Preparing to Lead the Response: The Public Health and Humanitarian Assistance (PHHA) Certificate

Two days before John Bryan, MPH ’15, arrived in Sierra Leone to work on a reproductive health project, the first case of Ebola was confirmed. Quickly shifting gears, John spent the next nine weeks helping the International Rescue Committee secure emergency funds and organize a district-level Ebola response team. This experience, John would later recall, showed him that he was capable of “making a meaningful contribution to emergency response efforts.” It was also exactly the kind of work he had been preparing for as a student pursuing a Certificate in Public Health and Humanitarian Assistance (PHHA) at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

An integral part of the two-year Columbia MPH experience, the course of study undertaken for a Certificate provides students with an advanced level of study in a particular area of public health. This work is undertaken in addition to the Mailman School’s MPH Core and departmental requirements.

During the past year, in addition to addressing the Ebola crisis in West Africa, students pursuing the PHHA Certificate helped respond to the massive earthquake in Nepal, the refugee crisis stemming from civil wars in countries around the world, and attacks on education in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia.

While students pursuing the PHHA Certificate share an interest in using technical skills to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian action, their areas of interest vary widely. Accordingly, the PHHA Certificate offers 13 courses, taught by experts who have spent years in the field responding to both short- and long-term emergencies. (See box for course listing.) This training is designed to build upon and leverage the strengths of PopFam’s Program on Forced Migration and Health (PFMH), which has been working since 1998 to “professionalize” the field of humanitarian response.

Courses available to PHHA students:
  • Accountability in Humanitarian Aid
  • Protection of Children in Disaster and War
  • Communicable Diseases in Complex Emergencies
  • Planning Child Survival Programs
  • Gender-Based Violence in Complex Emergencies
  • Food and Nutrition in Complex Emergencies
  • Water and Sanitation in Complex Emergencies
  • Malaria Program Planning
  • Epidemiological Methods for Measuring Human Rights Abuses
  • Psychosocial and Mental Health Issues in Forced Migration
  • Reproductive Health in Complex Emergencies

Finally, while the PHHA Certificate program prepares students for emergency response, it goes far beyond immediate action. “Within every humanitarian crisis is the opportunity to help countries rebuild or strengthen their health system,” says Professor Neil Boothby, EdD, and director of PopFam’s PFMH. Accordingly, a major emphasis of the PHHA and the PFMH is training professionals to strengthen health systems.

It is an approach that is bearing fruit, as underscored by the large numbers of PFMH and PHHA graduates who are providing global leadership in places affected by natural disasters and ongoing conflict. Today, these alumni hold leadership roles for the American Refugee Committee, the Carter Center, Catholic Relief Services, the Center for Disease Control International Medical Corps, OCHA, Partners In Health, Save the Children, UNHCR, UNICEF, USAID and the World Health Organization, to name a few.

“We tend to attract truly excellent and motivated students,” Dr. Boothby said. “I am not surprised by how far they go and how significant their work is.”