MA Humanitarianism and Conflict Response / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Armed Groups and Humanitarian Aid

Course unit fact file
Unit code HCRI60162
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This unit explores the stakes of humanitarian action in armed conflicts and other situations of violence, with a focus on the role of armed groups. Often labelled as terrorists, sometimes welcomed as liberators, subject to varying positions of law, armed groups have a powerful influence on humanitarian needs, responses and outcomes. Their interactions with humanitarians have taken different forms over time, with a range of implications for people living amidst conflict and violence. Drawing on a range of historical and contemporary examples, the unit will introduce students to current concerns such as the instrumentalization of aid, and security and ‘access’ challenges in humanitarian action, and the importance of urban environments, while also questioning the assumption that these are recent phenomena. The course combines conflict and development analysis, drawing on examples from across a wide range of geographical areas and periods in contemporary history.


The aims of this course are to:

  • Explore and apply legal, geo-political and historical perspectives in order to better understand the place of humanitarian action in armed conflict and other situations of violence.
  • Examine the ways in which armed groups shape humanitarian needs, practice and outcomes.
  • Critically engage and analyse both historical and contemporary humanitarian responses in armed conflicts and other situations of violence.
  • Enhance students’ understanding of and ability to contribute to debates on humanitarian action in conflict and violence, through the development of analytical and presentation skills.

Teaching and learning methods

The principal teaching and learning methods will be the lecture (including discussion, interactive exercises, case study, and use of audio-visual materials). These will be supplemented by guided and independent reading and assignments designed to encourage students to engage with course material in meaningful ways.

Knowledge and understanding

Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • The legal frameworks governing the use of force and the provision of humanitarian assistance in armed conflicts, other situations of violence and areas controlled by ‘terrorist’ groups
  • Debates about humanitarian engagement with armed groups
  • How legal, security and development concerns influence humanitarian practice in armed conflict and other situations of violence  

Intellectual skills

  • Identify and evaluate different perspectives on humanitarian action in contexts of conflict and violence (e.g. beneficiaries, NGOs, UN agencies, armed groups, governments, diaspora networks, law, etc.).
  • Critically analyse debates about humanitarian operations in these settings
    Investigate and analyse historical and contemporary humanitarian crises featuring armed groups
  • Critically analyse the ways in which the core principles of humanitarian practice have been shaped by armed conflict, and the ways those principles shape the ways aid agencies engage with armed groups

Practical skills

  • Research skills, including planning, prioritisation of tasks, identification and location of sources, evaluation of findings.
  • Essay-writing skills related to the analysis of a specific question, construction of arguments, assessment and deployment of evidence, writing style.
  • Applied analytical skills, built through an understanding of both academic and operational questions about humanitarian practice in situations of armed conflict.
  • Participation in seminar discussion and presentations in order to aid the research, analysis and presentation skills.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Students will have the opportunity to develop interpretation and argumentation skills, both written and oral form, through assessed coursework and seminar presentations.
  • Students will develop research and project management skills throughout the course.
  • The course will foster an ability to move between different disciplinary approaches, promoting flexibility and adaptable working methods.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Critical thinking and analytical skills
Oral communication
Crafting and maintaining arguments Effective oral presentation and communication skills
Written communication
Writing and editorial skills, including for policy and practitioner audiences
Meeting deadlines Working autonomously

Assessment methods

Assessment task

Formative or Summative

Weighting within unit (if summative)

Policy brief



One essay from a list provided



Essay Plan



Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

Written feedback on assignments


Oral feedback in class


Oral feedback one-to-one during office hours


Recommended reading

This list is indicative only, and subject to change:

Auyero, Javier, Philippe Bourgois, and Nancy Scheper-Hughes, eds. 2015. Violence at the urban margins. New York: Oxford University Press.

Bradley, Miriam. 2016. Protecting civilians in war: the ICRC, UNHCR, and their limitations in internal armed conflicts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

ICRC. 2018. The roots of restraint in war. Geneva: ICRC.

Jo, Hyeran. 2015. Compliant rebels: rebel groups and international law in world politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Magone, Claire, Michaël Neuman, and Fabrice Weissman, eds. 2011. Humanitarian negotiations revealed: the MSF experience. London: Hurst.

Modirzadeh, Naz K, Dustin A Lewis, and Claude Bruderlein. 2011. "Humanitarian engagement under counter-terrorism: a conflict of norms and the emerging policy landscape." International Review of the Red Cross 93 (883): 623-647.


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Seminars 20
Independent study hours
Independent study 130

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Miriam Bradley Unit coordinator

Return to course details