From the field to the classroom

Imri Schattner-Ornan

Imri is a Senior Lecturer in Humanitarian Studies at LSTM and LSTM’s Director of Studies for the LEAP programme.

Before entering academia Imri worked in the humanitarian field for eight years, working for humanitarian NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Rescue Committee. During this time, he worked in conflict areas, refugees camps and during epidemics managing relief and health programmes.

Below he reflects on his field experience and how the LEAP programme has evolved to create a perfect blend of academic insight and front-line experience for the humanitarian professionals of today.

From the field to the classroom

I started working in the humanitarian field in 2009 and went on to have a number of different positions in international humanitarian NGOs, working in Africa, until 2016. I always worked in the field, as a project coordinator or manager; meaning I worked directly with communities in remote locations where we were providing relief. My role often saw me negotiate our work with local authorities, rebel groups, criminal bands, and everyone else active in the zone. I managed groups of international and national staff, worked in hospitals and refugees’ camps, responded to displacements and epidemics and saw both the launch of new humanitarian programmes and their final closure or handover to the authorities. This was an extremely rewarding period of my career and I still miss life in the field.

After several years in the field, for family reasons, I moved into teaching. I began working with graduate students to help prepare them for development and humanitarian field work. Working in the field ended up being a good groundwork for this, I often found myself discussing with my team members the reasons and challenges of our interventions, and this helped me prepare students to understand the humanitarian field. As field practitioner, I was also keenly aware of the joys and frustration in this line of work, which helped me to provide students with a full picture of life in the field.

This experience led me to Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM), where I am now a Senior Lecturer on Humanitarian Studies and the LSTM’s Director of Studies for the LEAP programme.

Why is the LEAP programme vital for humanitarians?

As a humanitarian field practitioner, I believe LEAP gives students the opportunity to explore a wide variety of topics relevant to their profession. The programme covers political and social sciences, medical and healthcare sciences and has a strong research component that allows students to reflect critically on their work and position in the field. It tackles real situations and cases from the field, but through the academic depth of world-class universities, a unique element down to the co-production of the programme between academics and humanitarian professionals.

The LEAP programme is innovative because it offers students a modular approach to learning, that fits well with their work periods. Humanitarian practitioners need something flexible, something that can fit in with their work schedule and busy lives. LEAP is specially created for that. As a programme designed by humanitarians, for humanitarians, it is made to suit the capacity for field workers to pursue their studies during their assignments and spread their degree over several years. The various pathways, such as a Postgraduate Certificate, Postgraduate Diploma or full Masters Degree means it responds to the students’ capacity, time and long term project.

What skills and qualities will you develop on the programme?

Both as a humanitarian and academic, I strongly believe that we should have well-informed, well-trained and above everything, critical thinking humanitarian field staff. As everyone who has worked in the field knows, it is a complex occupation, not a simple one. The choices humanitarians are faced with in the field, whether regarding treatment protocols, negotiating access or dealing with various stakeholders are rarely obvious and usually require a critical reflection process. I want to have reflective, creative, and critical humanitarian fieldworkers; people who are able to understand the complexity of their surroundings.

The truth is that whatever your position is in the humanitarian field, either in your own country or internationally, providing health, shelter or protection, or part of a local NGO, an international one, the UN, local government or other bodies, you will be called to make choices that will impact people. As humanitarians, we have a responsibility to make the right choices. This of course means doing no harm, but also reflecting on our approaches, history, and circumstances where we work. An academic programme like LEAP allows students to develop the skills and capacities for critical reflection and link those skills with our daily humanitarian practice.

Our Impact

Although it is a new programme, feedback from students has been extremely positive and many have highlighted how the teaching helps them reflect better on their practice, make more informed choices and empowers them in their decision making. This is extremely valuable, and we can see already how students in the field are using evidence and critical perspective in their daily activities. As students write often about their work and experience, the impact is immediately noticeable.

From a personal perspective, I believe that by increasing the knowledge and skills of humanitarians, we are providing better support and assistance to those we serve. At the end, for me, striving to always be a better humanitarian is a part of my mission as a humanitarian. It is a part of our engagement and responsibility. I want to look beyond not doing harm, I want to be better and to do better.

What our students say