A Quarter Century Tackling the World’s Toughest Problems

The Feinstein International Center marks 25 years working on hunger and humanitarian aid through a powerful, multidisciplinary combination of research, field work, and education

As the Feinstein International Center celebrates a quarter century, its first director remembers that the center’s success was by no means assured. “Who would have bet that after 25 years that the center would still be going strong, putting marginalized, vulnerable, and often hungry people at the heart of a program that joins academics and the world of practice?” asks John Hammock, F71, who led the fledgling center from 1995 to 2002. “I think it’s an absolutely remarkable example of how universities can have impact on a significant global problem.”

The idea for a famine center emerged from the fertile mind of Jean Mayer, Tufts University’s tenth president, a renowned nutritionist with a lifelong interest in combatting world hunger. Never hesitant to pursue big ideas, Mayer had already established the world’s first graduate school of nutrition—now the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts—and welcomed the creation of a center focused on domestic hunger. He also envisioned a center that would fight global hunger, but died in 1993 before that vision became reality. It was his long-time colleague, Irwin Rosenberg, dean of the Friedman School, who shepherded the launch of an International Famine Center at Tufts as a joint effort with the University of Cork in 1995, 150 years after the Irish Potato Famine began.

“As dean of the Friedman School, I felt the new center should go forward,” recalls Rosenberg, Jean Mayer University Professor. “I had experience in this area from working in Bangladesh and had seen the lasting effects of the great Bengali famine of 1943. While famine has often been regarded as an ‘act of God’ caused by drought or flood, I believe you don’t have famine without acts of man, sometimes in malevolent ways.”

Hammock, who was teaching at the Fletcher School while on sabbatical as executive director of Oxfam America, was a serendipitous choice for the center’s first director. When the collaboration with the University of Cork proved, in Rosenberg’s words, “a bridge too far” and the relationship ended, Hammock was able to tap the insights of his many contacts at government agencies and NGOs as he began refining the identity and goals of the Tufts International Famine Center.

It became clear to Hammock that many universities had programs focused on famine, but nobody in academia was looking at broader humanitarian aid and conflict. What was needed was an academic center focused on the humanitarian response in complex emergencies—and funding to launch the program. Serendipity stepped in again when a newspaper headline on Tufts’ plans to end world hunger caught the eye of Rhode Island philanthropist Alan Shawn Feinstein. The result was a landmark gift for what was renamed the Feinstein Famine Center in 1997.

In the years that followed, the center combined research, field work, and education to fight famine and humanitarian crises. “We intentionally straddle the academic-practitioner divide,” says long-time Feinstein Center researcher Elizabeth Stites, F01, F13, a research associate professor at the Friedman School and The Fletcher School whose work involves conflict, violence, and gender roles. “Our modus operandi is to effect policy change and make a difference. Our strength is that none of us are afraid to get our hands dirty, literally, or hear about real lives that are often very difficult.”

An early milestone for the center was establishing protection of people’s livelihoods, as well as their lives, as a foundational strategy for confronting famine and humanitarian crises. A 1997 report by Famine Center Scholar Sue Lautze showed that it was far more effective to work with local communities to enact measures that would enable individuals affected by emergencies to survive and thrive over the long term than to simply send goods such as food and medicine.

A year later, in response to interest from the USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance in enhancing the skills and credibility of hands-on aid practitioners, the Masters of Arts in Humanitarian Assistance (MAHA) program launched. The trail-blazing program, which enrolled its first students in 1999, combined the scientific expertise of the Friedman School and The Fletcher School’s knowledge of politics and international relations. Its graduates have gone on to work at countless NGOs and government organizations in their home countries, armed with new analytical skills and best practices, vastly extending the center’s impact.  

The early spirit of innovation and collaboration also fueled efforts to eliminate rinderpest, a virus that was killing cattle in Africa, leading to human hunger, conflict, and even war. Researchers from the center, the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, and Fletcher School worked to develop and distribute a rinderpest vaccine that did not require refrigeration; heat stability was essential in rural Africa. In 2011, the World Organization for Animal Health declared rinderpest eradicated—a major advance for human and animal health.

The center removed “famine” from its name in 2006 to better reflect the broad and expanding range of its work even as it continued to innovate in that arena. Paul Howe, director of the Feinstein Center, points to the work of Dan Maxwell, whose years of famine study helped the global community respond more effectively to the 2017 Somalia famine and focused international attention on renewed risk there in 2022. At the same time, Feinstein has pushed into new arenas, for example by shining a light on gender and sexual abuse among humanitarian agencies themselves and using applications such as WhatsApp to communicate directly with girls and young women about child marriage. 

Last year, Feinstein began climatology-specific research under the leadership of Erin Coughlan de Perez, inaugural recipient of the Dignitas Professorship at the Friedman School. People living in conflict-affected areas are unusually vulnerable to climate extremes. De Perez’s work, which involves university partners around the world, will enhance global ability to anticipate events and act before crises develop.

Down the road, Howe sees “exciting opportunities” to combine the center’s traditional strength in local understanding with new advances in technology such as artificial intelligence, big data, and predictive analytics to better understand, prevent, and respond to humanitarian crises. For example, researchers are now studying famines as complex systems with dynamics that feed on one another—much as a hurricane system may form but with the added complication of human involvement—in an effort to improve our ability to predict and mitigate them.

Howe says Feinstein will continue to pivot to address emerging challenges and embrace new technologies and creative approaches. One thing he intends to remain unchanged is the center’s “special ethos” founded on deep listening and commitment to acknowledging and understanding complexity in order to clarify issues and inform decisions. “We will remain committed to work in locations that are challenging, even dangerous, but have the populations that are in greatest need,” he says. “From the beginning that has been a hallmark of the Feinstein International Center.”

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