31 October 2023

Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies

Interview with Professor Karl Blanchet, Director of the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies and Professor in Humanitarian Public Health at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Geneva on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the centre. The Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies is a joint research centre between the Geneva Graduate Institute and the University of Geneva.

The Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies, formerly known as CERAH, is celebrating its 25th anniversary as a joint centre of the Institute and the University of Geneva.

How has the Centre evolved over 25 years, especially in recent years since you took over as the Director of the Centre?

The Centre has evolved significantly during its 25 years of existence, and for good reasons. Humanitarian crises have transformed considerably during this period, as have the responses to these crises. The wars in Bosnia and later Kosovo left their mark on the sector by bringing to the forefront the political roles that humanitarian actors could play, despite their will. The genocide in Rwanda and the ensuing international response triggered a series of evaluations, making accountability and impact core concerns. Natural disasters like the tsunami and the earthquake in Haiti highlighted the limitations of external aid. Moreover, recent conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, Sudan, and now in Israel-Palestine, underscore the essential yet modest role of humanitarian actors in major political crises.

Our academic centre has always been rooted in practice, and its close relationship with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) over the past decade is excellent proof of this. Collaboration with the ICRC, MSF and now United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) enable us to develop research projects and teaching programmes aligned with the priority needs of affected populations. As an academic centre, we strengthen the capacities of humanitarian professionals through courses that draw on the research findings as well as the experience of practitioners.


What is the strategy of the Centre, both in terms of education and research?

Our strategy is to establish ourselves as a benchmark centre in the field of humanitarian studies teaching and research. In terms of education, we aim to remain flexible to enable professionals to acquire relevant skills, allowing them to respond as effectively as possible to new humanitarian crises and the needs that arise from them. This includes crises related to climate change, shifting population needs, more people-centred responses, and the effective incorporation of digital innovations.

In terms of research, particularly in the field of humanitarian health, we are trying to provide answers to the operational challenges faced by professionals. This involves prioritising the most effective interventions, testing innovative interventions, and evaluating the impact of their responses. Currently, we are working in Afghanistan to advise UNICEF on effective models for community health and primary healthcare. In Nigeria and Ethiopia, we focus on community mobilisation in vaccination programmes, and, in Ethiopia, we address diabetes and hypertension in humanitarian contexts.


What are the new challenges facing humanitarian aid, and how do you envision the evolution of the humanitarian aid sector?

I cannot predict how things will evolve, but there are a few trends in terms of challenges that I think are worth highlighting. In particular, local actors, whether from civil society or the public services, are most often the first on the scene to provide help. It seems extremely crucial to concentrate our efforts on empowering these actors with the knowledge and resources to respond promptly and effectively.

Another trend is the undeniable incapacity of the humanitarian system to address all the world's crises due to their multiplication and the increase in their intensity and scale. Humanitarian agencies will have to make difficult choices and prioritise crises where their actions provide the most added value. Another significant consideration is how to define "added value" – should it be determined by ethical, technical, political, or universal criteria? And should it be context-specific or universally applicable?

A major concern lies in the almost daily disregard for the International Humanitarian Law. The most recent example being the bombing of a hospital in Gaza resulting in 500 casualties or the killing of a thousand Israeli civilians in deadly attacks. Sadly, numerous examples exist in Sudan, Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, and Afghanistan. I fear that the lack of security guarantees for humanitarian workers will have long-term repercussions on the new generation of graduates, who may shy away from engaging in this field. Yet, we need these young graduates from universities to bring their knowledge, expertise, and fresh ideas to ensure that humanitarianism remains modern and relevant.



Enhancing knowledge. Inspiring change. Transforming humanitarian response.

The Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies

A joint Centre of the Geneva Graduate Institute and the University of Geneva, the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies is a unique teaching, research and humanitarian exchange platform for humanitarian action.