Credit points


Campus offering

No unit offerings are currently available for this unit



Teaching organisation

3 hours per week for 12 weeks or equivalent

Unit rationale, description and aim

Humanitarian aid workers are required to provide life-saving relief like food, water, shelter and medical treatment to populations in distress with the aim to alleviate suffering and restore human dignity. In responding to complex emergencies arising out of conflict and natural disasters, humanitarian work is an important part of the international development sector. This unit provides students with a foundational introduction to the principles, concepts and procedures characterising humanitarian work and aid. Students will examine the historical evolution of humanitarian aid, humanitarian principles and organisations as well as the relationship between humanitarian and development work. The unit will canvass a variety of important issues in the contemporary humanitarian sector, including human rights, gender, climate change, food security and civil-military relations. It will provide students with a good understanding of the complex web of international humanitarian actors and the international frameworks governing humanitarian practice through the use of case studies from the developing world.

The aim of this unit is to acquaint students with the evolution of humanitarian action and the complex issues facing contemporary aid workers and humanitarian relief organisations.

Learning outcomes

To successfully complete this unit you will be able to demonstrate you have achieved the learning outcomes (LO) detailed in the below table.

Each outcome is informed by a number of graduate capabilities (GC) to ensure your work in this, and every unit, is part of a larger goal of graduating from ACU with the attributes of insight, empathy, imagination and impact.

Explore the graduate capabilities.

On successful completion of this unit, students should be able to:

LO1 - Describe the international humanitarian sector and the work carried out by humanitarian relief organisations roles played by international humanitarian and actors (GA2, GA4)

LO2 - Explain the international principles undergirding and governing humanitarian action and discuss how these are applied  (GA2, GA8)

LO3 - Discuss the issues faced by humanitarian actors and organisations negotiating complex emergencies like conflict and natural disasters (GA4, GA5, GA6)

LO4 - Examine humanitarian efforts from an ethical and human dignity perspective, particularly as they affect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable peoples, including children (GA1, GA2, GA5)

LO5 - Construct an academic argument that examines the challenges of humanitarian work and aid in the developing world (GA4, GA8, GA9)

Graduate attributes

GA1 - demonstrate respect for the dignity of each individual and for human diversity 

GA2 - recognise their responsibility to the common good, the environment and society 

GA4 - think critically and reflectively 

GA5 - demonstrate values, knowledge, skills and attitudes appropriate to the discipline and/or profession 

GA6 - solve problems in a variety of settings taking local and international perspectives into account

GA8 - locate, organise, analyse, synthesise and evaluate information 

GA9 - demonstrate effective communication in oral and written English language and visual media 


Topics will include:  

  • Humanitarian versus development work 
  • The humanitarian-development nexus 
  • Aid, disaster relief and poverty alleviation 
  • The historical evolution of humanitarian practice 
  • International frameworks governing humanitarian practice (e.g. human rights, Geneva Convention) 
  • Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 
  • World Humanitarian Summit and the localisation agenda 
  • Actors in the humanitarian context (e.g. local communities, NGOs and INGOs, multilateral donors, state, military, private military contractors) 
  • Gender in humanitarian assistance 
  • Complex emergencies like conflict and natural disasters 
  • Humanitarian crises and climate change 
  • Food security  
  • Children and families in crisis situations 
  • Safety and the role of the military in humanitarian work
  • Indigenous and First Nation responses to humanitarian need & external aid

Learning and teaching strategy and rationale

This unit engages students in active learning activities, such as reading, writing, discussion and problem-solving to promote analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Lectures will be used to introduce theoretical concepts and illustrate practice. Readings and online resources, like video or podcases, are made available on the online learning platform or in recommended texts. Ideas from lectures, readings and other resources are explored and discussed in tutorials. Students use case studies to explore how what they have learned applies to real world situations.

This is a 10-credit point unit and has been designed to ensure that the time needed to complete the required volume of learning to the requisite standard is approximately 150 hours in total across the semester. To achieve a passing standard in this unit, students will find it helpful to engage in the full range of learning activities and assessments utilised in this unit, as described in the learning and teaching strategy and the assessment strategy. The learning and teaching and assessment strategies include a range of approaches to support your learning such as reading, reflection, discussion, webinars, podcasts, video etc.

Assessment strategy and rationale

The assessments in this unit encourage students to develop their understanding of the international aid architecture and the key actors (reading task), to engage with the scholarship on international humanitarian action (annotated bibliography), and to critically examine policy and develop skills around communicating ideas and theories about humanitarian work and aid (research essay). The schedule provides scaffolded learning with opportunities for students to monitor their own progress, practise their skills and receive feedback.  


The assessment has been designed to meet the learning outcomes of the unit. The case study will allow students to explore key actors/projects in humanitarian work that have been undertaken in the past and critically evaluate their effectiveness. The lecturer can choose to have students present their case studies to the class or do a written piece of work. The research challenge helps students to understand how to undertake research on humanitarian work and embeds the Catholic Social Teaching aspects of ethical and human dignity and humanitarian work with the vulnerable people of the world. The lecturer may choose to do this as a presentation (if a presentation is not used for the case study) or a written piece of work. The research essay enables the student to develop an academic argument, communicating ideas and critically evaluate the humanitarian sector. Specific topics will change from year to year.

Overview of assessments

Brief Description of Kind and Purpose of Assessment TasksWeightingLearning OutcomesGraduate Attributes

Case Study - Presentation

The purpose of this assignment is to identify key actors in humanitarian work and how they act in humanitarian crises.


LO1, LO2, LO3  

GA2, GA4, GA5, GA6, GA8 

Research Challenge

The purpose of this assignment is to engage with scholarship surrounding international humanitarian action and the ethical and human dignity perspectives to consider when working with the world’s most vulnerable people including children.


LO2, LO3, LO4 

GA1, GA2, GA4, GA5, GA6, GA8 

Research Essay

The purpose of this assignment is to examine policy and develop skills around communicating ideas and developing an academic argument about the challenges of undertaking humanitarian work in the developing world.


LO3, LO4, LO5 

GA1, GA2, GA4, GA5, GA6, GA8, GA9 

Representative texts and references

Ahmad, A, & Smith, J. (2018) Eds. Humanitarian Action and Ethics. Zed Books

Aleinikoff, A. & Zamore, L. (2019) The arc of protection: Towards a new international refugee regime. Stanford University Press.

Doyle III, T.E., Gorman, R.F. & Mihalkanin, E.S. (2017) Historical dictionary of human rights and humanitarian organisations. 3rd ed., Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Everett, A.L. (2017) Humanitarian hypocrisy: Civilian protection and the design of peace operations. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Hanatani, A., Gomez, O.A. & Kawaguchi, C. (2018) Eds. Crisis management beyond the humanitarian-development nexus. Oxon: Routledge.

Mac Ginty, R. & Peterson, J.H. (2015) Eds. The Routledge companion to humanitarian action. Oxon & New York: Routledge.

Maxwell, D.G. & Gelsdorf, K. (2019) Eds. Understanding the humanitarian world. Oxon: Routledge.

Roeder, L.W. (2014) Ed. Issues of gender and sexual orientation in humanitarian emergencies: Risks and risk reduction. Cham: Springer.

Rucksthuhl, S. & Ward, C. (2019) Water scarcity, climate change and conflict in the Middle East: Securing livelihoods, building peace. Sussex: Bloomsbury Academic.

Zwitter, A., Lamont, C.K., Heintze, H.J. & Herman, J. (2015) Eds. Humanitarian action: Global, regional and domestic legal responses. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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