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From medicine to law, admittance to many vocations is attached to undertaking an oath to serve humanity. Conversely, universities and institutions of higher education pride themselves on embodying a collective entity of bright minds dedicated to pursuing knowledge for the sake of serving a higher purpose.

One would be hard pressed to find a school that holds itself to these rigorous standards more than Harvard University, where the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative has been making remarkable strides in assisting victims of human rights violations, war, and natural disasters since its establishment on campus grounds in 1999. Taking advantage of Harvard’s sterling reputation in both research and education, the center has combined studies in fields ranging from public health to sociology in its solution-based and interdisciplinary approach to tackling humanitarian crises around the world.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, HHI warned Louisiana and Mississippi residents against consuming potentially contaminated water. The storm had produced perfect conditions for waterborne disease to spread. Thus, it was imperative for federal and state agencies to provide a despondent populace with clean food and water, as well as basic health services, in a quick and efficient manner. Studies funded by HHI, meanwhile, have suggested that a rise in the incidence of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo may be correlated with the withdrawal of UN troops, which provide civilians with protection against rebel forces. Aside from offering expert advice, HHI has helmed technology to better track and prevent such incidents. Its members analyzed U.S. satellite images to uncover the cause of damage to several oil fields in the Republic of Sudan and South Sudan last year. Because these reservoirs were located along the border between the two countries and both held the other accountable for striking first, it was critical for HHI to prevent the formation of further tensions between the two nations by doing a thorough assessment of the evidence at hand.

HHI also has an eye toward human development. Specifically, it aims to foster new leaders in the field of humanitarianism through innovative training programs. By simulating extreme conditions – even going so far as to place students on food rations and creating the occasional kidnapping scenario – HHI is able to better prepare its members to think rationally and act with conviction on the field.

Although HHI has been in existence for only 14 years, its past and present accomplishments suggest that it will remain a stronghold of humanitarianism for decades to come.

– Melrose Huang

Sources: Harvard Humanitarian Institute, The Boston Globe, BBC, Impunity Watch, Harvard School of Public Health
Photo: Harvard Gazette