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Speakers address role of U. in aid efforts

A series of events emphasized the need for dedicated professionals in humanitarian aid

Humanitarian assistance in response to crises such as Hurricane Katrina and genocide in Darfur requires a coordinated and professional effort. In an inaugural University symposium Saturday, academics discussed the role of universities in addressing these situations.

“Social responsibility and social justice are in the blood of the Brown community,” said Edward Wing, professor of medicine and dean of medicine and biological sciences, in a speech at the symposium, entitled “Humanitarian Assistance at the Crossroads: Brown University’s Role in Improving Humanitarian Effectiveness.”

The symposium featured a number of speakers who had worked in disaster areas and refugee camps. Speakers examined several humanitarian crises and disaster responses of the last few decades.

Meygan Lackey ’15, a student on the Humanitarian Symposium Advisory Board, said the symposium was part of a “huge initiative to make humanitarian aid more effective.” The board aimed to “get a discussion started for making humanitarian assistance a profession, instead of something medical doctors are doing on the side,” she said.

Professionalizing the humanitarian workforce emerged as a key point of discussion. In the past, humanitarian efforts were ad hoc, and while medical professional volunteers may have been good at their individual jobs, they were not trained to work in the disaster zone environment, said Adam Levine, assistant professor of emergency medicine and an event organizer.

“We need to prepare people before they go out,” he said, adding that it is very different delivering medical care in a setting where a health care practitioner is being shot at compared to practicing in a traditional health care facility.

President Christina Paxson kicked off the conference with a brief survey of the University’s humanitarian collaborations.

“Humanitarian intervention was built into the original charter of the University,” Paxson said. “This emphasis has transferred into this century in an increasingly global way.”

Natural and humanitarian disasters “bring entire nations, rich and poor, to their knees,” she said, emphasizing the University’s role in spearheading humanitarian assistance through the expertise and contributions of alums, scholars and researchers.

In the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake in 2010, “help came pouring out” from the University community, Paxson said, noting the John Carter Brown Library’s effort to save the collection from the main Haitian library as it was collapsing. Wing similarly highlighted the humanitarian involvement of University students and faculty members in Kenya during election violence and the work of medical faculty members in various disaster-stricken areas.

The interdisciplinary aspect of humanitarian aid delivery is inherent in the field but usually less visible back at home, said Levine, who worked in South Sudan last summer. In South Sudan, the doctors set up a clinic while the engineers organized a water sanitation system, and social workers protected orphans as business people managed volunteers, he said.

“Back home, we all come back to our silo, to our own department … and that’s a problem,” Levine said. “We need to communicate on the research and training side as much as we do in the field.”

“People get sucked into their boxes, and it’s good to get people outside of them,” added Paula Kim, program assistant for the Global Health Initiative.

Jennifer Leaning, director of the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard and the symposium’s keynote speaker, examined the face of modern human rights disasters with a focus on forced movements of people.

The face of refugee camps — also known as temporary settlements — has changed considerably over the last several decades, Leaning said.

“I would put ‘temporary’ in quotes,” she said. In the past, refugee camps were quickly disintegrated, and displaced people were accepted by nations when conflict ended. But today, the mean length of a stay in a refugee camp is 20 years, Leaning said.

“The (UN Refugee Agency) was set up to be an emergency organization, and now it’s a custodial organization,” Leaning said. “It’s completely stripping their resources.”

Leaning outlined several of the major humanitarian crises of the recent decades. There are approximately 18 to 22 armed conflicts globally per year, with the majority lasting many years, she said.

Leaning emphasized the fact that 90 percent of war causalities in modern conflicts are civilians.

Civilians are targeted because aggressive groups are interested in capturing territory but are not equipped with the resources to maintain a long-lasting hold on captured land, she said. Populated land is more difficult to manage, “so the agenda strategy is to clear the land of people,” she said. “The way you clear the land is you strike terror, and people flee.”

During the ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian genocide, “forced migration was the name of the game,” Leaning said.

A conflict may end, but challenges perpetuate, Leaning said, clicking through her own photographs of mass graves in Afghanistan that were bulldozed by the government and citing landmine networks in post-conflict Angola. Leaning briefly touched on natural disasters as another cause of forced migration and added that these disasters are “only going to get worse because of climate change.” Hurricane Katrina caused huge numbers of people to leave New Orleans and resulted in a decrease of the city’s population by 100,000 people, she said.

Leaning’s talk was followed by presentations and a discussion by five panelists from a diverse array of fields, including medicine, economics and political science.

“Disasters are the gateway drug to global health,” said panelist Hilarie Cranmer, an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. “You see disasters, you learn lessons. … It makes you hungry for doing it right the next time.”

Cranmer, who has conducted medical work in a variety of disaster areas, said “the most high-maintenance person in a disaster is a doctor.” She emphasized the need to train medical professionals on working in disaster areas before they enter the scene.

Jennifer Chan, an assistant professor at Northwestern University, spoke on the subject of technology in post-disaster zones.

“A lot of local communities are left in the dark. The info doesn’t get to them, or they are unable to access communication channels,” Chan said.

This phenomenon is changing with the invention of innovative forms of communication like Twitter, which was used widely after the 2011 Japanese earthquake, she said. Radio has played a reliable role due to its durability and accessibility, while smartphones are also beginning to make their mark in disaster-zone communication, she said.

The diversity of the panelists was indicative of how “everything interconnects” when it comes to humanitarian work, said Angela Ramponi ’15, who served on the event’s board.

The event’s organizers hope to make the symposium an annual event. Levine said he hoped to develop a permanent humanitarian program at Brown, organize a course delineating the basics of humanitarian response and launch a student group focusing on ways undergraduates and medical students can engage in humanitarian efforts.

“This type of conference that emphasizes what we can do is important,” Paxson said. “Universities can be at the forefront of humanitarian assistance.”


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