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Speakers Emphasize Awareness At Humanitarian Action Summit

Harvard Art Museums
The Harvard Art Museums.

Students, faculty, and researchers from Harvard and other institutions gathered Thursday at the Harvard Art Museums for the 2018 Humanitarian Action Summit hosted by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

With the stated aim of “shaping the future of humanitarian protection,” the summit included a keynote address on civilian and data protection by Yves Daccord, director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

After Daccord’s address, five speakers gave short “Ted Talk” style presentations on the theme of protection, with topics ranging from ebola and drones to toxicology. Speakers included senior leaders in humanitarian organizations such as the ICRC, the Palestinian Ministry of Health, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the HHI.

Established in 2005, the HHI is a University-wide academic and research program in humanitarian crisis and leadership, aimed at bringing together field experts, students, and faculty. Currently, 36 faculty collaborators, 16 research fellows, and a network of undergraduate and graduate students make up the initiative.

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In his welcome address, initiative director and Harvard Medical School Professor Michael J. VanRooyen emphasized the significance of the summit.

“Usually we bring Harvard to the world; in this case we’re bringing the world to Harvard,” VanRooyen said.

Noor Zanial, a graduate student at the School of Public Health, said she was interested in attending the summit because “a lot of the work that Harvard Humanitarian Initiative does is very relevant to my interests.”

Attendees said they were impressed by the variety of speakers and topics addressed.

“It was really nice to see how up to date they were in terms of how to deal with these conflicts and the work that needs to be done,” Zanial said.

Sarah Klem, also a student at the School of Public Health, said she similarly appreciated the range of speakers’ points of view.

“I like that there was people with a deep breadth of experience. It makes people seem more legit in that way,” Klem said.

Many attendees were highly conscious of staying informed in order to better mobilize their local communities. When asked about the best way to get involved in humanitarian work, Zanial mentioned “looking at the news and trying to stay up to date in terms of what’s going on in these conflict settings,” before “maybe going into research.”

School of Public Health student Marisa Bellantonio said she saw the first step to getting involved as “getting outside of your immediate bubble” and “getting perspective” so “you have some context from which to base everything off of.”

In his keynote speech, Daccord pointed out several global trends in humanitarian protection, including the rise of using detention as a deterrent to migration and how access to WiFi is becoming a humanitarian need rather than a luxury.

He also explained the emergence of what he calls the “Paradox of Accountability,” where people demand more accountability but there is an increasing element of distance in humanitarian aid, in which responsibility is transferred from international organizations to local groups.

Daccord said this trend was worrisome, because in order to provide effective protection, “we have to be close to where it happened.”

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