Public Health and Humanitarian Action

Among the greatest challenges to ensuring the health of populations are natural and manmade catastrophes. Tsunamis, hurricanes and tornadoes—some of which are driven by long-term climate change—have displaced millions in recent years. Armed conflicts continue to destroy communities, wreaking havoc on food, sanitation, and supply chains, and propelling survivors into fragile refugee camps and crowded urban areas. Increasingly, humanitarian responders are also asked to promote health systems development in fragile states and post conflict scenarios.

Across all continents, there is a critical need for technically competent public health professionals who understand the global dynamics of acute and complex emergencies, including the continuum from prevention and risk reduction to emergency response, and the transition to development. The Mailman School is internationally renowned for the depth and strength of its training in this field. Our new Certificate builds upon the strengths of Program on Forced Migration and Health and prepares students to work in natural disasters, complex emergencies, and post-conflict settings. Taking a pragmatic, interdisciplinary, and human rights-based approach, it equips graduates with the skills necessary to gather, analyze, and disseminate knowledge needed to implement health-related programs and systems in humanitarian settings.

Students will learn the most up-to-date needs of international humanitarian organizations and acquire the skills necessary to succeed in complex emergencies, fragile states and post conflict environments. The interdisciplinary education will ensure that our graduates are prepared to lead in the field for many years to come. 


  1. Design assessment, monitoring, and evaluation strategies relevant to the goals of humanitarian programs and the constraints within which they operate

  2. Critically assess humanitarian evidence, policy, and practice

  3. Triangulate and use quantitative and qualitative data from different sources to inform policy and practice in complex and humanitarian settings

  4. Communicate effectively with a variety of audiences about public health research, issues, and practice in complex and humanitarian settings

  5. Prioritize human rights and ethics in humanitarian policy and practice

Admissions Eligibility

Public Health and Humanitarian Action is open to Columbia MPH students in the following departments:

Population & Family Health

Students who select Public Health and Humanitarian Action as their concentration are preferred to have at least one year of full-time health-related work experience. Applications that do not meet this criteria but are otherwise exceptional can be admitted. 

Note that given the required classes, the program may be most compatible for students enrolled in Population & Family Health.

Learn More

Visit the Certificates Database to learn more about core and credit requirements.

Sample Courses

Investigative Methods in Complex Emergencies

The design, implementation and evaluation of health interventions in complex emergencies requires a particular professional orientation and skill set. Students gain a greater understanding of the use of qualitative and quantitative methods tailored for this purpose. The course particularly emphasizes the complementary roles of qualitative and quantitative approaches to investigation. By the end of the class, students should be competent in a range of skills including sampling strategy, designing surveys, running focus groups and participative activities, calculating morbidity and mortality rates, and analyzing narrative text. Students will develop a diverse skill set relevant to their future work in a range of field settings.

Public Health and Humanitarian Action

Humanitarian action has come to occupy a central place in world politics and a theory of rights rather than charity is now driving international assistance and protection in wars and disasters. Global events over the past two decades indeed suggest that the world needs a humanitarian system capable of responding reliably, effectively and efficiently across a full range of emergencies. Whether people are suffering as a result of an earthquake in China or organized violence in Darfur, the humanitarian response system is expected to reach them in a timely and informed manner. Global wealth suggests that it can; and, global morality says that it should. Success of humanitarian action depends upon political, technical and organizational factors. The practice of public health focuses on improving the technical and organizational capacities, but this course will display that political forces are equally essential for alleviating human suffering. Deep problems of political distortion and perennial problems of agency performance and practice continue to compromise global, impartial and effective humanitarian action. This course examines efforts to provide humanitarian assistance and protection in war and disaster crises. It combines the theoretical with the possible, highlighting constraints to action from the perspective of the humanitarian agency and professional worker in the field. Key public health priorities—including the major causes of disease and death and how best to detect, prevent and treat themare examined. Particular attention is paid to human rights and humanitarian protection, including their nature, content, and linkages with public health assistance. Students will be exposed to current trends and debates, sides will be taken and defended, and the class will be enriched by the participation, contributions and challenges of the students.

Related Certificates

Work experience not required

Child, Youth, and Family Health
Global Health
Health and Human Rights
Sexuality, Sexual, and Reproductive Health

Related Links

The Averting Maternal Death and Disability Program (AMDD)
Child Protection in Crisis
The National Center for Disaster Preparedness
sidHARTe - Strengthening Emergency Systems