22 January 2010

Master of Disaster students flown to Haiti

A special postgraduate degree course in disaster management has been run jointly by the University of Copenhagen and University of Lund since 2008. The course was established after the experience of the Indian Ocean Tsunami and other recent catastrophic disasters, where some needs by aid agencies on the ground were oversupplied due to duplication, while other needs were unattended to. According to Lecturer and Course Leader Peter Kjær Jensen, the relief work often proved ineffectual in part because the organisations failed to coordinate their efforts on the ground and in part because they lacked sufficient understanding of the culture and religion of the local population. The programme, leading to a master's degree in disaster management, attracts professionals from around the world and aims to train them in the best methods for organising and administering available help. Three of its students are now on their way to Port-au-Prince.

Students on their way to Port-au-Prince

Earthquake in Haiti. Photo: American Red Cross

The current batch of students come from over 20 countries and comprise doctors, engineers, social scientists, journalists, logisticians and other professionals, from a wide range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. In addition to the practical and theoretical training that the disaster management students receive, they also take away one additional practical tool - a first-class network of professional contacts. The network called "The Backbone" can be ent to aid workers at any time, day or night and provides professional advice and assistance from former and current students and university staff with extensive skills and experience in catastrophe management.

- "The extreme poverty of Haiti's inhabitants has generated huge tensions, which the aid workers will have to negotiate in order to get aid through," continues Course Leader Peter Kjær Jensen

- "One of the most important aspects of the programme is to instill in students a strong awareness for the local culture of those affected. The construction and organisation of camps and coordination with local authorities is an important part of relief work, but has to be tackled differently, depending on if the disaster is in Haiti or Pakistan."

Many of the students on the disaster management programme already have a lengthy career in international aid work. This also applies to the three on their way to Haiti: Sune Bülow works as an emergency response officer with the Danish Red Cross and will be organising IT and telecommunications support in Haiti. Jesper Holmer Lund, a humanitarian programme officer with the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has many years experience in being sent to the world's disaster zones on behalf of the UN. Yvon St-Martin is a native Haitian who is returning to help his homeland after just one semester on the programme.

The international Master of Disaster Management is offered through the University of Copenhagen's, Copenhagen School of Global Health, in conjunction with Lund University, Sweden.