Anaïde Nahikian: Maximizing Help on Frontlines around the World


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — We are all too familiar with the sight of brave men and women responding in the aftermaths of tragedies, be they the result of wars, genocides or natural disasters. What is seldom thought about is the exact ways these responders use their resources and how these can be maximized.

One person, in fact, does just that.  Meet Anaïde Nahikian, leader of the Advanced Training Program on Humanitarian Action (ATHA) at Harvard University, where she and her research and development group try to provide ways to help the helpers, so to speak.

In a recent interview, she detailed the many facets of her work which involves responsive research, humanitarian negotiation, strategizing to protect civilians, and looking into trends and challenges for specific areas- all of which relief workers can use to improve efficacy.

Nahikian leads research missions and global engagement with practitioners across the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, and Europe. As a result, on any given week, she will be in Jordan, Kenya, Tanzania, Morocco, Ethiopia, Thailand, India, Indonesia or Switzerland, conducting field research in “de-escalation zones” to help those aiming to work in hot zones.

Her mission, she said, is to help aid organizations, such as Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), the World Food Program or the International Committee of the Red Cross “strengthen and protect civilian populations.”

In essence, her job is to treat humanitarian aid as a profession that can be enhanced and improved through proper documenting, strategizing and negotiating.

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ATHA is part of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI), which according to the university website, is a university-wide academic and research center that brings an interdisciplinary approach to promoting understanding of humanitarian crisis as a unique contributor to global health problems and to developing evidence-based approaches to humanitarian assistance.

In addition, the university is home to the Humanitarian Academy at Harvard (HAH) dedicated to educating and training current and future generations of humanitarian leaders.

According to HHI’s website, its “aim is to relieve human suffering in war and disaster by conducting interdisciplinary, practice-based research and education that can be used by scholars, policymakers, NGOs, and others to foster interdisciplinary collaboration in order to: improve the effectiveness of humanitarian strategies for relief, protection, and prevention; instill human rights principles and practices in these strategies; and educate and train the next generation of humanitarian leaders.”

However, these are not the only hats that Nahikian wears. An associate instructor at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Kennedy School of Government, she is also an adjunct lecturer at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Science and Management and the executive producer of the Humanitarian Assistance Podcast.

Anaïde heads the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Collaborative Platform, where she initiates and manages projects and relationships between the ICRC and academic, policy, non-profit, and private organizations in the Boston area around key themes and priorities of the ICRC, in partnership with swissnex Boston.

“It is a further link between policy and think tanks. We synergize with Harvard for the Red Cross work,” she explained, which involves “reuniting families” in war zones

Her frequent travels to areas adjacent to war zones, where organizations can come together and discuss operations in relative peace and safety, create “regional conversations.” For example, she said Amman, Jordan, is one of the safe hubs for all humanitarian actions in the Middle East. Another such regional hub is Abuja, Nigeria, the center of activities to help the Lake Chad Basin populations in Niger, Chad, Nigeria and Cameroon, which are all suffering from terrorism, cholera, dire poverty, and extreme hunger.

“I was always interested in academia and existential sociology,” she said, “looking at the world from a structural perspective.”

Now, she said, she is able to participate in the “practical component and help [aid providers] get clarity.”

“We apply lessons from one area to another,” she said.

“It is inspiring,” she added. “The aid organizations are very entrepreneurial. Both Harvard and the ICRC value start-up mentalities.”

She noted that she herself harbors an ambition to create “more unity, more engagement” for those field operations.

In addition, her organization helps aid organizations advocate for themselves by providing them with adequate documentation. She gives the example of the Kunduz Trauma Centre operated by Médecins Sans Frontières and leveled after an airstrike by US forces in October 2015. About a dozen MSF workers were killed, along with some 20 Afghan workers and patients.

When asked about safety, not only in general but especially as a woman, she said, “there are a lot of women in my field. There is a careful security protocol.”

Nahikian attended Brandeis University, where she studied sociology, philosophy and anthropology. She then earned her master’s degree in sociology from the London School of Economics, specializing in human rights.

Nahikian was born in Lebanon, the daughter of a Lebanese-Armenian father and a French mother and thus she speaks French as a native.

Nahikian said that her work is directly affected by her Armenian heritage. “Our world is much bigger than the world around you. There is a legacy around you, with family education,” she said. “Global issues and interests are a part of me.”

She is a descendent of survivors of the Armenian Genocide and therefore much more attuned to the catastrophes she witnesses, including, for example, the famine in Ethiopia, which, given her background, hits closer to home.

Nahikian is making time in her busy schedule for the Armenian Mirror-Spectator; she will be the mistress of ceremonies during the November 3 gala benefit celebrating the newspaper’s 85th anniversary, at the Boston Newton Marriott. One reason, she said, is that the “journalist’s perspective” is vital to shed light on such difficult situations, much like those that happened in the last century or this one.

“It is very exciting for us to have such an accomplished young woman involved in our celebrations. Anaïde’s important work is truly inspiring and deserves to be exposed,” said 85th Anniversary Gala Chair Nicole Babikian Hajjar.

For more information about the 85th anniversary two-day celebration, visit

For more information about the ATHA program, visit



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