What you'll learn

  • Legal and historical frameworks shaping the professionalization of the humanitarian field
  • An applied understanding of the principles guiding humanitarian response and the tensions that arise when operationalizing these principles in modern crises
  • How to recognize and adapt to major trends affecting the scope and implementation of humanitarian work

Course description

From the Syrian refugee crisis to the West Africa Ebola outbreak, humanitarian emergencies have reached unprecedented dimensions and proportions. As need for humanitarian aid grows, how can efforts to alleviate human suffering evolve with it?

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This course from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and HarvardX seeks to prepare learners to recognize and analyze emerging challenges in the humanitarian field. The course explores the ethical and professional principles that guide humanitarian response to conflict and disaster. Participants will learn the legal and historical frameworks that shaped these principles, test their applicability to the challenges faced by humanitarian actors today.

Through four case studies covering the responses to crises in Goma (Zaire), Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Pakistan, participants will engage with Harvard faculty, current practitioners, and one another. These cases introduce major trends affecting the current landscape of humanitarian response – including rapid population displacement, violence against aid workers, and civil-military engagement. Thoughtfully engaging with this course will prepare participants to be informed and aware humanitarian practitioners, scholars, policy-makers, and global citizens.


  • Portrait of Jennifer Leaning
    Director, François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard University
  • Portrait of Michael VanRooyen
    Director, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative; Professor, Harvard Medical School; Professor, Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard University

Associated Schools

  • Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

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