In the final Faculty Spotlight post for this academic year, the subject is Julia Stewart-David, who spent this past year at Fletcher as a visiting fellow.
I am about the twelfth visiting European Union (EU) Fellow at The Fletcher School (records are a bit patchy) but we can thank Professor Alan Henrikson for having reached out to set up the EU Fellowship at Fletcher somewhere back toward the end of the last century. So what is a visiting EU Fellow? Well, there are around ten of us each year, mid- or senior-level career officials in European Union institutions, who are given the opportunity to have a sabbatical year in a select few universities worldwide. While we are visiting fellows, we have a dual mandate of pursuing research and of educating about the European Union and its policies through outreach and teaching. We each bring a different area of practitioner expertise.
The Fletcher School was my first choice destination, mainly because professionally I knew of its strong interest in human security issues, through the influential research work of the Feinstein Center. My “usual” job is a policy role in the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, co-managing a team working on evidence and disaster risk management. I’ve been in the humanitarian sector for over a decade now, working closely with the UN and international NGOs on quality of aid. But being in a sector whose business is crisis leaves little time for deeper reflection on the world and the interlinked complexities of power, politics, poverty, and human potential. One of the dilemmas of disaster risk management is how to get better investment over the long-term to help communities prevent or better cope with crises, when the immediate humanitarian response is so constantly overwhelmed by the need to respond to the emergencies of the present. Most of these are prolonged conflict-related “complex emergencies.”
So imagine my sense of opportunity at having an academic year where my professional life is focused upon thinking, reading, and contributing to a longer-term process of reflection on change in the humanitarian sector. While at Fletcher, I have been researching how humanitarian organizations learn. This is a time when the sector has undergone much soul-searching ahead of the recent World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. Failure takes its toll in lives; which leads perversely to risk-aversion in organizations trying to provide assistance, when bold action, or maybe even a radical new approach, could be what’s needed.
I have found life here at Fletcher a wonderful privilege. There is a strong sense of community and a core of thoughtful people who care about the world and how they can best contribute to it. The most remarkable learning resource is the diversity of student experience and interest. As to the professional experience I have been able to share, it has covered a wide range of topics: from strategies to address violent extremism, to the forthcoming UK referendum on the European Union; from humanitarian financing and use of evidence and evaluation, to tips on combining motherhood and management in an international organization that has still not reached gender parity. I have also enjoyed explaining my passion for “participatory leadership” practice in policy-making, or put another way: bringing diverse people together to co-generate future action based on collective wisdom. In my mind, international and community leadership to address the challenges of our times requires multi-disciplinary reflection, adaptability and an ability to host difficult conversations on questions that really matter to society. I see these qualities in abundance at Fletcher. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if traditional educational approaches and curricula would value and develop those kinds of skills at all levels from a young age?
My family and I will be taking many happy memories from Boston back with us to Brussels when we head home this summer. I also have a head full of ideas of things we should try to do better in the humanitarian sphere.