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icono de curso

The politics and practice of international humanitarianism


Credits: 4 ECTS

Second semester

Elective Courses




This course provides a rigorous introduction to the major themes and debates in the study and practice of humanitarianism. We examine the work of specialized UN agencies (e.g. the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and the UN World Food Programme, WFP) and international NGOs (e.g. Oxfam, Médecins sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders, Save the Children) in response to armed conflict, famine, and disasters. We discuss how politics and principles interact to shape the priorities, practice, and outcomes of humanitarian response in countries like Haiti, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia.

Does the massive expansion of the humanitarian sector suggest the world is becoming more compassionate and civilized? How do the political interests of donor governments drive humanitarian priorities? Does aid do more harm than good? How does humanitarian aid differ from human rights or development work? Should humanitarian action be political? How does law protect in war? The course will grapple with these, and other, important questions regarding the ethics, law, politics, and practice of humanitarianism.

The course combines twelve in-depth empirical case studies of different humanitarian emergencies, ranging from the Nigeria/Biafra war in 1967-1970 through to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 and the “migrant crisis” in Europe in 2015, with twelve more analytical thematic topics. Throughout, students will be encouraged to apply their existing knowledge of international relations, international security, or international development to the study of humanitarian action.


  • Quiz to assess knowledge of course readings: 10%
  • 1500-word essay during the semester: 40%
  • 3-hour take home exam in exams week: 50%

Competences, learning outcomes and teaching activities (PDF)