‘Humanitarian Studies is about dignity and it is about humanity’

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The Humanitarian Studies Centre (HSC) launched on 31 August with a whole-day event at ISS. The Centre, which is hosted at ISS, will become a hive of research, education, impact and networking around the field of ‘Humanitarian Studies’. It is led by its Director, Professor Thea Hilhorst, along with a team of academic and professional staff.

The Humanitarian Studies Centre will also partner with and host several other organizations, including KUNO (Platform for Knowledge Exchange in the Netherlands), the SSRi (Safety and Security for Researchers Initiative) and the IHSA (International Humanitarian Studies Association). It was set up following Professor Hilhorst’s 2022 Spinoza Prize.

So, what is Humanitarian Studies?

When Professor Hilhorst was announced as a Spinoza Prize laureate, the selection committee noted her pioneering work in the field of ‘Humanitarian Studies’. Whilst academics both inside the Netherlands and around the world have worked on elements of the field for several years, Professor Hilhorst offered the following definition of it during her speech launching the HSC:

‘The study of societies and vulnerable communities experiencing humanitarian crisis originating from disaster, conflict, refugee situations and/ or political collapse. It studies the causes and impact of crisis; how people, communities and authorities respond to them, including efforts for prevention and preparedness; how humanitarian action and other external interventions are organized and affect the recovery from crises; and the institutional changes that crises and crisis response engender.’

This definition, says Hilhorst, is a development of how the field was seen in previous years, having been based around the study of Humanitarian Action – how people working with and for humanitarian organizations act and carry out their work. ‘I felt it was needed to broaden the definition of humanitarian studies, away from a focus on international humanitarian action to take societies undergoing humanitarian crises as the starting point’, says Hilhorst. ‘Perhaps because of my background in development studies, I have always carefully situated humanitarian action in society. Humanitarian action, in my mind, is an autonomous field embedded in society, as I elaborated with Bram Jansen on the idea of the humanitarian arena.’


‘The launch … is also a call to build a network of researchers, practitioners and policy makers that build collaboratively…’
Professor Thea Hilhorst

The Humanitarian Studies Centre, like the definition put forward by Professor Hilhorst, will be open and in conversation with researchers and practitioners from multiple related disciplines: ‘We are like siblings in a large family, looking alike yet all with our distinctive features. These include conflict and peace studies, development studies, feminist and post-colonial studies, international relations, disaster studies and refugee studies. It’s not just academic efforts that contribute to the field either; practitioners are also included – hence the hosting of KUNO at the HSC.

The launch of the HSC is also a call to build a network of researchers, practitioners and policy makers that build collaboratively to have the most positive effect in Humanitarian Studies’, says Hilhorst.

Plenary session HSC launch

Plenary session © Sarah Njoroge

The launch event also served as a call to build a ‘network of researchers, practitioners and policy makers that build collaboratively to have the most positive effect in Humanitarian Studies’. The HSC will, over the coming years, act to convene this network through regular events and chances to showcase the latest research from within the field and connect it to practice and policy.

Putting societies and people at the centre

By putting societies undergoing humanitarian crises in focus, Humanitarian Studies, as defined by Professor Hilhorst, stands in contrast to previous approaches, where ‘scholars were mainly interested in the exceptionality of crisis, the violence characterizing crisis, or assumed societies lost their organizing principles to become tabula rasa or institutional voids altogether during a crisis. Few people asked themselves how families managed to feed children, send them to school, how babies were born, what happened to couples falling in love, who would help people with nothing to eat’.

This, says Hilhorst, is part of a wider move within the study of crises towards looking at the people experiencing the crisis, rather than the humanitarian workers reacting to it. ‘While a plethora of research and lived experience showed that people help each other during crisis (everybody would die if they had to wait for international humanitarian actors), this largely escaped the eye of the academic world just as much as the aid community. Today, we almost see the opposite happening, with the aid sector celebrating the resilience of local communities, the self-reliance of people on the move and the everyday care they extend to one another.’

‘Henri Dunant proposed that the key idea of humanitarianism is the desire to save lives and restore human dignity.’
Professor Thea Hilhorst

But, she adds, whilst it is important to celebrate resilience and solidarity, ‘that doesn’t mean that the field of Humanitarian Studies takes a rose-tinted view of what happens during crises. Nor can the field ignore the politicization of crisis situations. Lots of research has testified to the politics of crisis and the ways in which actors reconfigure themselves to benefit from the crisis interventions or change the existing order according to their own interests and views. This happens at the international as much as national and the local levels, where, for example, chiefs may ask for sexual favours in exchange for assistance or local traders may profit from crises by doubling their prices’.

A value-laden field

The field of Humanitarian Studies, which centres societies undergoing crises, is a value-laden field, says Hilhorst. ‘Humanitarian Studies is about dignity and it is about humanity. The father of modern humanitarianism, Henri Dunant, proposed that the key idea of humanitarianism is the desire to save lives and restore human dignity. He derived this notion from a tradition of Christian charity that did not seek to radically alter society. However, the notion of humanity has also inspired subsequent scholars. Last year I was in the beautiful city of Davos in Switzerland, where a winter walkway is dedicated to Thomas Mann, who wrote Der Zauberberg (the Magic Mountain) during a stay at Davos. One of the quotes displayed on the walkway says: “What then, is humanism? It is the love of humanity, and therefore it is a rebellion against everything that tarnishes and devalues humanity.” That is for me the value that drives Humanitarian Studies.’

Thea Hilhorst at the launch © Sarah Njoroge

The launch of the HSC: a day of taking stock of Humanitarian Studies

The launch on 31 August showcased the work of more than 36 scholars and practitioners, all of whom relate to Humanitarian Studies. From presentations about research into alternative ethical hermeneutics that seek to centre marginalized groups within humanitarian work and governance, to explorations of Dutch refugee policy and programmes, to the importance of including conflict resolution and transformation techniques within the humanitarian/development nexus, to how we communicate about humanitarian efforts and the power of procurement. This stimulating event is set to be replicated in the coming years to maintain the Humanitarian Studies network within the Netherlands and to convene scholars and practitioners. The day rounded off with presentations from the organizations hosted at the HSC: KUNO, SSRi and the IHSA.

Future plans: research, education, impact and networking

The HSC will, in the coming years, work to develop an exciting programme of research led by Professor Thea Hilhorst, Dr Rod Mena (Deputy Director), Dr Kaira Zoe Cañete (Senior Researcher) and another Senior Researcher who will shortly join the team. Research themes will include ethical alternatives within humanitarianism, the effect of climate change on crisis, working with and accessing difficult or precarious contexts, the ethical and safety implications of carrying out humanitarian research and much more besides.

The Centre will also aim to be at the forefront of teaching around Humanitarian Studies, with a popular course at ISS for MA students, PhD courses, public seminars and events and plenty more besides. Research and practice will be linked through a series of initiatives by the HSC with and in partnership with KUNO and other organizations, with the intention to regularly convene a lively network of Humanitarian Studies scholars, practitioners and policy makers to discuss and co-create new ideas around humanitarianism. All of this will also be linked to the IHSA to further increase impact.

Professional staff at the Centre include Coordinator Thomas Ansell and Community Manager Gabriela Anderson Fernandez.

HSC cakes for launch