Learn the nuances of the aid industry in conflict zones and develop the skills to stress test humanitarian aid projects.

  • Duration

    3 weeks
  • Weekly study

    5 hours
  • 100% online

    How it works
  • Included in an ExpertTrack

    Course 4 of 4
  • Get full ExpertTrack access

    $39/monthFind out more

Discover the challenges of humanitarian aid in conflict-affected areas

Conflict zones are magnets for organisations that want to help people, and that’s a good thing. But too often well-intentioned organisations can become embroiled in the conflicts and problems that they are trying to help mitigate.

On this three-week course, Dr Aisha Ahmad will guide you through the challenges and risks of embarking on a humanitarian or non-profit project in a country affected by violent conflict. You’ll learn how to mitigate some of the dangers of working in these environments by stress testing your plans first.

Explore how aid can be channelled in conflict zones

If aid is supposed to help people, why would it cause people to get upset? And what happens when aid and conflict mix?

You’ll start this course by looking at non-profit organisations in the larger conflict ecosystem, how they can become politicised, and the dominant critiques of the aid industry.

Investigate the accidental harms caused by the aid industry

Across the second week, you’ll take a ground-level look at the practical challenges of non-profit ventures in conflict zones.

With organisations needing to balance the need for security with the need for neutrality, there can be many missteps that inadvertently cause harm in conflict-affected societies. You’ll investigate these risks, and how humanitarian work can become part of a larger business and conflict ecosystem.

Identify potential points of conflict escalation

To finish this ExpertTrack, you’ll combine all of the tools and skills you’ve developed to stress test a real-life humanitarian aid project from the Mali case study.

Using your alt-lens and red team tools, you’ll devise the most advantageous strategy to effectively prevent an enemy rebel group from attacking, undermining, looting, and exploiting an aid project.


  • Week 1

    Aid Amid Conflict

    • Welcome to the Course

      We start this learning journey with an introductory look at the “aid industry”, and explore some of the ways that aid can go awry in a conflict zone.

    • What is ‘Aid’?

      In this activity, we will explore what many scholars have referred to as the “aid industry”. We will examine the different ways that aid is channelled, and review some of the criticisms of aid in the scholarly literature.

    • When Aid goes Awry

      In this activity, we’ll examine why aid sometimes leads to unintended negative consequences, which can make people in recipient countries very angry. We’ll also discuss the security problems that can occur when aid goes awry.

    • When Aid and Conflict Mix

      In this activity, we’ll look at what happens when aid and conflict mix. We’ll look at how the 5 Ds played out in war-torn Afghanistan, and explore why aid workers may cluster inside “green zones”.

    • Weekly Wrap-up

      This week we looked at some of the major criticisms of the “aid industry”, and began to look at the challenges aid and other nonprofit organizations face when working in conflict zones. Let’s recap what we covered.

  • Week 2

    Do No Harm Principles

    • Welcome

      This week we will cover the harms aid agencies may cause, as well as those they may face. We will also examine a problem that many aid agencies encounter in conflict zones: resource diversion by armed groups.

    • Harms Caused and Incurred

      In this activity, we’ll look at the harm aid and other welfare organizations face, as well as those they may impose upon others. We’ll examine the “do no harm” principle, and explore how it applies to conflict zones.

    • Aid Diversion in Conflict Zones

      In this activity, we’ll look at a harm that is inflicted on aid workers, but that also constitutes a harm caused by them: aid diversion. We’ll explore how diversion prolongs conflict, and what aid organizations can do about it.

    • Working the Problem

      In this activity, we’ll cultivate a practice of threat assessment, creative adaptation, and problem-solving. Using our illustrative example, we’ll discuss how to “work the problem” when faced with obstacles in the field.

    • Weekly Wrap-up

      This week we explored the many challenges that planners face when trying to develop an aid or other social welfare project in a conflict zone. Let’s recap what we covered.

  • Week 3

    Stress Testing Aid Plans

    • Welcome

      This week we will use our “red teaming” tool to assess the risks of an aid intervention in the Malian theatre. In this final session of our journey together, we’ll draw on all our learning throughout the ExpertTrack.

    • Red Teaming an Aid Project

      In this activity, we’ll recap what a “red team exercise” is and how this type of tool can help in your planning process. You’ll also review a fictitious “blue team” scenario and aid plan, and get ready to “red team” it.

    • Applying an Alt-Lens to Aid Project

      In this activity, your task will be to take on the “red team” role, and present an attack plan to exploit any vulnerabilities, weaknesses, blunders, and oversights the blue team might have made in its aid delivery plan.

    • Debrief and Plan for Success

      In this activity, you’ll assess how your red team attack strategy revealed vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the blue team plan. You’ll also have the chance to think creatively about how to mitigate those vulnerabilities.

    • Wrap-up

      This week we used our “red teaming” tool to identify weaknesses and mistakes in an aid delivery plan in a conflict zone. Let’s recap what we learned this week.

Prove you're job ready

Highlight the new, job-relevant skills you’ve gained and supplement existing qualifications with a hard-earned, industry-specific digital certificate – plus one for every course within your ExpertTrack.

  • Learn the latest in your chosen industry or subject.
  • Complete each course and pass assessments.
  • Receive certificates validated by the educating organisation.
  • Impress employers with learning outcomes you can add to your CV.
  • Make your career dreams a reality.

Download a PDF

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Recognize the potential perils and pitfalls of launching an aid, development, or other non-profit initiative in an active conflict zone.
  • Critically assess how an aid or other non-profit project might inadvertently finance or contribute to armed conflict.
  • Develop creative problem-solving skills to circumvent problems and risks associated with aid initiatives in conflict zones.
  • Practice "stress testing" aid plans before implementation, using a modified version of a tool called a "red team" exercise.

Who is the course for?

This course is designed for anyone working or volunteering for an organisation engaged in a conflict-affected environment.

It will also be useful if you’re studying a related subject such as political science, public policy, or international business studies.

Who will you learn with?

I'm an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, specializing in International Security. I research civil war economies and jihadist insurgencies around the world.

Who developed the course?


FutureLearn is a leading social learning platform and has been providing high quality online courses for learners around the world over the last ten years.

About this ExpertTrack

Learn how to best approach working in a complex conflict zone, with International Security expert Dr Aisha Ahmad.

Start learning today - free 7-day trial

After your free trial you can:

  • Pay $39 per month to keep learning online
  • Have complete control over your subscription; you can cancel any time
  • Work at your own pace and set your own deadlines at every stage
  • Only pay while you’re learning; the subscription will cancel automatically when you finish
  • Complete online assessments to test your knowledge and prove your skills
  • Earn digital course certificates and a final award that you can share online, with potential employers, and your professional network
  • Keep access to the content of courses you complete even after your subscription ends

Learning on FutureLearn

Your learning, your rules

  • Courses are split into weeks, activities, and steps to help you keep track of your learning
  • Learn through a mix of bite-sized videos, long- and short-form articles, audio, and practical activities
  • Stay motivated by using the Progress page to keep track of your step completion and assessment scores

Join a global classroom

  • Experience the power of social learning, and get inspired by an international network of learners
  • Share ideas with your peers and course educators on every step of the course
  • Join the conversation by reading, @ing, liking, bookmarking, and replying to comments from others

Map your progress

  • As you work through the course, use notifications and the Progress page to guide your learning
  • Whenever you’re ready, mark each step as complete, you’re in control
  • Complete 90% of course steps and all of the assessments to earn your certificate

Want to know more about learning on FutureLearn? Using FutureLearn

Do you know someone who'd love this course? Tell them about it...