Humanitarian Institute


Humanitarian Institute Town Meeting Report

24 November 2016

On 12th October, 2016, the UCL Humanitarian Institute held a Town Meeting to present this new initiative to the UCL community, and to consult on its direction.

Summary of panel discussion and audience response

By Dr Ian Scott, Principal Facilitator, UCL Grand Challenges

Welcome Address, Vision and Goals for a UCL Humanitarian Institute

Professor Peter Sammonds (Director, UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction)

Humanitarian crises are not just thousands of miles away in the countries of the Global South, they are on our doorstep, just 100 miles from Gower St, in the Jungle at Calais. The UK Government has recognised the need for new forms of research, responding to the needs of imperilled people in the Global South by introducing the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) through which 10% of UK government expenditure on research will be channelled by 2020. How will UCL respond? The new Humanitarian Institute (HI) will provide a forum for determining the research challenges posed by humanitarian crises, and assistance in creating competitive bids for GCRF grants. Expertise drawn from across UCL's wide research community helped to shape the HI proposal to the Provost's Strategic Development Fund. The HI bid emerged as the top-ranked case for support, among those received in the 2016 PSDF round. An organising committee drawn from an inaugural HI Champions group assisted in creating the programme for this internal UCL town meeting, through which the Institute invites interest in collaboration, and identification of strengths and weaknesses in the currently planned Research Themes. Through the insights gained from the town meeting we will ensure that the HI's public launch in June 2017 will be a demonstration of UCL at its inclusive best.

Dr Rosanna Smith (Deputy-Director, UCL Institute for Risk & Disaster Reduction)

The need for UCL scholarly attention to humanitarian issues is greater now than ever. UCL's Grand Challenges programme recognises this in its plan to pursue a pan-GC flagship initiative called 'Human Displacement', including a Lancet Migration & Health Commission under the Global Health grand challenge, with five further projects relating to refugees and migrants through the other five GCs.

The HI will play an integral part in UCL's 20-year strategic plan, UCL 2034. The institute will be publicly launched in June 2017.

Research Theme introductions

Professor Dame Henrietta Moore (UCL Institute for Global Prosperity)

Social transformation to address global inequalities

A new set of approaches is needed to solve humanitarian crises. Our natural resources and environment have paid dearly for ever-expanding economic growth. While 680 million people have been lifted out of poverty as a result of China's economic growth, 100 million are likely to fall back into poverty by 2030. Climate change is predicted to result in 100-200 million refugees by 2050. The indiscriminate pursuit of growth had led humankind astray, with inequality and political turmoil pervasive: the top 1% of the world's population has 50% of global household wealth, while the bottom 50% has only 1% of all household wealth. Until recently the model for humanitarian assistance around the world depended on a North to South flow of development through rapid economic growth. There are now new South-to-South development models, offering innovative and sustainable solutions more in keeping with the needs of people in the Global South - e.g. software developed in Kenya used in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. In Syria, citizens themselves are providing up-to-date geo-located information on conflict impacts - an example of the advent of crowd-sourcing of data and new thinking on how humanitarian solutions are created and implemented - a world away from hierarchical silos and challenging researchers to consider new forms of experimentation. How will solutions be found to the humanitarian crisis of Aleppo, if not from refugees themselves? The crises are all in the Global South. When the [top-down?] humanitarian efforts of Global North agencies (e.g. UN High Commission for Refugees) are exhausted, new collaborative approaches with [affected population in] the Global South will emerge - including the incubation of new forms of economy for sustainable prosperity in situations of displacement. People-centred approaches are needed to humanitarian crises, but how can the voices of refugees be adequately heard and represented. What kind of participation is desirable and possible? How can participatory methods be adapted to crowd-sourcing? A huge amount of learning is needed, providing a huge challenge for social scientists.

Professor Jon Agar (UCL Science and Technology Studies)

21st century technology in humanitarian situations

Augmenting Professor Moore's points on the power of social transformation, it is clear that modern technology - mobile phones used by refugees - is facilitating a very different type of response to humanitarian emergencies, compared to traditional mechanisms such as those mediated by the UNHCR. In 2001 the immediate circumstances and needs of Congolese people, displaced by lava flows from a volcanic eruption and seeking refuge in Goma, were communicated through sets of instructions relayed by the aid users themselves, entirely different from those relayed by UNHCR representatives. While not the originators or inventors of the mobile technology they are using, refugees are innovating new applications. Citizens affected by the Haiti cholera epidemic provided crucial real-time data, demonstrating the effective combination of technology and users. UCL offers important areas of expertise. Carina Fearnley of UCL STS works on humanitarian issues and use of technology - combining technology and social science methods in responses to disaster management.

GCTT - the new UCL Grand Challenge of Transformative Technology (Professor Agar co-chairs the academic steering committee with Marc-Olivier Coppens of UCL Chemical Engineering) provides an opportunity to explore novel collaborative approaches at the nexus of technology development and society's needs, particularly through the pan-GC Human Displacement initiative.

Professor Christian Dustmann (UCL Economics)

The economic and human costs of humanitarian crises and the associated migration

The economic and human costs of the recent refugee crisis are borne not only by the more than 60 million people displaced (UNHCR Global Trends 2015), but also by the regions they move to in seeking refuge, notably [in the context of the UK's EU Referendum vote] the European Union - where Germany and Sweden have been particularly affected. With 1 in 122 people across the world forced to leave their homes, almost 1% of the global human population has been displaced in recent years. This is a major challenge for Europe, and will be a central issue for politics in EU countries for the foreseeable future.    

But who is a refugee? The UN 1951 Refugee Convention defines a "refugee" as a person who, owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. The Refugee Convention contains other important general provisions, including a 'non-refoulment' clause prohibiting the expulsion or return a refugee 'in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion'.

Economic hardship is most severe in poor countries neighbouring regions of conflict: One in  four of Lebanon's population are refugees. The economic impact on European countries has been relatively minor by comparison, but the political impact of refugee allocations to different EU countries has provoked a marked rise in the vote-share of right-wing populist parties in elections. The Council of Europe has recognized that 'to save a Europe of solidarity and human rights', new thinking is needed on the EU's approach to migration through a fundamental review of the Dublin Regulation - 'an unfair mechanism which allows the majority of EU member states to allocate responsibility for dealing with asylum-seekers to a few frontline countries like Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta and Spain.'

National solutions to this crisis simply do not work, and migration pressure is not going away. Of the 20 most unstable countries in the world, 18 are in Africa and the Middle-East.                                                                                                                                         

Long Seng To (UCL STEaPP - Science, Technology, Engineering & Public Policy)

Infrastructure in a humanitarian context, with a focus on energy

Developing countries are facing multiple stresses, including climate change, natural disasters and conflicts that can cause disruption to their critical infrastructure services. Progress towards development goals cannot be maintained without building more resilience into critical infrastructure, such as energy, water supply, sanitation, housing, transportation and telecommunications. Infrastructure needs to be flexible and resilient, able to be repurposed and redeployed according to changing circumstances, whether the disruptions are sudden or on going. There is an opportunity to address these needs as new infrastructure is built over the coming decades in developing countries, with global infrastructure investments set to reach up to $57 trillion by 2030 (Brookings report - Financing the Global Infrastructure Gap, 2014).

At the same time, we need to respond to the very real infrastructure needs in humanitarian crises.

Effective humanitarian infrastructures require deployment of technological capabilities to: Prevent (through resilient engineering), Prepare for and Respond to disasters; and to Recover (through building better replacement structure).

Synergies are needed between development and humanitarian aid programs.

Example: Energy sector and 2015 Nepal earthquake

  • 1.1 billion people with no access to electricity and 2.8 billion relying on traditional fuels for cooking and heating
  • For those affected by humanitarian crises, the situation is even more difficult as there is limited funding, policies and practices around the use of sustainable energy solutions
  • Currently there is little coordination and planning around energy in relief efforts, leaving users with energy sources that cause fires, health problems from indoor air pollution, and exposes women and children to violence while collecting firewood
  • Access to sustainable energy can enhance safety, health, productivity and security, and bridge the divide between development and humanitarian response, by creating opportunities for education, enterprise development and innovation

Integrated solutions are needed, based on local expertise, social inclusion and partnership with private enterprise. Bottom-up innovation needs to be encouraged. UCL has relevant world-leading expertise in the Earthquake & People Interaction Centre (EPICentre); the Cascading Disasters Research Group (Cascades@IRDR); the UK Collabortorium for Research in Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC); and the PETRAS Internet of Things Research Hub.

Professor Nora Groce (UCL LCDIDC - Leonard Cheshire Disability & Inclusive Development Centre)

Equity of access to health care and the sustainable development goals

Equity in access to healthcare is a key objective in the UN's 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, informed by the premise 'Leave no-one behind'. Technology may provide new solutions in healthcare, but not necessarily on an equitable basis. Vulnerable people may be overlooked by humanitarian initiatives, e.g. people with disabilities, particularly in lower and middle income countries affected by disasters. There is a need to question basic assumptions behind many good human rights instruments that should - but fail to - ensure equity, which needs to be measured in a more meaningful way. Equitable solutions may require just only novel technologies, but new thinking on methodologies, including those provided through social science approaches. Surveys need to ascertain more data about people with disabilities (15% of the world's population, according to a recent World Bank report), who are most at risk in terms of their reduced ability to get themselves to safety. Equity has to be built into all frameworks, and not just as an after-thought.

Respondent to Panel

Professor Adriana Allen (UCL Development Planning Unit)

From urban resilience to justice)

The richness of work at UCL makes it well-equipped to deal with humanitarian challenges, but what are we still not getting right? There is a crisis of [ineffective] humanitarian intervention, and a need for a more strategic approach. Dealing with Risk, for example, may require both intensive and extensive approaches. Humanitarian crises are generally considered to be very large (intensive) events, but this overlooks smaller-scale (extensive) crises which when aggregated [by typology] may be very large and difficult to address.

Many crises are urban, and within such settings they may proliferate and become difficult to control. In urban settings good infrastructure is critically important in the making crises preventable.

Are we getting better at targeting response? Probably not. We're better at monitoring, but more capacity is needed for prevention of emergencies.

Further comments

Christian Dustmann: Humanitarian crises are happening all the time, but the Global North is only responding if directly affected, as, for example, in Syria. The impact on voting behaviour in EU countries is a 'wake up' call for Europe, prompting the need to change crisis management.

Henrietta Moore:  More and more people are living in cities, but data [on crisis response capacity?] are poor. Many people will be living in smaller cities, but what kind of cities, and how liveable are they. Many refugees are living in cities and small towns. How liveable are such settings in countries of first refuge (e.g. Jordan and Lebanon)? How are public goods financed in cities of refuge? Population movement is the new normal. A refugee might move several times before finding a new permanent home. The right to move is an important human right for everyone.

Long Seng To:  Infrastructure and capital work are very much in the minds of policy makers. How do we build systems that are more resilient while dealing with the immediate demands of current crises? There is anecdotal evidence, but no systematic data on how people are coping.

Jon Agar: Using technology might be an answer, but may not be a solution to a crisis. We need to raise our critical game, including through finding out how to improve the way the elements of humanitarian crises are measured, thereby generating better data.

Nora Groce:  The issue, though, is not just gathering information, but who gets it. Universities need better ways of showing what they are doing. The new Global Disability Innovation Hub (proof-of-concept stage supported by UCL Grand Challenges), at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, is an example of the kind of initiative that our university could pursue in respect of other humanitarian needs

Professor Alan Penn:  Important to be aware of the 20/80 balance between intensive and extensive risk. The world of mountaineering may provide useful insights in recognising forms of objective versus subjective risk which could be instructive in understanding different perceptions that people have about the movement of displaced people from Africa and Syria. The perception in Europe has been a subjective one - i.e. the impact of displaced people on our life-styles. What can be done to change people's minds?

Christian Dustmann:  The balance of subjective versus objective understanding of risk depends on the extent to which people's knowledge is based on facts. A 2001 survey found that 20% of displaced people were economic migrants, 80% non-economic. Whether people on the move are homogeneous and share a common religion, and news stories like the dead Syrian baby on the Greek island beach and Syrian asylum-seekers accused of rape raise emotions and provoke attacks on EU humanitarian policies such as those of Mrs Merkel

Summing up

Peter Sammonds: What are the prospects for effective cross-disciplinary work on humanitarian challenges?

Jon Agar: It's incredibly difficult because it's not easy to establish a common way of talking - which is certainly an issue when trying to understand subjective and objective risk. But all kinds of expertise are needed, and event's like today's are essential.

Peter Sammonds: Interdisciplinary teams work well in the field  because they have commion objectives.

Nora Groce:  There's a great need for a common space (like HI) to talk, starting with a problem, not a discipline.


  • Humanitarianism has had a chequered record in recent years It needs ti be reclaimed. How can we stop it from being abused?
  • What is the HI for? What is its vision?
  • If it's for developing better policies at the UN, how can HI contribute?
  • Refugees are usually people with the best resources (enabling them to escape). What policies are needed to target those left behind?

Henrietta Moore:  There's a need for new institutions and regulations. The ability of refugees to move is a form of resource, while preventing people from moving is a form of inequity. The root cause of the refugee crisis needs to be fixed,  but there is no appetite among European politicians to intervene in Syria.

Closing remarks

Peter Sammonds: The HI town meeting has illustrated the need for a space within which our university can debate humanitarian issues which are being side-stepped by politicians. UCL, an institution founded on a radical tradition of education as the key to reform, must reclaim the debate, with the HI providing the essential space and platform. The purpose of a UCL town meeting is to harvest ideas and find out who's doing what that relates to an initiative that is proposed or at the stage of an internal launch. This town meeting will help in the formation of clusters of interest. Next steps will include the organisation of cluster discussion forums, with student representatives who can benefit from our collective experience. The HI will be valuable to UCL's Global Citizenship programme and of strong interest to external partners. There is much that can be done immediately.  A summit will be orgsanised to take place in June 2017, showcasing what UCL is doing in the humanitarian space.