‘I found myself working in a sector that Einstein might consider insane’

9 May 2018

Pat F Gibbons, director of UCD’s Centre for Humanitarian Action. Image: UCD

Pat F Gibbons of UCD describes the challenges and potential rewards of working as a researcher of humanitarianism.

A quick look at the global news headlines will tell you that, while progress is being made in some parts of the world, we are still a long, long way from being an equal, fair and prosperous planet.

Knowing that those who do not learn from history stand to repeat it, researchers in humanitarianism are working to better understand this inequality with the hope of finding possible answers.

One such researcher is Pat F Gibbons, the director of University College Dublin’s (UCD) Centre for Humanitarian Action (CHA).

Having worked for more than a decade in Africa and rural Ireland, Gibbons returned to academia in the late 1990s where he introduced humanitarian education to UCD through the development of the MSc in humanitarian action.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

Like most things I do, I was inspired to engage in research out of need. I found myself working in a sector that Einstein might consider as insane – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Global humanitarian need is growing at a pace that greatly exceeds increases in supply. Our wider society has become immune to the repeated calls for support from frontline aid workers who are powerless to address disasters that beset the world’s most vulnerable.

I have no doubt that academia can do more to steer global society toward a better agenda for humanity.

I cannot say that any one event spurred me towards research but, rather, disillusionment with the lack of innovation in a sector that is obviously lagging in the obvious need.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I am principal investigator on three major projects currently:

  • The preparedness and resilience to address urban vulnerabilities is a Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme with partners from five universities, four NGOs and a private sector partner that work with slums in three testbed cities, namely Nairobi, Bogotá and Jakarta. We are examining ways to enhance resilience and prevent disasters.
  • The building resilience through education programme (BRTE) is also a Horizon 2020 programme with partners that include Wolaita Sodo University in Ethiopia, one NGO, a private company and a European university network. Due to the protracted and recurring nature of climatic shocks and stresses in the Wolaita area of Ethiopia, there is a need for a paradigm shift in the way aid is delivered to meet immediate life-saving assistance while working towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda.
  • The establishment of an international summer school on gender-based violence in emergencies. Gender-based violence counts among the most heinous crimes imaginable that invariably occur wherever a society is stressed, yet we don’t do enough to prepare for or prevent same.
In your opinion, why is your research important?

I could try to seek the high moral ground and justify this research on the basis of a moral imperative or a strong ethical rationale in the interest of humanity. However, there is an even stronger ‘self-interest’ rationale based on growing global insecurity fuelled by increasing global inequality.

The founding father of my university, John Henry Newman, while a man of a different era, saw the university as a place to enlarge the mind and engage with research that in the modern era might be labelled ‘transdisciplinary’.

I would like to think that we in UCD CHA are not confined by the rules of any discipline, or indeed blinkered by any particular conceptual position.

The reason our research is important is that it is dealing with the most important problems of our era – urbanisation, climate change and recurring disasters, and gender-based violence – which are all key elements of the UN’s SDG agenda.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

It may be strange and surprising to some to realise the huge commercial application of humanitarian research – the global humanitarian budget in 2017 exceeded $28bn.

There is growing private sector engagement in the humanitarian sector and there is a significant drive to progress the notion of corporate social responsibility (CSR) to one of ‘shared value’. In practice, this would mean growing private sector engagement in the humanitarian enterprise.

For example, say a company making mobile phones donates phones or monies as part of CSR. It might be better served to engage in R&D to provide phones with appropriate applications and sell them at reasonable rates in the interest of humanity.

This same thinking can be extended to our BRTE programme, where we engage our Ethiopian partners with companies in Ireland who may want to engage through our partner university in Ethiopia.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

George Bernard Shaw once famously said: “You see things that are and wonder why, but I dream things that never were and wonder why not.” I think we need to be bolder in our research and fearless in addressing the growing levels of inequality.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I would like to see more work done on rethinking the global governance architecture.

The structures of the UN and/or the rules and regulations governing its modus operandi – including international law – have been slow to evolve to reflect the global realities of the 21st century.

While outside the remit of humanitarian research, it is generally agreed that solutions to the current impasses in places such as Syria, Yemen and Iraq will require political intervention on the part of the international community.

I sincerely hope we don’t have to wait for World War III to advance the next iteration of a ‘fit for purpose’ global governance system.

Are you a PhD researcher? Can you explain your work in three minutes of engaging chat? Then you could be our next Researchfest champion. Find out how to apply here.