DV428      Half Unit
Managing Humanitarianism

This information is for the 2020/21 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Stuart Gordon CON.8.10


This course is available on the MSc in Anthropology and Development, MSc in Anthropology and Development Management, MSc in Conflict Studies, MSc in Development Management, MSc in Development Studies, MSc in Environment and Development, MSc in Gender, Peace and Security, MSc in Global Politics, MSc in Health and International Development, MSc in Human Rights, MSc in Human Rights and Politics, MSc in Inequalities and Social Science, MSc in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies, MSc in International Migration and Public Policy and MSc in Political Economy of Late Development. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

Places will be allocated with priority to ID and joint-degree students. If there are more ID and joint-degree students than DV428 can accommodate, these places will be allocated randomly. Non-ID/Joint Degree students will be allocated to spare places by random selection with the preference given first to those degrees where the regulations permit this option.

Generally, we provide sufficient places for all students who wish to take the course and register an interest in the first week of term.

Course content

The course looks at international, national and local responses to conflict and natural disasters. Building on an analysis of the causes, construction and consequences of humanitarian disasters, this course focuses on humanitarian actors (including aid workers, journalists, medics, government officials, soldiers, politicians and peace negotiators). It considers the principles and the politics of humanitarian action, exploring the overlaps and tensions between practices of humanitarian assistance and humanitarian intervention and how humanitarian institutions shape and are shaped by global governance and state power. It asks how humanitarianism relates to ideas about human rights and justice, and the politics of securitisation. It considers why humanitarian organisations and governments respond to some crises and not to others as well as the critique of humanitarian assistance and the ways in which the UN and NGO communities have sought to professionalise their activities. The course also looks at how recipients of humanitarian aid respond to these programmes, and in some cases subvert or transform them into quite different projects. Case studies will be drawn primarily from Africa, Central and South Asia and Latin America. However, there is also likely to be discussion of ongoing humanitarian emergencies, wherever they are located.


32 hours of lectures and 15 hours of seminars in the MT.

The course will be taught in the Michaelmas Term and will consist of 10 lectures of 120 minutes each and ten seminars of one-and-a-half hours (various days and times). There be a Revision Lecture in MT.

Five or Six  'Voice of Experience' lectures of up to two hours (from 18:00 on Mondays or Tuesdays depending on speaker availability).

There will be a reading week in Week 6.

Formative coursework

Students will receive feedback on seminar group presentations and have the option to write a formative essay, not exceeding 1,500 words. Essay topics will relate to seminar discussions and lecture material covered to date. Students will receive an indicative grade and written feedback within three weeks of submission (if submitted on time).  Students submit optional formative papers within two weeks of the seminar presentation.

Indicative reading

Stuart Gordon and Antonio Donini ‘Romancing Principles and Human Rights - Are Humanitarian Principles Salvageable?’ International Review of the Red Cross / Volume 97 / Issue 897-898 / June 2015, pp 77-109;

M. Barnett, (2011). Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism, Ithaca: Cornell University Press;

M. Barnett, M. Barnett & T. G. Weiss (Eds.), 2008. Humanitarianism in Question Politics Power and Ethics, Ithaca: Cornell University Press;

A. De Waal, 1997. Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa. Oxford:James Currey;

G. Loescher, (2001). The UNHCR and World Politics, Oxford University Press;

D. Rieff, (2002). A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, Vintage/Random House.


Take-home assessment (100%) in the LT.

The exam paper will be released in week 11 of the Michaelmas Term. The course is assessed through the submission of two 2000-word essays by Tuesday of week 1 of the Lent Term.

Student performance results

(2016/17 - 2018/19 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 20.6
Merit 69.1
Pass 10.1
Fail 0.2

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2020/21 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the situation of students in attendance on campus and those studying online during the early part of the academic year. For assessment, this may involve changes to mode of delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: International Development

Total students 2019/20: 184

Average class size 2019/20: 16

Controlled access 2019/20: Yes

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Leadership
  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Commercial awareness
  • Specialist skills