CCOUC Visiting Professorial Lecture: The Humanitarian Research Agenda – Current Controversies and Opportunities


Professor Jennifer Leaning, Director of Harvard University’s the François-Xavier Bagnoud Centre for Health and Human Rights, the FXB Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at Harvard School of Public Health and Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, shared her valuable insights into the evolving nature of humanitarian response to natural disaster at the CCOUC Disaster and Humanitarian Seminar Series on 25 June 2014.

An expert in public health response to humanitarian crises, Professor Leaning’s research and teaching interests are in public health and policy response to humanitarian crises and legal and normative issues in these crisis settings. Prior to her current appointment at the FXB Center, Dr. Leaning served for five years as co-director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. From 1999 to 2005, Dr. Leaning directed the Program on Humanitarian Crises and Human Rights at the FXB Center.  From 1984-1997 she held progressively responsible managerial roles in the second largest health care organization in Massachusetts, serving for the last five years as the medical director. 

She has extensive experience assessing response to wars and disasters in crisis-affected regions of Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia.  She has served on the boards of Physicians for Human Rights, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Oxfam America and currently is a Board member of the Eastern Massachusetts Division of the American Red Cross, the seventh largest Red Cross chapter in the US.

Professor Leaning told the audience that the world disaster trends were changing drastically in an intricate way: the number of natural disasters is increasing; the number of associated death has dropped; and the economic cost of rebuilding is elevating. Natural disaster, climate change and environmental degradation are inseparable phenomena: Environmental degradation worsens climate change, while climate change aggregates the consequences natural disasters stirring up.

Aside from the climate change problem Hong Kong and Shanghai faced, Professor Leaning was of the opinion that the two cities warranted particular concern due to the high density of high-rise buildings, which implied difficulty of evacuation and high cost of rebuilding.

Adopting the classic view of disaster cycle, Professor Leaning declared that we were now in the midst of the pre-phase, and disaster could strike whenever and wherever. With climate change, she strongly believed that the global community would have to mitigate and reduce the impact of disaster at the same time. Involving the community for such response was of paramount significance. “Disaster is a way of life”, she highlighted it to the audience. Accordingly, humanitarian response was becoming more challenging. The scale, intensity and complexity of natural disasters were becoming more prominent. Adaptation and resilience were the ways to mitigate impacts of disaster. Professor Leaning strongly suggested that both the government and NGOs should adopt a new strategy to accommodate such drastic changes.

With her rich exposure, Professor Leaning ended the seminar by leaving much inspiration for the next generation of humanitarian workers.