Desire to Help, Short on Time: Harvard’s Free Online Class for Humanitarians

Marcy Franck
Jan 27, 2018 · 4 min read

For professionals seeking new perspectives and concerned citizens pursuing a deeper understanding of humanitarian issues.

Imvepi Refugee Camp, Northern Uganda. 23 June 2017. UN Photo by Amanda Voisard.

From wildfires and hurricanes in the United States to civil wars and displaced populations in Syria and Myanmar, disasters and conflicts are on the rise. As the need for humanitarian aid grows, how can efforts to alleviate human suffering evolve with it? This is the question the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) explores in its online course, Humanitarian Response to Conflict and Disaster, free to everyone through the HarvardX platform.

Short video about the course.

Learn from Harvard faculty at your own pace

The course also features a lively discussion forum that connects learners with diverse experiences and viewpoints from over one hundred countries, many of whom are working in the field or have witnessed firsthand the impacts of humanitarian crises.

HHI first ran the course last year, when over 20,000 students from 178 countries brought their unique perspective to course discussions.

“Since we launched the course last year, we’ve had a tremendous response from individuals across sectors who want to be involved in humanitarian response,” said Theresa Lund, Executive Director, HHI. “We’ve seen natural disasters and conflicts become increasingly complex, and it is critically important for humanitarian responders to understand the challenging questions that arise in the field, and to gain knowledge of the humanitarian community’s past failures and successes in addressing these dilemmas.”

Lifting the taboo: Practitioners on hard lessons learned

Dr. Kayla Enriquez and Dr. Parveen Parmar among others share lessons learned from their time in the field.

While the nature of the field makes it difficult for humanitarian staff to speak candidly within and between aid organizations, this course features interviews with practitioners who offer remarkably frank and insightful reflections on the challenges they’ve encountered on the ground.

One former course participant used what he learned last year to guide his work in response to the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh.

Shashanka Saadi is head of the Emergency Preparedness & Response Program for the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC). As someone with 17 years of experience aiding populations impacted by natural disasters and conflict, Saadi says that the course has given him confidence to navigate the unique circumstances in Bangladesh, where over 655,000 refugees have arrived since August 2017.

“I used the course information to build capacity of my team members and colleagues,” he said in a conversation via email. He was also able to translate the lessons into action by recognizing “what we can do better in terms of quality, effectiveness, and impact … I am relieved I took the course last year.”

Meet this year’s cohort

One student recently joined from Malaysia and explained in his introduction that he wants to understand humanitarian response in light of the world’s rise in terrorism, extreme weather, and epidemic outbreaks.

Similarly, a student from Nigeria recognized an escalation of local insurgency in his own area and a related rise in humanitarian engagement in the region. He is an accountant by trade, but is taking the course to better address the challenges that surround him.

This class is a worthwhile time investment for professional humanitarians and anyone seeking a deeper understanding of humanitarian response efforts. Humanitarians participating in a relief effort often see only a small piece of a much larger system at work. Gaining a better understanding of guiding principles, in addition to hearing from practitioners who speak candidly about their hardest lessons learned, will help humanitarian teams work more effectively, which in the end will help more people.

Learn more and register

Marcy Franck shines a spotlight on ordinary people working tirelessly to help refugees and provides practical ways for you to help, too. Find her on Facebook, where she posts stories of hope from those who are there to help.

Marcy Franck

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I shine a light on people working tirelessly to help refugees, and provide ways for you to help, too.