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World Humanitarian Day 2020: Fletcher Experts Weigh In

Fletcher professors discuss challenges, opportunities and why Fletcher is the place to be to tackle humanitarian issues through a multidisciplinary lens.

World Humanitarian Day falls each year on August 19. Unlike every year, however, in 2020 it comes amidst the backdrop of a global COVID-19 pandemic, teetering economies, record unemployment numbers and churning political developments across the world from Hong Kong to Belarus, Lebanon, the United States and beyond. With the world in disarray, this year’s celebration provides an opportunity to refocus on the grave humanitarian issues facing the world’s most vulnerable populations and looks toward solving those challenges.

At The Fletcher School, being a humanitarian is core to our mission of preparing tomorrow’s leaders, today. No matter the degree or area of study, we look at the world’s most intractable challenges with a multidisciplinary lens. On the occasion of World Humanitarian Day, we’ve asked Professor Daniel Maxwell, director of Fletcher’s joint Master of Arts in Humanitarian Assistance program to tell us a bit about this special degree program. We’ve also tapped Professors Alex de Waal of the World Peace Foundation and Cécile Aptel of Fletcher’s international law (LL.M.) program for their thoughts on the issues they find most pressing in the world of humanitarian affairs today.  

Professor Daniel Maxwell, director of Fletcher’s joint-degree program the Master of Arts in Humanitarian Assistance, on degree programs at Fletcher that specialize in tackling humanitarian challenges:

Professor Daniel Maxwell

Tufts offers several programs that prepare students for working in humanitarian crises. Both The Fletcher School and Friedman School of Nutrition offer a humanitarian field of study in their regular master’s degree programs (the Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy – or MALD – at Fletcher) and a unique program called the Master of Arts in Humanitarian Assistance – or MAHA – which is a joint program between Friedman and Fletcher.

The MAHA is a one-year master’s program, aimed at experienced field workers who wish to build their analytical, managerial and programmatic skills. Managed by the Feinstein International Center, a research institute at Tufts University specializing in populations caught in or at risk of humanitarian emergencies, the MAHA draws students mainly from disaster-affected countries. We’re proud to say that many of those students have gone on to become leaders in the field—U.N. officials, senior program managers, NGO country directors and in some cases, government policymakers in their home countries. Given the diversity of backgrounds and students’ lived and work experiences, Fletcher offers programs in humanitarian studies that can be tailored to the interests to a wide range of both American and international students.

Professor Alex de Waal, Director of the World Peace Foundation on famine as a preventable evil:

Nowhere in the world are people so poor, or governments so incapable, that natural adversity needs to result in famine. Even under the

Headshot of Alex de Waal

compound stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters such as drought or locust infestation, and disruptions to the global food supply, mass starvation is eminently preventable. Where mass starvation occurs, it is because of political choices and often criminal actions. Humanitarian aid plays an essential role in containing famine, but all modern famines would be avoided if political decision-makers had chosen to respect people’s food security, or in some cases, not intentionally used famine as a weapon of war. Famine has perpetrators as well as victims; starvation is something that people do to one another.  

The humanitarian work of the World Peace Foundation at The Fletcher School focuses on the criminalization of starvation. We have worked in support of U.N. Security Council resolution 2417 on armed conflict and famine and on a revision to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court to prohibit acts of starvation in non-international armed conflict. We believe that the most important actions needed to address famine today are those that make it politically intolerable to perpetrate starvation crimes or conduct armed hostilities in a reckless manner that creates famine. We argue that famine will be prevented when it is prohibited; that starvation crimes should be so morally toxic that they are universally publicly vilified. 

Professor of Practice of International Law Cécile Aptel on ensuring fair and equitable access to vaccines and therapies in a global fight against “vaccine nationalism” in an era of COVID-19:

Headshot of Cécile Aptel

The scramble for masks and protective equipment we witnessed a few months ago seems a pale precursor of the global scramble for COVID-19 vaccines or therapies. Some observers have referred to “vaccine nationalism” to describe how the states that can afford it are already — even before a vaccine is developed— reserving vaccine supplies for their own domestic use. If a vaccine or new medication are developed, there will be a gold rush.

Can we collectively agree to an equitable access to vaccines and therapies globally, ensuring that even poor countries have access to a fair share of supply? Ensuring fair and equitable access to vaccines and therapies will also be a major challenge in each country: Will all those most vulnerable have early access and how will we define the criteria for distribution and rank those who are most needy? Yet, these issues are not only ethical and political: It is also in our collective self-interest to answer them, as in a pandemic, we will only be safe when we can all be safe.

To answer these and other dilemma, simple cookie-cutter solutions do not work: Complex problems require complex, multifaceted and innovative solutions. This is why Fletcher prepares its graduate students to embrace complexity, innovate and develop inquiries, research and problem-solving across disciplines, no matter the degree program or field of study.