The Saving Game

By William Wheeler | Boston Magazine |

VanRooyen set up the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) to develop a brand-new tool kit and train people who can use it. HHI researchers, for example, wanted to figure out how emergency aid providers could prepare for a crisis in an unmapped, overpopulated slum. Many of these densely built communities (which are growing rapidly in developing nations worldwide) sit on lowlands — making them essentially defenseless against flooding. Without maps or demographic information, crisis responders come into flooding emergencies completely cold. Imagine New Orleans after Katrina, but without the evacuation, without streets wide enough for boats, and without navigation tools. How do you know where you are and how to get where you need to go? Using Nairobi as a model, the HHI is developing a prototype map that would provide the information emergency responders might need. Instead of just charting out roads, in other words, their model would identify the vulnerable populations, resources, and potential safety zones. It is the HHI’s hope that these maps can be used to predict the most effective methods to help such poor, densely settled regions before a crisis occurs.

HHI researchers are also looking at the more granular issues. Their Women in War program documents how social instability and violence affect a population, and how women can be agents of social change in a society. Through HHI’s Program on Humanitarian Effectiveness, faculty from diverse backgrounds apply quantitative analysis to past crisis responses, evaluating their performance and coming up with better approaches for the future. And each year, the HHI holds its Humanitarian Action Summit, at which more than 60 major agencies share best practices and tackle emerging issues.

All of this research and development is designed to support both people in the field and the new crop of humanitarians. It’s on the latter group that VanRooyen pins his highest hopes. He’s developed a revolutionary series of courses, which offer Harvard and Tufts students an education in all aspects of disaster response — from water and sanitation to logistics, healthcare to transportation. It’s startlingly hands-on. Each spring, students simulate a humanitarian crisis, combining a Darfur-like battlefield — complete with land mines and child soldiers — with a simulated flood. In so doing, they practice humility in the face of extreme stress, a necessary skill if you want to survive such conflicts. They’re joined by staffers from 10 humanitarian organizations — approximately 200 in all — to track down “displaced populations” in the Harold Parker State Forest in North Andover. During the summer, students conduct fieldwork in Lebanon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or post-quake Japan. The goal is for them to emerge from the program as fully functioning critical thinkers in the field, ready to dig a pit latrine, negotiate a roadblock, or use international law to identify human rights abuses.

IN SOME WAYS, you could say the HHI is using military-like tactics to build a newer, better humanitarian force. They’re centralizing the system, conducting rigorous research and development, and putting their recruits through boot camp. They even have access to a surveillance satellite — financed in 2010 with seed money from the actor George Clooney — which they’ve been using to track potential crises before they happen. Called the Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP), this arm of the HHI operates in near-real time, analyzing images taken only a few hours earlier. With this capability, they can go beyond merely recording evidence of crimes already committed and perhaps prevent them from happening in the first place.

Isaac Baker, 32, is part of the 14-member SSP team (four staffers and 10 interns) monitoring the fighting in Sudan via satellite from a nondescript office on Story Street in Harvard Square. On a brisk Thursday morning in early November, he hunches over his keyboard and opens Google Earth Pro, then scrolls over the screen, clicking his way to a small, light-brown strip that overlays the village in question. As a branch organization of the HHI, the SSP is trying to deter human rights abuses before they occur in Sudan, the location of Africa’s longest-running civil war, which has killed an estimated 2.2 million people.

  • Joshua

    This article is adulatory. VanRooyen is described in glowing terms. The author does not indicate any scepticism about the achievements and work of the Harvard Humanitarian Institute.

    Most serious critiques of the humanitarian business are rooted in the economic and bureaucratic institutions that humanitarianism has created. None of VanRooyen’s suggestions work to solve these problems.

    Furthermore, the author has not spent any time, it seems, either actually working out whether the SSP reports on Sudan are accurate, or looking at the effect of the distortions caused by the simplified language of these reports, which bang the drum for war at the expense of a considered understanding of the political dynamics on the ground.