Dissertation on violence in urban settings wins 2016 award


Humanitarian actors in violent urban settings need to adapt to assignment, security, coordination and HR challenges

CERAH acknowledges an outstanding dissertation submitted by M. Oscar Felipe Chavez Aguirre for his Master of Advanced Studies in Humanitarian Action (class 2015/16). Out of four final nominees he won the Swiss Humanitarian Award for his dissertation:

Humanitarian Protection in Violent Urban Settings: Challenges and Dynamics
(click here to read the dissertation online)

"Oscar has worked on a difficult topic - violence in urban areas - on which literature is scarce. His work demonstrates a solid conceptualization effort: the research question is focused and precise and I particularly appreciated finding a hypothesis (even general) structuring the demonstration. The methodology adopted is justified and rigorous. His paper seems to contain lessons that are particularly important for humanitarian action in the 21st century, and his work on recommendations reflects a desire to link research and operational action" writes Clara Egger, researcher at CERAH.

CERAH is particularly pleased to announce that the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) rewards this outstanding work and we seize the opportunity to thank our longstanding partner SDC for granting this humanitarian award.

But let us give the word to today’s laureate:

Oscar, what is your first and spontaneous reaction to the award?

Naturally, I was very pleased and honoured to receive this recognition for research. In fact, my research topic has always been a subject close to my heart being at times part of my work in Colombia when I was working addressing urban violence problematics. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to study in such a stimulating academic environment which enabled me to delve deeper into a relatively new area of the humanitarian work that affects so many people. Therefore, I would like to thank CERAH for giving me this award, which would not have been possible without the wholehearted support and continuous encouragement of my supervisor and the whole academic team. 


Your research reveals that there are assignment, security, coordination and HR challenges to which humanitarian actors need to adapt in violent urban settings. Have you plans to further dig into the topic or share your findings to support humanitarian actors in adapting their protection strategies?

Yes. My research should be seen not only as the starting point for me but for the academic community. This is a relatively new subject for humanitarians and more research is needed in order to understand the changing situation of urban and criminal violence and be able to provide insights and information to the humanitarian actors. 
On a personal level, I am glad that the award and the publication of the dissertation on the [CERAH] website will allow the research findings to reach a wider audience. It is also critical for me to continue investigating the subject to adapt protection strategies to the new world realities. On a professional level, and as a humanitarian worker, I am planning to test the recommendations in the field. I have just begun a new mission in Mexico as a Field Coordinator. In my new position I am keen to share some of the research findings, and also confident it will be beneficial in overcoming some of the protection challenges identified during this academic study.


The very topical concept of migration is a stressor interrelated to urban violence. Can you summarize your findings?

Migration and urban violence have a multifaceted relationship and criminal violence pushes migration in different ways. Urban violence is one of the causes forcing migrants to move. In central and North America this is particularly evident. Most of the migrants entering Mexico from the northern triangle (El Salvador - Guatemala - Honduras) are fleeing from gang violence. But also victims of Mexican criminal violence experience high mobility patterns within urban settings. Understanding the dynamics and reasons behind mobility patterns is crucial for the protection analysis because, usually, many protection issues are interlinked with or even trigger population movements.
Furthermore, migration makes it difficult to identify and access people affected by urban or criminal violence, which presents many protection challenges. This is due to the very volatile nature of migration and the fact that some migrants are unwilling to be recognized.
Finally, migration to and from cities puts additional pressure on urban services, sometimes intensifying social tensions, often caused by pre-existing prejudices or a lack of institutional integration programs; when this is the case, also security issues can emerge. Likewise, when the protection activities target the protection of migrants and refugees in violent urban settings, it is critical to involve the host community and promote initiatives or assistance programs that benefit not only the newcomers but also the local population, which can reduce tensions and minimize security problems.

You conclude that “positive protection impacts on urban violence require considerable knowledge, time and resources as the urban violence problematic has social and structural roots”. However, humanitarian actors have shown greater interest in the particular area of urban violence for the past decade only. Isn’t it too late?

No, it is not too late. Whilst there has been little interest in urban violence a decade ago, this situation in violent urban settings has come to a head for two main reasons. First, the urbanization of the world and in particular, the urbanization of conflicts in the developing world. Secondly, in some cases the humanitarian consequences of urban violence are similar or even higher than the ones faced in a traditional armed conflict setting.
In this current climate, humanitarians, academy, governments and other actors have woken up to the fact of having to act in response to this problematic. There is hope, but partnerships are the key. Indeed, there are good examples of partnerships among humanitarians, academy and community organizations. Moreover, all the knowledge and experience that humanitarians gained in contexts of International and Non-International Armed Conflict are very useful, it just needs to be adapted. 

More about the laureate
Oscar ChavezOscar Felipe Chavez Aguirre has completed his Master of Advanced Studies in Humanitarian Action at CERAH in 2016. Holding already postgraduate studies in International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, as well as having a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work, he focuses on cultural anthropology and the future of humanitarian action. M. Chavez Aguirre gained significant experience working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in diverse roles and environments such as Deputy Head of Sub-Delegation and Office in Colombia and Protection Delegate in Afghanistan, among others. Currently, he is working as ICRC Field Coordinator in Mexico. 



Interview conducted by Désirée Walter, PR Manager at CERAH.