Q&A with Hasangani Edema, MAHA 2021

Nationality: Sri Lankan

What is your educational background prior to MAHA? Prior to MAHA I completed a BSc in international relations from London School of Economics, University of London Internationals program. My interest in international politics trickled down to humanitarian/development- related subjects and work.  

What were you doing before you came to Tufts? Just before I joined Tufts, I was a program officer at World Vision Iraq. I was engaged in donor liaison, program management and design, and compliance with a multi-sector focus (education, WASH, food/cash, protection, and livelihoods) on response, recovery, and resilience programming.

What brought you to Tufts? Finishing undergraduate studies, I decided to put my focus into the humanitarian aid space. I gained some experience in it by working with World Vision in Sri Lanka and subsequently in Iraq. It was a great learning experience where I learned a lot about the implementation of humanitarian aid and development programs along with the problems that come around with it. When I decided that this was the field I wanted to continue my career in and wanted to learn more, several of my mentors recommended the MAHA program at Tufts. I was at a point in my career where I needed change and applying to the MAHA program during that time turned out to be one of the best decisions.  

What did you gain from the MAHA program? Reflecting on the past year, being part of the MAHA program allowed me to unlearn and gain a fresh perspective in how I analyzed complex emergencies or humanitarian crises. Particularly classes like Gender, Culture, and Conflict in Complex Humanitarian Emergencies and Nutrition in Emergencies, Policies, Practice and Decision Making really influenced and changed the lens through which I personally look at complex emergencies and how best to use humanitarian research to influence policy and practice. Additionally, the manner through which we digested this information and critically evaluated it in relation to the question or topic we were grappling with helped me to be more concise, analytical and critical in thinking. The MAHA program opened up many opportunities, such as taking classes at three different schools, the Friedman School, The Fletcher School, and the Harvard Chan School. To add to this, I met great personalities, both within the program and among the vast network the program opened up. I learned so much from these individuals and am glad to have made some lifelong friends.

How is the program different from what you expected? The program exceeded my expectations. Taking a break from actual work and having the opportunity to pause and reflect to learn about critical topics within the humanitarian sector and discuss these topics with professors and well-known humanitarian professionals like Dyan Mazurana, Dan Maxwell, and Gregory Gottlieb whose articles and books you read was amazing!

How did the program affect your career plans? I have actually made the choice to focus on research. Currently I am working with CDA Collaborative Learning Projects that sits at the heart of the convergence between humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding and looks at accountability, localization, risks, and conflict sensitivity. As the program coordinator, I support both collaborative learning projects, such as Stopping As Success project studying responsible transitions, as well as Advisory Services contracts, such as RISK III that studies humanitarian risk and other issues related to conflict sensitivity and Do No Harm. I’m also involved in strategic communications to help raise the profile of CDA. 

What should potential MAHA students know before they enroll? Enrolling in the MAHA program opens up a wealth of opportunities and networks. You will have access to the resources of two Tufts schools, in addition to subjects offered at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and the Harvard Chan School. Plus, The Feinstein International Center is indeed a very close-knit center that will support you and ensure that you have all the right information to focus on your studies and excel in them. They are right there with you helping you write and stressing with you about your capstone. I never felt alone! 

What is something people would be surprised to know about you? That being a humanitarian was not my first career choice. I wanted to be a musician growing up. Being exposed to Model UN, and then interning and working as a UN Volunteer allowed me to realize that contributing to society for the wellbeing of others was actually a career choice. I still practice my music, of course now as a hobby. 

How did COVID impact your experience? I came to the program two months before the lockdown, and as with most MAHA students I too encountered visa blockades that took months to be resolved. It was a natural habit to be at the center of a crisis event and support the effort and also learn more about humanitarian programming. So, at first it was so hard to adjust to sitting in front of a computer to listen to professors and work on assignments when most of my friends were at the forefront of the response to COVID. Following this I also experienced the stress of seeing the upheaval in relation to Black Lives Matter and the Trump administration’s hindering of international students. This really solidified my desire to be involved in conversations and actions that contribute to bridging inequity and locally-led development/humanitarian aid as opposed to fueling the existing systemic issues within the development and humanitarian structures. However, through all this, the professors and Sabina Robillard followed up and checked in with me to see if I was well and also made sure to celebrate important milestones within the program.