Humanitarian Encyclopedia


Humanitarian Encyclopedia

An interactive platform to better understand humanitarian concepts and practice

The Humanitarian Encyclopedia is a new project offering a conceptual framework for humanitarian action, and providing a dynamic platform for national and international practitioners, community leaders, policy makers and academics to reflect on humanitarian concepts and practice for the 21st century.



"The Encyclopedia is about understanding commonalities and differences between concepts used in the humanitarian sector in order for people to better collaborate and coordinate their work in the field." Listen to CERAH Director Prof Doris SCHOPPER at the launch of the Humanitarian Encyclopedia on June 13, 2017


  • To improve the quality of humanitarian dialogues and debates
  • To support innovation by a stronger knowledge-policy interface
  • To contribute to the improvement of humanitarian strategies and policies
  • To highlight operational challenges with regards to concepts
  • To strengthen the localization process acknowledging the role of diverse stakeholders



In order to respond timely and adequately to humanitarian needs, the humanitarian sector has the imperative to constantly evolve with agility and pertinence. And this in an environment of multiple tensions and pressures to deliver, to integrate a wider array of stakeholders and to address the issues and challenges. In order to evolve in this changing environment, it is important to be able to understand and properly formulate the main concepts developed in the humanitarian sector and analyse related operational issues.

However, the sector lacks a common reference framework, an intelligible and articulated scientific body of conceptual analyses. There is no common understanding, whether cultural or historical, theoretical or practical, of central terms such as “humanitarianism”, “humanitarian action”, or even “humanitarian context and crisis”. The frontiers between humanitarian action and development remain blurred, arguably increasingly so. There are emerging concepts such as “resilience” that are frequently used but not properly analysed nor consensually understood. In exploratory interviews with more than 100 organizations, it was highlighted that conceptual confusions can negatively affect policies, practises and quality.

Aware of this gap and with a common willingness to respond to it, emerged the idea to collaboratively design a hub of knowledge co-creation and exchange with academia and humanitarian stakeholders: The Humanitarian Encyclopedia.



Designed as a living process, the Encyclopedia will develop a cross-cultural, transdisciplinary, multi-sectorial and non-prescriptive review of key humanitarian concepts, combining theoretical and empirical analyses with field-based research.  
Its online platform will be interactive and inclusive, inviting dialogue from anyone concerned with humanitarian aid into additional co-creation, attentive to include national actors as well as international stakeholders, and to enhance localized knowledge.

Engagements through collaborations and partnerships will be central, in particular with academia and think tanks, humanitarian organizations, humanitarian support groups, policy makers and technology support partners, as well as community leaders from affected populations. The mobilization of a wide community of stakeholders and end-users recognizes them as valid sources for knowledge production. Special attention will be given to the existing initiatives in order to ensure complementarities and leverages, and to avoid overlap.
The Encyclopedia will offer a critical perspective questioning the underlying truth-claims of the humanitarian concepts. It will strengthen the humanitarian community of practice, connecting “Knowledge Points” within and between organizations.

The goal of the Humanitarian Encyclopedia is a more informed humanitarian community delivering quality programming thanks to shared and contextualized analyses as well as improved dialog among stakeholders.



By 2020, the "living" Encyclopedia will engage a broad constituency of local, regional and global humanitarian actors, and bring about more reflective, effective and creative humanitarian decision making, while constituting a milestone in the scholarship of contemporary humanitarian action.

It will be:

  • An incubator articulating past and current scientific and empirical knowledge. The Humanitarian Encyclopedia will explore the different ways key humanitarian concepts are understood across time, disciplines, cultures, contexts and organizations. It will not seek to create new norms but instead bring much needed clarity to the core concepts and constructs, through a cross cultural and multidisciplinary approach.
  • A bridge between scholars and practitioners, populations and organizations, organizations and donors, humanitarian insiders and outsiders, from different historical experiences and cultural back-grounds.
  • Spaces to co-create, acknowledging the knowledge heritage outside and within the sector, building from it and transforming it. Co-creation and crowdsourcing will be an integral part of developing the knowledge base and localizing it.


A collaborative project to bring greater clarity to humanitarian dialogues, policies and practice. We hear from
CERAH Senior Advisor Joëlle TANGUY, former IFRC Under Secretary General and former Executive Director at MSF.


The Humanitarian Encyclopedia will provide affected populations with a simplified conceptual framework empowering them in their interaction with aid workers, while contributing to the professionalization of the growing humanitarian sector and participating in the institutionalization of humanitarian studies.



The Encyclopedia is conceived as a collaborative project mobilizing humanitarian organizations, academic centres, think tanks and other actors involved in humanitarian action across the world, in addition to affected populations.

The Encyclopedia will strongly encourage engagement and contribution of community leaders, facilitated by civil society groups associated to the project. In field research cycles in particular, the perception of affected communities will help support a self-
critical approach among humanitarian actors and be integral to the localization of knowledge.

Partnerships with humanitarian organizations will support co-creation in the field research cycle, tools development and the dissemination as well as the sustained crowdsourcing stages of the project.  

Partnerships with humanitarian support groups will also support the collaborative review and help
confront the conceptual research with field realities.  More specifically, they will ensure that the project benefits from the established assets of these institutions (e.g. knowledge, networks) and that it fuels their own mission (e.g. standards setting, training, evaluation, leadership development).

Partnerships with research centres will bring more opportunities for knowledge-sharing and visibility of research particularly developed by actors in the South.

To deliver the necessary knowledge-sharing tools and a dynamic platform reaching constituent communities, further partnerships will be developed with expert knowledge sharing technology to deliver technological and knowledge management expertise as well as further collaborative dissemination.



Academic scholars

Consider writing on a concept, based on your theoretical expertise and/or field research.

Humanitarian practitioners and Leaders of humanitarian organizations (international, national, local)

Join the discussion to challenge the conceptual analysis and confront it with your operational realities; inform the design of the project and plan with us how your teams may gain knowledge while adding value to the Encyclopedia.


Consider supporting this innovative project financially. A full project proposal is available on request.

If you want to take part in the project or are interested in more information, please contact
Prof Doris Schopper