The impact of Covid-19 on humanitarian action

January 27th, 2022

Pat Gibbons is director of the UCD Centre for Humanitarian Action. After working for more than a decade on humanitarian and development programmes in Africa and Ireland, he returned to UCD in 1997 to manage the Masters Programme in Humanitarian Action. He has been at UCD ever since.


Back in the late nineties when he was instrumental in creating Ireland’s first third-level course in humanitarian action at UCD, Pat Gibbons had his detractors.

“Some eminent professors turned around to me and said, ‘Gibbons, get on with your life, because humanitarian assistance’ - as it was called then - ‘is never going to be a third-level subject and academia has little role to play’. Thanks be to God they have been proven wrong.”

Flash forward to December 2019 when UCD launched its Strategy 2020-2024: Rising to the Future, and “the proudest moment” of Pat’s career to date. 

“Theme 1 of four themes is about building a sustainable global society and UCD is proud of its established programmes in sustainable development and humanitarian assistance.”

It was a sweet vindication for his efforts over the past two decades supporting UCD’s commitment to build the Centre for Humanitarian Action (CHA) into an internationally recognised platform for humanitarian and research excellence.

“The CHA brings together academics from across UCD who are engaged in research linked with this notion of saving lives, alleviating suffering and supporting life with dignity.”

This research encompasses disciplines and issues such as public health, human rights law, migration and ethics.

“Yes, there are moral rights and rationales for humanitarian endeavour, however there's also a growing ‘self-interest’ rationale to motivate people to help others.” 

The pandemic has shown in sharp relief how, as the WHO’s Dr Michael Ryan said - and Pat quotes - “None of us are safe until all of us are safe”. But our self-interested efforts need more organisation, for instance when richer nations offload their surplus Covid-19 vaccines to poorer countries.

“Unfortunately, they wait until the last minute and just dump vaccines on the Global South, at which stage they are going out of date and the systems are not in place for the planned distribution of vaccines to protect vulnerable populations.”

This ties into what Pat describes as the number one challenge of humanitarian efforts: respecting local capacity and engaging with local actors “rather than doing ‘to them’ or ‘for them’”. 

He adds: “The main countries we, in the UCD Centre for Humanitarian Action, work in are Ethiopia, Kenya, Indonesia, Ghana and Colombia. Fundamental to our approach is respect for peer institutions and local knowledge and culture. You must respect their ability to understand the societal institutions and how they can work together for the good of their own society. And it's a learning process.”

The current challenge to roll out vaccines in Ireland has given us all a better idea of the kind of organisation and effort required to tackle large-scale humanitarian crises all over the world. These challenges are magnified considerably in fragile states where governments lack acceptance, capacity and authority.

“Imagine the reality when the assistance needed is not vaccines but more imminent needs like food, blankets, shelter, as we would have to do in ordinary projects. You can see how challenging it is.”

Pat believes the global pandemic response has given us a “framework to somehow collectively work together to save our planet”. It has “added expediency for a global ‘wake-up’ on climate change and geopolitical issues”. He feels “optimistic that people will reconsider the relevance and importance of the Sustainable Development Goals for global society”. He senses a “new awareness” among students on campus at UCD, where the CHA offers a number of postgraduate courses, undergraduate electives and programmes focused on international humanitarian action.  

“I think our masters programme is quite different to other masters programmes and is aligned with UCD’s view of a global university.  It is delivered in partnership with seven universities in Europe and many Global South universities as well. Our annual intake of 25 masters students comprise approximately 80% non-Irish and 30% of these are typically non-EU. Approximately 40% of our students come with scholarships - from Irish Aid, Ford Foundation or Erasmus fellowships - especially those students coming from the Global South.”

The courses attract people from all walks of life. 

“One thing that's fascinating about the students is the cultural mix. Because our programme is interdisciplinary in nature, it brings students together from a host of disciplinary backgrounds - medicine, law, international relations, sociology, agriculture and management. When we bring all of that into the pot, I think it gives a richness. I believe we bring scholars with great intellects and rich experiences to Ireland and, in turn, share the Irish intellect and our culture globally."

The CHA is a pipeline to careers in the sector, enjoying strong partnerships with humanitarian stakeholders, from NGOs to the UN. When asked what drives him, Pat mentions recent good news he received via email. 

“One of last year’s masters students got in touch to say he has got quite a senior position in the New York chapter of the American Red Cross. Another email came from a scholar who is just finishing her PhD and she got a message from the Journal of International Humanitarian Action to say her paper has been accepted for publication. These types of messages give me a high.”

Other students veer towards working with governments. 

“Our goal is to educate the next generation of humanitarian actors to the highest professional and academic standards. It always gives me a great boost to see our students going on to find success in this important field.”


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