A pioneer's progress from Peckham to Pyongyang

Hazel Smith brings her first-hand experience of co-ordinating disaster relief to her new post, writes Matthew Reisz

January 15, 2009

Hazel Smith got into academic life almost by accident.

Professor Smith, the new director of the Humanitarian Resilience Centre at Cranfield University, worked for ten years in health and social services after graduating in 1976 from the University of Essex with a degree in comparative literature.

She worked as a nurse for people with learning difficulties and later as a housing welfare worker for the London Borough of Southwark on the "not very salubrious" North Peckham Estate.

It was only when she was made redundant from her role as policy development adviser to the Greater London Council Women's Committee in 1986 that she applied to do a postgraduate diploma in international relations at the London School of Economics. She was one of the last people to get a grant from the Inner London Education Authority, which was being wound up at that time.

At the time, Professor Smith, who was then the only person in her family who had been to university, held the view that "being an academic was what other people did". But with sterling support from her supervisor, Fred Halliday, she went on to do a PhD. She began her new career as lecturer and then senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Kent (1991-98) before transferring to the University of Warwick as reader and then professor in international relations.

'Like Indiana Jones'

With a skill set combining rare specialist expertise in North Korea and a solid practical understanding of health and nutrition, Professor Smith was the ideal person to act as consultant and then programme adviser to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in North Korea, while on a year's leave from Warwick in 2000-01.

This gave her full responsibility for the information, monitoring, evaluation and reporting system on a programme that was feeding 8 million people, the largest in the WFP's history, much of which had to be negotiated with the isolationist North Korean Government.

"I felt like Indiana Jones on a remote mountain in North Korea," Professor Smith recalled, but said she sees this and other such enjoyably challenging real-life experiences as part of her main academic career.

Her work with the WFP led to a book called Hungry for Peace: International Security, Humanitarian Assistance and Social Change in North Korea (2005). More generally, she argues that "research, teaching and consultancy should feed off each other, all contributing to the core academic task of adding to knowledge".

Alongside her work as a lone researcher, Professor Smith has recently led three major research projects by the United Nations University that have resulted in edited books - Diasporas in Conflict, Reconstituting Korean Security and Humanitarian Diplomacy (all 2007). Each of these involved overseeing a group of about 15 senior practitioners and academics. She believes that "marrying the two groups is crucial".

Much of this work is highly relevant to her new job as director of Cranfield's pioneering postgraduate Humanitarian Resilience Centre.

"Resilience" is something of a buzzword in Ministry of Defence thinking. The term has its origins in engineering and child psychology, where it referred to the factors that helped buildings survive earthquakes or children overcome early traumas.

But in a world where governments have had to start thinking about "non-traditional threats to security" (notably terrorism but also the possibility of pandemics or failures of the food supply), Professor Smith believes that we need to examine what "resilience might mean for individuals, businesses and societies".

The aim has been defined as controlling "susceptibility to disruptive challenges by reducing the probability of their occurrence and mitigating their impact".

Cranfield has long had a broad mission to work closely with government and industry, and in 2005 it signed a 22-year contract with the MoD to provide academic services to the ministry.

The Humanitarian Resilience Centre has already been awarded the 2007 Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education for its role in "humanitarian demining".

It has been offering a masters in resilience, including disaster management and counter-terrorism, since March 2008. The conceptual framework is "informed by MoD thinking", Professor Smith said.

Other core modules include business continuity, managing natural disasters, corporate security, the technology of resilience, post-conflict challenges and military support to disaster relief.

Set to serve

All this means that Cranfield is well placed to serve postgraduate students from the MoD as well as those from business, local authorities and the health service who are being forced to take on new responsibilities in preventing and coping with potential emergencies, she said.

Governments throughout the world are also expected to sign up for the centre's short courses. Professor Smith herself has experience advising the governments and officials of North Korea, South Korea, Sweden, Nicaragua, New Zealand, the US and the UK on foreign policy issues, as well as China on academic development, and she can draw on Cranfield's multidisciplinary expertise in security.

She takes over what is currently the only resilience centre in the UK and perhaps the world. It is unlikely to be the last.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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