The Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Weeks (HNPW) 2021 officially wrapped up last week, and for participants from the Joint Master’s of Geography of Environment and Human Risk it was a major success. Held online this year, rather than in Geneva, the high-level forum is the humanitarian field’s largest event of the year and it brings individuals, organizations, and networks the opportunity to collaborate and address key issues in crisis response and preparedness.
Students and alumni of the Master’s Programme were highly active over the course of this year’s three-week event through the University Surge Support Group (USSG), an initiative that connects students to professionals and humanitarian organizations. Furthermore, their events received important engagement from high-level officials in the humanitarian field.
The first week was highlighted by the USSG’s Opening Session, which was hosted by UNU-EHS and Tilburg University. The session’s aim was to illustrate the critical role that universities play as a career pipeline and as hubs for research for the humanitarian field.
“The humanitarian system needs to evolve to address current challenges and leverage tomorrow’s opportunities. For this, we need to invite the next generation of humanitarians. However, students are sometimes not even aware of the humanitarian field, or find it difficult to enter. The ambition of the USSG is to help students from all studies, backgrounds and countries create meaningful connections with humanitarians, and give them a seat at the table,” said Kenny Meesters of Tilburg University, who initiated the USSG and co-organized this year’s events with UNU-EHS Senior Scientist Joerg Szarzynksi.
On hand to build that connection for the session were Master’s Programme alumni James McArthur and Anna Lena Huhn, who imparted their knowledge and reflected on their career paths to an audience of over 100 interested students and jobs seekers.
McArthur touched on the operational side of things and what the next generation of humanitarians should mentally prepare for. “It is possible for young graduates to improve the quality of humanitarian aid. It does require dedication, initiative, and patience to see change. Be prepared and confident to work in a high-stress environment,” said the alumnus who is a GIS and DRR Specialist at REACH, which is an initiative that provides data and analysis to support humanitarian action and is a part of the Geneva-based think tank IMPACT. Since graduating, McArthur’s career has taken him to Jordan, Bangladesh, Mozambique, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and most recently to Armenia in support of humanitarian operations.
Huhn, who now works for the German Red Cross, provided an inspiring and critical piece of advice: “Develop yourself with the future in mind. Our mandate as young professionals, as youth in the system, is to contribute to change and challenge the status quo.”
Following Huhn’s advice, current students of the Master’s Programme took full advantage of the HNPW, as it provided prime opportunity for them to not only listen in on sessions, but network and even participate as speakers. For student Shivani Rai, it was a busy three weeks as she supported and participated in USSG events, and in addition attended over 20 events. Her goal was to apply and to continue to build on her knowledge gained during her studies.
“In the Master’s Programme we start with risk, disaster risk management and then proceed to the last phase on humanitarian response. The HNPW provided a whole picture of what I’ve learned so far, and more. We heard from the professionals and heard their stories,” said Rai, who is interested in nature-based solutions and humanitarian response.
Her most important engagements came during the final week. Rai and her classmate Niroj Sapkota co-moderated a student workshop for the USSG. As group leaders, they led students in dissecting the HNPW’s priority topics and then led group collaboration in identifying future topics for recommendation.
However, the students’ participation culminated at the HNPW’S official closing ceremony, where Rai and Sapkota were invited to present their workshop group’s findings. They spoke alongside high-level speakers such as Ramesh Rajasingham, the Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator at UNOCHA and others from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. Of course, I learned a lot throughout the HNPW, but that moment was really a highlight,” said Rai.
Seizing the opportunity, Rai and partner Maartje Scholten of the University of Amsterdam called for more use of nature-based solutions, more science and interdisciplinary approaches, and greater inclusion of indigenous and local knowledge in humanitarian responses. Lastly, they recommended that future HNPWs add more virtual events or adopt a hybrid approach. “This would give students like us from all around the world the ability to attend online. It is a huge opportunity,” said Rai.
For UNU-EHS Senior Scientist Joerg Szarzynski, the HNPW is the most critical humanitarian event of the year.
“With our USSG contributions at the HNPW, we mainly focus on supporting students and early career professionals from around the world and help them to connect to networks from the humanitarian community relevant to their interests. International humanitarian assistance is a very dynamic and innovative field that increasingly receives attention from the academic sector. A considerable number of our UNU Joint MSc students and early career professionals are already contributing with their skills, knowledge, expertise and great passion to support those in need,” said Szarzynski, who, in addition to teaching the Master’s Programme’s disaster risk management and humanitarian response module, is a member of the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team.
Rai is definitely a student driven to pursue a career in the humanitarian field. “I see myself working in this area. After this experience, I am motivated to join this sector even more,” she said.
The University Surge Support Group (USSG) is an initiative that aims to connect the next generation of humanitarians with the current operations and challenges in the field. The USSG at HNPW builds on previous work during HNPW 2019, initiated by Kenny Meesters and Prof. Bartel Van de Walle (Delft University of Technology). This year, the work continued with Meesters (now Tilburg University) and UNU-EHS Senior Scientist Prof. Joerg Szarzynski.
More information on the International Joint Master’s Programme in Geography of Environmental Risks and Human Security can be found here.