A new way of teaching new humanitarians

Credit: Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies/Sian Bowen

The Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies (GCHS) launches its updated take on humanitarian education.

As humanitarians change the way they work, the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies (GCHS) is changing the way they learn.

The academic and research centre, which has just shed its former name, Centre for Education and Research in Humanitarian Action (CERAH), is taking a different tack in its approach to teaching.

“There’s a lot of debate in the humanitarian sector about localisation, about racism, about decolonizing the sector,” Professor Karl Blanchet, director of GCHS, tells Geneva Solutions. “Covid has highlighted the need for change.”

For instance, many courses have been completely revised to teach a new generation of humanitarians about issues that have been brought into sharp focus by the pandemic, such as gender-based violence and attacks on healthcare. And the new name puts emphasis on the international city that is home to the centre.

“A lot of international decisions and international policies are decided in Geneva, so it's very important for us to be here,” says Blanchet. The Center has always been dedicated to tapping the expertise across Geneva's international community, especially the many humanitarians at work across the city.

That's been made more difficult this year, as educational institutions around the world adapt to restrictions prompted by Covid-19, finding ways to connect with students while keeping them safe.

In some ways, the pandemic has helped the centre. More flexible schedules and the opportunity to study from anywhere means more international students - including many frontline workers - take part in courses, Blanchet says. The Center has also opened a number of scholarships to refugees.

Such a “decentralised” approach to teaching reflects changes in the humanitarian sector overall, he says. Those include emphasising international solidarity and the importance of local humanitarian action, which Blanchet says the Center will emphasise in its new approach.

“There are a lot of changes in the humanitarian sector, and what we've realised is 80 percent of frontline workers are local actors - they are local NGOs, people working in public services, and they are national people affected by the crisis,” he says.

“These people do not have access to evidence and the latest knowledge on humanitarian assistance. So what we want to do is to make sure that…access to our courses is available to people working at the frontline, and the way to do it is going to be offering blended learning. ”

Online courses will be combined with in-person practical, on the ground exercises, allowing humanitarians to apply their knowledge to real life situations. The centre has already partnered with universities in Kenya and Jordan and hopes to connect with more national organisations to emphasise the importance of local perspectives in humanitarian work.

The centre will take advantage of its mixture of academics and practitioners from around the globe to stage events on humanitarian topics. The aim is to foster debate and encourage people across international Geneva to work together to find solutions to humanitarian crises.

“One of the key objectives is to influence international policies and practices,” says Blanchett. “We really want to make sure we can improve all of that, and people who make decisions get access to the right evidence-based information.”