Kuwait Community

13 March 2023

Understanding the Relationship Between Humanitarian Work and Academia

Disciplines that Relate to Work in Humanitarian Sectors

The humanitarian sector is an interdisciplinary sector, which combines concepts from fields such as anthropology, sociology, and political science. The field of international development integrates each of these topics to educate students on humanitarian aid, the politics of development, and the humanitarian sector as a whole. As an international development student, I have taken courses in development, political science, foreign languages, anthropology, as well as other social science-based courses. This education has provided me with an excellent theoretical understanding of some of the issues present within the humanitarian sector, and the causes behind these issues. For example, in my second year of my studies, I took a 4-month long course dedicated to the theories of development. This course provided students with an in-depth understanding of theories such as modernization theory, dependency theory, and various economic theories that are relevant in the realm of international development. This education is important as it provides students with a foundational understanding of behaviours and trends within the humanitarian sector. By the end of my second year of studying development, I had a sound understanding of the theoretical principles that are present within the field. Along with this theoretical education, international development provides students with a strong understanding of the linkages between these theories and the reasons they are relevant. An example of this is education surrounding dependency theory, which is a theory outlining the dependence of the developing world on the developed world. This dependence was created as a result of colonialism. The development field places a strong emphasis on the linkages of these theories with the causes behind them, and involves education in a variety of fields in order to provide students with a sound understanding of the complex concept of international development. 

How Academic Institutions Prepare Students for Work in Humanitarian Sectors 

Academic institutions play an important role in educating students prior to their entry into the humanitarian field, laying a foundation for further education and experience within it. In the international development courses that I’ve taken, I’ve gained a better understanding of the international institutions and powers in place as well as their strengths and weaknesses, which has allowed me to better understand the context in which the humanitarian sector is operated. For example, in a course offered by my school titled “Actors and Institutions”, I learned more about the presence of the UN within the current international climate. Through this education, I learned that the UN, along with many other international stakeholders, do not have as much power in governance as it is often made out to have. This has brought to my attention the fact that we live within an international anarchy, meaning that the world lacks any supreme authority or sovereign. This further means that international NGOs do not have a certain regulatory body to report to. This is important to me as I enter my career in the field of development as I now better understand the importance of a sound organizational structure as an organization, and the importance of practicing development without a heavy reliance on larger organizations such as the United Nations. 

Further, learning about different political and developmental theories allowed me to develop my critical thinking skills and view situations from a variety of perspectives. This acquisition of critical thinking skills can be attributed to the wide range of case studies I have read which have allowed me to examine situations from a variety of theoretical and cultural lenses. Therefore, my academic institution has allowed me to view development issues from economic, environmental, gender based, and many other perspectives that allow me to gain a better understanding of situations worldwide. This improved understanding will allow me to better assist in development efforts as I begin my career in the field. Colonialism is another large focus of many foundational development courses with a strong emphasis. It encourages students to be aware of this issue and to take an approach to development that doesn’t involve encouraging states to adapt in a form similar to the development of those of the west. The field encourages approaching aid from an intersectional perspective rather than a pro-capitalist and westernized perspective. It is for this reason that courses in disciplines such as anthropology are required for international development students as it provides individuals with a better understanding of the development of human cultures and societies. This allows students to have an in-depth knowledge of the importance of culture and society, and the impact that colonialism has had on this. Once again, this knowledge is incredibly valuable for those beginning careers in the field of development, as it provides students with a strong understanding of cultures and societies, which allows for greater cultural sensitivity, which will lead to a workplace that is productive and beneficial to as many recipients of developmental aid as possible. 

Preconception of Humanitarian Worker Before the Internship Program vs. the Reality

Prior to starting the Kuwait Aid Network Internship program, I had a general understanding of the concepts and practices of development and humanitarian work. However, since beginning to practice in the actual field, I have learned that work in the humanitarian sector requires knowledge and experience  other than theoretical understanding and conceptual education. 

For example, I have learned that non-profits require a structure similar to that of a business. For these organizations to run smoothly, they must have proper human resource policies, legal protections, and fund management. Funds play an important role in the operation of a non-profit organization, as there is little income entering the organization. The organization must work to apply for grants and other funding to ensure financial security. Without secure finances, organizations will be unable to adequately assist their communities, pay their staff, and cover essentials for the organization such as office space, transportation, and other necessary expenses. For this reason, grant writing would be an excellent skill for students of international development to learn, as many organizations depend on grants to run smoothly. It is a skill that can be applied in various professional environments and is not only limited to international NGO work. This skill can be transferred to those applying for research grants, scholarships, and other funding that can assist individuals and organizations with the attainment of their goals.

Prior to my internship, I underestimated the amount of social work that goes into working in the humanitarian field. For this reason, it is important to approach development from a holistic perspective rather than a transactional one. I firmly believe that individuals entering the field must be in the field due to a genuine interest and passion, rather than for money or status. Those who enter the field with the wrong intentions can cause damage, which can lead to the eventual reluctance of individuals who are in need of aid to trust organizations and development practitioners. 

Further, it is prudent for development organizations to network with other similar organizations to work together on partnerships to assure the support of vulnerable communities. However, due to dire financial situations in the humanitarian sector, there is often a culture of competition between organizations. Therefore, education on how to navigate the political side of the non-profit world is essential. Professional communication and remaining cordial with all organizations and stakeholders in the field is a vital skill to have, one that I developed throughout the span of my internship, so education on this would be beneficial for other students as well.

The university I study at already provides an interdisciplinary approach to development. I believe that the only area to which they can improve is by creating an even more interdisciplinary field of study. This could be done by including business and communications courses, and perhaps even some type of psychology course. It is important to have an understanding of not only the history of the communities being aided, but the nature of human beings in general, and best practices when working in fragile contexts are incredibly important to know.

 Topics that Would Better Prepare Students

The field of development often, if not always, involves working with individuals in less than ideal circumstances. The goal of development is to reduce poverty and increase sustainability in the long term, so work often begins in situations that include poverty and unsustainability. Theories can be studied, and research can be executed, but at the end of the day, the individuals being supported in the field are human beings with a depth of stories, experiences which is why practicing development from a trauma informed perspective is not only beneficial, but essential. 

Educating students in areas such as mental health, first aid, and self care would be incredibly useful as they acknowledge both the individual’s physical and mental health. While having empathy for those being supported is important, it is equally as important to have resources to support development workers when the work becomes overbearing.Having empathy for those being supported is important, but it is just as important for development workers to have resources available to them to support them if the work becomes overbearing. For this reason, information on mental and physical health would be very important to provide to students prior to their entry into the field. 

It is also important to note the power dynamic present in the field. In a humanitarian field, workers supplying aid hold a large amount of power. As in every vulnerable sector, there should be standards set in place to assure that workers are held accountable for their actions. This could involve requiring vulnerable sector police checks or having strong policies and rules in place with well understood consequences and a zero-tolerance policy for any abuse of power. 

Further, all students studying international development should participate in some sort of experiential education. This internship has been incredibly beneficial to me and has allowed me to see international actors and theories in practice. For example, I have learned about the UN and its role and function in what seems like every class that I’ve taken. Although it does serve a purpose, I also learned in my classes that it is difficult for things to be passed through the UN, and due to veto powers of certain nations, some issues cannot be solved. Working for Kuwait Aid Network, I have learned that this indeed is the case. The UN seems to be unheard of within the humanitarian sector in Kuwait and lacks a strong, acting presence despite the glaring human rights abuses that occur within the country. This is just one of the many examples I have of seeing things that I have learned in the classroom being put to practice. 

Conclusions That can be Drawn on the Type of Education That These Institutions Produce  

In my opinion, university education is important for development workers as it demonstrates a true commitment to the field, allows for a foundational understanding of developmental theories, and allows students to figure out their passions and interests within the field prior to or during their entry into the humanitarian sector. 

However, I would argue that experiential education is just as important when working in such a field. Co-op has allowed me to gain an in-depth understanding of what it is actually like to work for an NGO, which is a skill that I feel will help me for years to come. By gaining this experience early on in my education, I now feel like I am better equipped to work for organizations that focus on tackling humanitarian issues internationally.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Canada Kuwait Aid Network.”

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