Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York  

IDHA: Building the Profession of Humanitarian Aid

Contact: Bob Howe
(212) 636-6538

Diplomat-In-Residence Peter Hansen
Photo by Bruce Gilbert
“We live in a universe with humanitarian affairs that has changed explosively in the last 50 years,” said former United Nations diplomat Peter Hansen, greeting the 22nd class of the International Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance (IDHA) program on its first day at the Lincoln Center campus. “We have gone over changes more profound in these last 50 years than the period from the Treaty of Westphalia to the Second World War.”

The class’s 38 aid professionals came to Fordham from 25 countries around the world for the monthlong immersion program that trains aid workers to function more effectively in times of “complex emergencies,” including wars and natural disasters. The highly intensive, multidisciplinary course simulates a humanitarian crisis, and includes lectures, workshops and field experiences, 10 to 12 hours daily, up to six days a week. It is run by the University’s Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs (IIHA), headed by Kevin M. Cahill, M.D. (FCRH ’57).

“I’m avoiding putting together the words ‘humanitarian’ and ‘crisis,’” said Hansen, who is IIHA’s diplomat-in-residence, and was commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) from 1996 to 2005. “There are political crises, economic crises, natural crises, but there is no such thing as a humanitarian crisis: that is attributing the cause to the effects.”

The IDHA program is offered three times a year and rotates between Fordham University in New York, and humanitarian aid hubs abroad such as Cairo, Geneva and Nairobi. Since its inception in 1997, more than 800 humanitarian workers have graduated from the program. Dr. Cahill, who began his career in tropical medicine as a young U.S. Navy doctor in Cairo in 1963, and who has taken part in humanitarian efforts in wars and disasters around the globe for the last 48 years, said the diploma program came about from a conversation he had with Lord David Owen, former foreign minister of the United Kingdom, about the time and effort humanitarian organizations were forced to expend in extricating their own staff members from difficult circumstances, often of their own making.

“Hairdressers and plumbers in this country need to meet professional standards to get licenses, but not humanitarian aid workers,” Dr. Cahill said. “There has been a lack of standards and lack of consistency of training for humanitarian workers. The purpose of IDHA was to professionalize something that wasn’t a profession.”

In his opening lecture, Hansen gave the students of IDHA 22 an overview of the challenges they’d be dealing with in the program and their careers, from the rapid urbanization of Third World populations to the possibility of cataclysmic natural disasters like tsunamis and meteor impacts. He outlined the evolution of the United Nations from an organization solely concerned with national sovereignty to one which increasingly dealt in humanitarian intervention in wholly domestic crises, and spoke about the counterintuitive decline of warfare since the end of the cold war. And he cautioned students to be skeptical when hearing about reform in the name of coordination or “coherence” between political, military and humanitarian objectives.

“It is a fine balance,” said Hansen, who was the longest serving assistant secretary-general and under secretary-general in the history of the United Nations. “One can’t maintain the perfect neutrality of theory outside the classroom; you must sometimes coordinate your efforts with governments or the military. But know that you can’t allow political or military plans to dictate your efforts, either.”

In his welcome to the students of IDHA 22, Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, spoke with each about his or her experience in humanitarian aid, and said that their work was integral to the University’s mission.

“You are a family of men and women whose hearts cannot help themselves,” Father McShane said. “Most of your compatriots are interested in making money, but you cannot see suffering without stepping in to help. You are members of a noble and different family, a holy family. … We pray for you. We look upon you as the most important part of the Fordham family.”

Founded in 1841, Fordham is the Jesuit University of New York, offering exceptional education distinguished by the Jesuit tradition to more than 15,600 students in its four undergraduate colleges and its six graduate and professional schools. It has residential campuses in the Bronx, Manhattan and Tarrytown, and the Louis J. Calder Center Biological Field Station in Armonk, N.Y.

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