Introduction to Humanitarian Action

This course familiarizes participants with the fascinating but demanding field of international humanitarian action and the manifold problems associated with reducing human suffering in conflict areas. This course is designed to help students think through the main practical and academic issues—if not dilemmas—and debates in humanitarian affairs. Understanding these issues provides the participating students with an insight into the broader context of humanitarian assistance, which helps to understand and explain strengths and shortcomings of such aid and the (limited) options for further improvement of humanitarian action and its management. The lecture addresses the ideas behind; as well as the practices and legal context of humanitarian action, particularly the politics and management of humanitarian organizations and crises. In this vein, the lecture also discusses the main critiques of humanitarian action and possible alternatives to it. It is based on the idea that humanitarian aid should be carefully with a long-term perspective in mind. Otherwise, it can either reinforce conflict and exclusion, neglect the root causes of (complex) crises, or hinder access at a later stage of the crisis or during other crises. The course consists of three interrelated sections:

1. Context and Legal Basics
2. Actors and Organizations
3. Challenges and Cross-cutting Issue

The overall aim is to increase students’ knowledge and understanding of humanitarian action and develop their analytical skills to understand the differences between rhetoric and reality of past and present humanitarian interventions. Upon successful participation, students will

  • possess an overview of the history, issues, dilemmas, and actors in humanitarian intervention and the combination of unique factors and recurring issues;
  • understand the importance of a long-term perspective and local participation in humanitarian intervention;
  • know how to research and where to find relevant information on humanitarian crises, which is necessary to future work in the field; and
  • be able to assess shortcomings of current management approaches to humanitarian affairs and identify conceptual and practical problems.

Requirements for course certificates/module examinations

The final grade consists of a Referat (presentation with a 1-page handout) (30 %) during the semester, as well as an exam at the end of the semester (70 %).

Optionalbereich students will need to participate in additional thematic study trips of their choice. further information will be provided in the introductory session.

Participation requirements

The course is open to students with a strong interest in interdisciplinary themes from all schools or faculties at Ruhr University Bochum. Requirements for participation: minimum 2nd semester, good knowledge of the English language (lecture is entirely taught in English), and a high degree of interest in international humanitarian action. Students from disciplines relevant to humanitarian issues, such as medical, civil engineering, law, environmental technology, business management, and theology, etc. are also welcome to participate.

From the winter semester 2021/2022 on, the course is also open to UNIC-Students with up to 7 places. You can find more detailed information here.

The course is limited to 30 participants.

The course is offered every winter semester. Registration for winter semester 2023/2024 is possible via CampusOffice starting on 18 September 2023.


Gelsdorf, K.H. and Maxwell, D.G., (2019) Understanding the Humanitarian World, Routledge, Milton Park, Abingdon, New York.

Further articles and web-based resources will be indicated in the syllabus.

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