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Making Its Mark

Template NameA decade after its inception, Tufts' Feinstein International Center is making a powerful impact on humanitarian work around the world.


Dan Maxwell never saw himself working in an academic setting. "I didn't think academia was my cup of tea," admits the former regional representative for CARE International—a global humanitarian organization. But something about Tufts' Feinstein International Center and its eclectic mix of academics and practitioners from different disciplines appealed to him when he encountered the organization while working at CARE. "It crossed my mind that if you were ever going to work in academia, this would be a nice place to do it," he remembers. "It's positioned itself in a lot of creative, interstitial space."

In July, Maxwell became the newest member of the Feinstein Center. A decade old this year, the interdisciplinary center—which harnesses expertise from Tufts' Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and The Fletcher School—is dedicated to improving the effectiveness of humanitarian aid efforts around the world. Its focus on academic excellence, innovative research and the development of policies and best practices for the field attracted Maxwell to Tufts.

Grain circles

A grain circle is restored after having been destroyed.

"The research we do is academically rigorous, but relevant to the people who are on the front lines of humanitarian action," says Maxwell, a leading thinker on food security and emergency interventions in Africa.

Disseminating research to people working the field has been a goal of the center since its inception in 1996. But, as part of its new strategic plan, the center is striving to make information more readily available to humanitarian aid organizations. Senior Researcher Antonio Donini—who worked at the United Nations for more than 25 years before coming to Tufts—says the desire to keep the aid community informed on the latest research topics is what drives his work.

"We don't do research for the pleasure of doing research," says Donini, who is currently studying the impact of issues, such as terrorism and staff security, on humanitarian aid work in Afghanistan. "We are very much focused on using our research as a means of policy development. [We hope] our research will be translated into conclusions and recommendations that we will bring to the attention of the donor community, the United Nations and non-governmental organizations."

Beyond sharing research findings, a main goal of the center is to help agencies put that research into practice.

"It's not enough just to do good research and publish it," explains Peter Walker, who has directed the center since 2002. "We have to seek ways of putting that research into practice—whether it's through partnering with an NGO to pilot a program, acting as a long-term advisor to a process, [or working with organizations to] help them ratchet up the quality of their work."

Most staff members at the Center have worked in the trenches for relief agencies, so they can easily relate to the challenges these aid organizations face.

"I am not an academic by profession; I'm a practitioner," says Donini. "I think one of the strengths of the Center is this mix between academics and practitioners, which makes us an organization that is more grounded in terms of our ability to understand what is happening in the complex world."

Both Donini and Walker agree that, as an enterprise, humanitarian aid work has become more complex in the past few decades. "Since the end of the Cold War," Donini says, "I think what we have seen is a mushrooming of crises within countries and the corresponding expansion of the humanitarian sector."

"The research we do is academically rigorous, but relevant to the people who are on the front lines of humanitarian action."

— Dan Maxwell

Walker notes that the number of agencies interested in aid work has "rocketed" in the past decade, with community organizations, military forces, government departments and companies from the private sector joining NGOs in the field.

As the sector expands, so, too, does the need for more for accountability.

"One of the more recent developments has been an effort to try to make humanitarian action more accountable—both to the donors who pay for the assistance, but also to the beneficiaries," says Donini. Walker adds that a desire from funders to measure the impact of humanitarian work is starting to take root.

"This whole business of impact is becoming an area to research," Walker says. "How do you understand the impact of your work? You want to do this because you want to figure out what works best and how you do it best. If you've got no measure of efficacy, you've got a problem."

As part of an initiative funded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Walker and other Center staff are currently working with a group of Gates Foundation-sponsored NGOs in Africa to help them monitor and evaluate the progress of their projects. In the end, the center staff will help them determine the impact their work had on the community.

"The end point," Walker explains, "is you come up with a toolbox of methods to use for impact assessment—almost a template for how you approach it—and for these particular projects, a judgment on what type of impact they had."

Walker describes the Center's partnership with the Gates Foundation and the NGOs in Africa as part of a broader effort to build small "coalitions of the willing" throughout the world. "This is one of the reasons for working in partnership with others," Walker points out.

As the Center seeks to strengthen its existing partnerships and build new ones with NGOs and other organizations that work in the field, Donini views the Center's connection to what he calls "the outside world" as being vital.

"We hope that agencies will continue to come to us to [grow and develop]," says Donini. "It's something that we have done with a few major NGOs and will continue to do so that there is an interchange between an academic institution and the outside world—where real-life crisis situations are taking place."


Profile written by Meghan Mandeville.

Homepage/middle photo by Joanie Tobin, Tufts University Photo. Top photo by Mike Wodley.

This story originally ran on Sept. 18, 2006.