Program on Forced Migration and Health Celebrates 25 Years

May 10, 2024

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Program on Forced Migration and Health (PFMH) in the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health at Columbia Mailman. To commemorate this milestone, PFMH held a 25th Anniversary celebration on April 25 at the Nursing School.

The event began with an afternoon symposium with alumni exploring the evolution of humanitarian standards and accountability and the future of humanitarian aid. The symposium was followed by a conversation with Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein, president of the International Peace Institute and Perry World House Professor of the Practice of Law and Human Rights at the University of Pennsylvania.

In opening remarks, Dean Linda P. Fried noted that PFM was one of the first academic programs in the world to address the deficiencies in health services provided in humanitarian response. “This program continues to champion and lead on professionalized and critical approaches to the delivery of humanitarian aid,” she said. “And I share with the program a commitment to educating the next generation of humanitarian leadership. … With the proliferation of conflict around the world, in many cases under unprecedented conditions, the work you do is even more critical and necessary.”

An opening panel on the evolution of humanitarian standards and accountability was moderated by Ron Waldman, PFMH’s first director. Waldman explained that the program came about in the wake of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the insufficient humanitarian response for refugees. Around the same time, NGOs created SPHERE Standards, which established principles and minimum standards for aid in humanitarian settings. Ashley Wolfington, MPH ’09, of Pathfinder International, spoke about the ultimately successful effort to include reproductive health in the UN’s Minimum Initial Service Package—a milestone, she said was achieved, in part, using data produced by PFMH’s Reproductive Health Access, Information and Services in Emergencies (RAISE) Initiative with partners. On the evolution of child protection standards, too, Hanna-Tina Fischer, DrPH ‘19, of Charité Center for Global Health added that work by PFMH faculty “was seminal.” More broadly, Laura Miller, MPH ‘11, at the International Rescue Committee, said public health education is advancing the goal of evidence-based decision-making in humanitarian response.

A man speaks in to a microphone

Mike Wessels, Professor Emeritus in the PFMH, moderated the second panel, which focused on the future of humanitarian aid. Traditionally, he said, humanitarian actors in the Global North have “marginalized local people, designating them as beneficiaries, which is a holdover of the ill-fated charity model, or as implementing partners, but it is an unequal partnership.” Recent “localization” efforts seek to do a better job, but questions remain. Bree Akesson, MPH ’06, of Wilfrid Laurier University, said she employs participatory research methods she learned as a PFMH student, such as how to give children a voice through arts-based activities. Layal Sarrouh, MPH ’12, a humanitarian policy expert and practitioner, related the satisfaction of seeing child protection measures she helped introduce in Syria continue to be used years later. The difference was a partnership with local experts. “You have to hand it over and allow everyone else to figure out how it works for them,” she said. Mendy Marsh, ‘08 MPH, of VOICE, said her organization meets with women’s rights organizations around the world and tells them, “We exist to help you navigate these systems” to access resources.

The program concluded with a discussion between Monette Zard, PFMH director and the Allan Rosenfield Associate Professor of Forced Migration and Health, and Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein, the former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Al Hussein said a rise in conflicts and related humanitarian crises—in Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan, DRC, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and beyond—are straining the humanitarian system to the breaking point. “The system is fragile,” he said, warning of an imminent collapse in the DRC. The world, he cautioned, is “sliding into absolute warfare,” where civilian casualties are commonplace. Conflict, he explained, often comes about due to a combination of extreme poverty and structural discrimination. Humanitarian responses are often stymied due to the myopathy of nations who can’t see past their own self-interest and are unwilling to cede authority to solve a collective problem. Yet opportunities for achieving positive change will open, Al Hussein concluded, saying, “There is enough good feeling and brain power around the world to offset what is happening. But we must recognize [the situation] for what it is. Ultimately, we need to be courageous.”

Watch a video series of discussions around the PFMH anniversary:

Reflections on the Founding of the PFMH with Dr. Carolyn Makinson and Dr. Ron Waldman

The Evolution of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Humanitarian Settings

Global Trends in Child Protection and Wellbeing: Insights from the CPC Learning Network