledge in Public Health. “The past few months have shown the impact of a pandemic on the delivery of essential health services”, stresses Karl Blanchet. “We therefore decided to build a humanitarian platform (see box) with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of public Health and tLSHTM to share scientific resources with field workers around the world.”

In the future, Karl Blanchet wants to develop further synergies with top universities and other disciplines (Translation, History, Management, Protection and Law etc.). French adaptation of some courses for humanitarian workers located in West-African countries is also part of his long-term projects. “Little by little we hope to gain legitimacy in research and become a magnet for other humanitarian initiatives, in Geneva or elsewhere in the world”.

More info: Geneva Centre for Humanitarian Studies