MA Humanitarianism and Conflict Response, December 2019
What inspired you to study this course?
Now more than ever, a deep understanding of the causes and factors behind human displacement, migration, war, violence and climate change, beyond that of simple narratives presented by the media, and those spun with ulterior motives, appears critical. Since 2015, the Syrian refugee “crisis” and the onset of a hostile environment in the UK has led to divisiveness and aggression, whereas humanitarianism maintains its core principle of ‘humanity’.
Having spent a year overseas as Project Trust volunteer, on a teaching project in eSwatini (the country formerly known as Swaziland), I experienced first-hand the workings of ‘international development’ and the realities of aid in the continent of Africa. I wanted to understand this experience further by pursuing studies beyond my English/History undergraduate degree and the Humanitarianism and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester appeared the best place to get a critical understanding of modern-day humanitarianism. The institute evaluates best practice across the ‘humanitarian system’ as well as its history, critiquing the workings of aid throughout time, from colonialism to modern-day ‘paternalism’.
I was inspired to study this course because of its interdisciplinary approach, with the HCRI academics and partner organisations following the same ethos as what I learned on my training with Project Trust. This was that in order to be a ‘global citizen’, you must continually reflect on your experiences, questioning what you are doing and if it is to the benefit of the recipients of aid. At Project Trust, we were encouraged to adopt a process of learn, think, act – to evaluate and consider situations before going ahead with them. The master's course presented an opportunity to do this on macro-scale, by looking at the overall humanitarian industry. I knew I could advance my learning and get an appreciation of the complexity and politics of war, aid, famine and disease, whilst allowing me to incorporate my experiences of working alongside local communities on a twelve-month placement.
How was your Project Trust experience relevant to this course?
This course allows you to consider how history, politics and most especially culture, must be considered before enacting a humanitarian ‘intervention’ or project. By living in eSwatini for a year, running a community pre-school in a rural area with no running water or electricity, and a soup kitchen for children whose parents had been affected by the HIV/AIDs epidemic in eSwatini, I came to an understanding of the complexity of conducting a charitable project. Many things must be considered, and a continual process of reflection must be enacted. Project Trust ensured we followed, and benefitted from, such a process through completing modules throughout the year and working towards a Diploma in international volunteering. When I came to do the masters programme, learning alongside nurses who had responded to the recent Ebola epidemic, volunteers who had been in the ‘Calais Jungle’ and humanitarians who had years’ worth of experience ‘in the field’, I was able to confidently contribute to our debates and discussions having had my own experience of living and volunteering overseas for an extensive period of time.
How have the skills and knowledge gained on the course helped you in your current role/career progression?
This course allowed me to explore past and contemporary humanitarian crises and critically analyse them from the perspectives of donors, beneficiaries and wider populations. In this way, I have gained an appreciation and understanding of complexity within various contexts. This has helped me gain a job as a research assistant, where I will be researching issues of social justice in the UK since I now have a greater understanding of how policy must have an appreciation of intersectionality and how various groups and individuals may be affected negatively by seemingly benign initiatives.
During this year on the MA programme, I also used the opportunity to enhance various skills by getting involved in various extracurricular activities. This included being the postgraduate lead student and Programme Director for the ‘Young People in Humanitarianism Conference’. This involved organising a day for year 7 and year 8 students from the Greater Manchester area to come to the University for a day of workshops on the topics of: refugees; human rights; disasters and climate change. This experience helped me improve my organisational, communication and public speaking skills.
What is your current role and what do you enjoy the most about it?
I have just started as a Research Assistant in the Department for Social Justice at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, based in London. The work involves researching various social justice issues in the UK; incorporating the experiences and knowledge of Catholic chaplains within prisons, health-care institutions, schools and universities, etc (who have insight into the workings, and often failings, of these institutions); and using theological reflection to lobby MPs and fashion public policy towards a more equitable and sustainable future. I enjoy the variety of projects that I can work on (from Healthcare, Mental Health, Life Issues, Domestic Abuse and more) and that I am able to utilise my Project Trust and HCRI experiences to work towards fairer policies, within the UK, that take a person-centred approach for people within and outside the country.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to follow in your footsteps?
I would say that I definitely benefitted from taking the process of learn, think, act seriously throughout my Project trust year, undergraduate degree and masters programme. Learning is sometimes uncomfortable but self-awareness is crucial in order to realise how your perspective of the world is shaped by various factors and your life experience. For humanitarians it is crucially important not to be naïve, most especially because this work is inevitably in high-intensity, precarious and insecure environments. Therefore, I took my studies very seriously, tried to read as much as possible and discuss with people from various walks of life the topics I was studying in order to appreciate a variety of perspectives.
I would also say, despite a master's being a very demanding experience, it is very beneficial to get involved with as much as possible whilst still at university. Through HCRI I was able to volunteer at the UK’s largest full-scale disaster exercise, and see humanitarians in action, training for real emergency response scenarios. I also took the opportunity, confident in my experience and growing level of expertise, to apply to be a delegate to the UN climate summit, COP24 that took place in Katowice, Poland, December 2018. By bearing witness to the process of the UN negotiations I came to a greater understanding of the politics behind internationally agreed protocols, and the importance of climate action everywhere.
What did you enjoy most about HCRI?
The people I met on the course were incredible – I am so inspired and motivated by them. It is an amazing experience to be in a cohort of people who genuinely want to learn the best way in which to respond the some of the world’s most urgent crises. I also enjoyed the variety offered at HCRI – in one year I took courses in ‘Anthropology – Societies affected by Violence’ (with a focus on health), Mental Health and Psychosocial support in Humanitarian Crises, Humanitarian Protection, and Reconstruction and Development, just to name a few.
Ultimately, I enjoyed the research visit to Uganda the most. This experience confirmed my opinion that the best learning takes place outside the classroom – seeing how policy and interventions play out in context as opposed to in theory. This was such an incredible experience to speak to Ministers, UN officials, aid workers and beneficiaries in refugee settlement camps in Uganda – to hear their perspectives and then reflect on them over the course of a semester. I used my assignment for this module to reflect on my positionality as a ‘Western’ researcher and what this means for humanitarians ‘entering the field’ in order to analyse ‘populations in need’.
What advice would you give someone considering a degree at HCRI?
HCRI is an incredibly dynamic, innovative and motivating environment. It enables and pushes you to achieve the best you can – by expanding your learning and giving you the opportunity to go to talks on the most pressing crises of our time and gain an insight and reflective understanding of them. Having overseas experience certainly enabled me to contribute to learning throughout the year, as we continually discussed issues as a cohort – bringing our diverse experiences to the table. The opportunities to be had are great as well as the directions in which this study may take you. I highly recommend it to anyone.