Humanitarian Challenges: Global Innovations and Initiatives


The Humanitarian Challenges seminars introduce students to global citizenship, the challenges that face societies in our contemporary world, and approaches of both thought and action that address these challenges. "Humanitarian" by definition implies promoting human welfare, social justice, and human rights. "Challenges" refers to the obstacles that block the achievement of those ideals. We’ll gain an appreciation of ties that bind us to people in other contexts and societies. We will explore humanitarian dilemmas resulting from natural disasters, the refugee crisis, the challenges of human rights for children and aging populations, issues of racism, discrimination and economic distortions, and the opportunities, dangers and constraints of technology. The lives and efforts of great humanitarian activists and initiatives of the 20th century revive our faith in the future as we confront environmental hazards, threats to human dignity, and social inequality. Our sources range from literature, poetry, music, and film to spiritual texts, biographies and humanitarian policies. Throughout our courses and weekly programs we will explore means of advocacy, modes of dissent, models of civic mobilization, and possibilities for change.


Seminar: Cultural Anthropology 190FS/Public Policy 190FS — MAKING YOUR CASE: Advocacy for Change.  (EI, SS, CCI)

Ingrid Bianca Byerly, Senior Lecturing Fellow and Research Scholar, Cultural Anthropology and Public Policy

How did Mandela defuse an audience of critics with a single speech? How can Tibetan monk meditation be seen as a form of cultural advocacy? What did a Vietnamese pop star do to masterfully sustain and blend the traditional and contemporary music of his homeland?

Effective advocacy is essential in achieving humanitarian goals. This course will explore the theoretical and practical elements of advocacy; especially in relation to pressing humanitarian challenges. We explore public policy issues, and focus on global crises to identify not only your own cause for change, but for the way in which to ‘make your case’ for change. While the focus is on efficient oral communication and effective presentation skills (both in large public speaking environments, and in smaller interactive exchanges), stress is also given to ethics in decision-making, considerations of cultural sensitivity and awareness of global codes of conduct. In the development of any compelling arguments, thoughtful considerations have to be afforded any debate and written expositions for presentation that will have potential effects on others, so emphasis is placed inter-cultural sensitivity, variable codes of conduct, and the human dimensions of the communication process; vocal intonation, body behavior, audience evaluation, focus, control, distraction, and self-awareness.

Advocating for Change explores public advocacy, empowering students to speak up for causes they care about. Tracing different forms of activism across diverse eras and cultures, the course explores the mechanics of successful social movements, including effective public speaking strategies, cultural nuances, and personal charisma.

The course is geared towards students interested in entering the public or political arena, those interested in investing their skills and passions in NGO’s or charitable ventures, and those spearheading initiatives towards global change. For experienced speakers and novices alike, the discussion-based course emphasizes self-reflection and growth. The most important things you learn will be about yourself. 

Seminar: Cultural Anthropology 190FS — TECHNOLOGY, CULTURE and SCIENTIFIC INITIATIVES: Approaches towards Social Change (CZ, SS, CCI, EI, STS)

Richard Collier, Visiting Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Archivist at Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History

Science and technology are not simply instrumental additions to our public and private lives, “gifts” as it were to make our lives more enjoyable, more efficient, more convenient, more everything. The institutions of scientific practice and the products and processes of technological development do not come to us free of value, insulated from the political, social and cultural debates and struggles that define our daily existence, but are themselves reflections of those debates and struggles, as well as the fears and aspirations present in society. There is an ongoing need to examine the relationship between society and technology, and of the ways that technology serves to mediate our relationships with the outside world, other people, and ourselves.  Visual media from Metropolis to Twilight Zone to The Matrix have posed questions, concerns and criticisms of technological control and the status of technology in daily human life. It is an especially complex task, for technology, whether seen as the sum of our practical knowledge of the world, artisan skills, or the totality of the human-created world, saturates our existence and touches all our personal, social, institutional, and material relations. It bears on us, but at the same time it is there as a potential ally in our efforts to manage our lives and improve the conditions of our existence. Each encounter spins us out into a labyrinth of processes and histories. 

Our world is defined for us by finite resources, fragile ecosystems, debilitating diseases, competing or conflicting interests, and unequal access. Wherever we turn, we can find individuals and groups employing the tools of science and technology to address concerns over human welfare, to work for community change, advocate for new ideas or programs, or to improve the quality of life of a community’s members. Viewed from that perspective, science and technology comprise many of the tools and resources that can be focused to address humanitarian struggles for the betterment of human welfare and a more equitable distribution of resources. To become aware of and to recognize how social actors come to view science and technology as viable, strategic, even necessary components in their work for community welfare and improvement is critical to an understanding of communities themselves.

Seminar: English 190FS — THE AGE OF HUMAN RIGHTS: From Childhood to Aging (ALP, SS)

Tsitsi Jaji, Associate Professor, Department of English

The twentieth century saw many of the most egregious forms of racism, discrimination against women, and anti-poor laws discredited, and in some places, dismantled. However, we rarely consider age as a special category of human rights. Demographics are shifting across the globe: industrialized nations are rapidly aging, while the average age in the Global South is decreasing. As our societies face new humanitarian challenges what can we learn from literature, music, and films that have already reflected on coming of age, aging, and intergenerational relationships. We will read nonfiction by medical practitioners, creative texts from Shakespeare’s King Lear to the African American author, Ernest Gaines’s Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and welcome special guests like film-maker Rea Tajiri (Wisdom Grown Wild); and one of Duke Medical School’s top geriatricians, Mitchell Heflin. We will also visit sites in Durham with unique approaches to building relationships between children and the elderly. Students who’ve taken this class before valued its impact on their relationships with family members of different generations, and all members of the seminar will become more confident writers, leaders and participants in discussion, and better informed about age, ageism and the rights of the very young and very old.

Seminar: Cultural Anthropology 190FS — THE LIMITS OF GOOD INTENTIONS: The Promises and Confines of Effective Humanitarianism (CCI, EI, SS)

Laura Wagner, Visiting professor, Cultural Anthropology and Radio Haiti Project Archivist

Few things appear more morally clear than saving lives, combating injustice, and alleviating human suffering. Why, then, is humanitarian intervention so complicated and often so disastrous in practice? What are the limits of good intentions?

In this course, we will explore the history of humanitarianism; forms of humanitarian response (from large, highly bureaucratized international organizations to small local projects); the complex and often fuzzy boundaries between humanitarianism, development projects, human rights claims and military intervention; and media spectacles of crisis, suffering, heroism, and salvation. We will focus in particular (though not exclusively) on the 2010 Haiti earthquake as a case study — a well-known, highly publicized disaster in a long-misrepresented and sensationalized land. This is a lens through which to understand how an initial moment of crisis engenders a massive international aid response, and how that aid response plays out in the long term. Despite, and because of, Haiti’s long history of foreign intervention and that initial appeal to “save Haiti” in the wake of the earthquake, the post-disaster humanitarian effort has been regarded by Haitians, non-Haitian aid workers, and the media as a failure. By extension, we embark on an analysis of the structural limitations and personal obligations experienced within other aid economies. Students will draw upon historical and anthropological perspectives, journalistic accounts, memoir, and fiction to better understand the macroscopic and theoretical implications of aid, and the lived experiences of those who intervene and those who are intervened upon.

Faculty Director

Ingrid Bianca Byerly
Ingrid Bianca Byerly
  • Senior Lecturing Fellow and Research Scholar in the Department of Cultural Anthropology
Campus Box: 
(919) 684-5012