SOAS University of London

Department of Development Studies

MSc Humanitarian Action (Online)

  • Q&A
  • Structure
  • Teaching and Learning
  • Fees and funding
  • Employment
  • Apply


Overview and entry requirements

MSc Humanitarian Action (Online) is an online degree that engages critically with the history, politics and practice of humanitarian action. Students take the core module, followed by a selection of elective modules and a final dissertation.  

How and where is humanitarian aid given, and how does it interact with the political and military complexities of emergency contexts? How have critiques of humanitarian aid, including from recipients, impacted on humanitarian action? How does South-to-South assistance in emergencies change, challenge or complement the concepts and practice of humanitarianism?

See Department of Development Studies

Why study MSc Humanitarian Action (Online) at SOAS

  • we are ranked number 5 in the QS World University Rankings in the subject of Development Studies
  • SOAS is ranked in the top 5 universities in the UK for producing a CEO or Managing Director, according to new research
  • this online degree has been developed to meet the needs of people working, or hoping to work, in international agencies, humanitarian organisations, and NGOs
  • The online format enables students to study for a MSc degree alongside work, caring or other commitments
  • The degree brings together a cohort of students from around the world into online discussions, led by a specialist seminar tutor
  • It builds upon the strengths of the Department of Development Studies in areas of violence, aid and security
  • The degree draws on research and professional experience from colleagues across SOAS, a university with an international reputation for its work on Africa, Asia and the Middle East

What you will study

The core module for the MSc Humanitarian Action has three parts: it starts with the groundwork in humanitarian principles and architecture, and then presents the critiques and voices from the Global South. It deals with practice and the contradictory contexts for humanitarian work, exploring the politics of security decisions, Responsibility to Protect, witness and asylum. This part presents the opportunity to examine and assess competing priorities in situations of multi-layered insecurity.

This module draws on a range of literatures, including the academic work on humanitarianism, publications, data sets and relevant websites from NGOs, humanitarian thinktanks and UN bodies. It also includes blogs, crowd-sourced data and journals from the Global South.

The module challenges the conventional tropes of North to South assistance by examining how agents within the Global South have responded to humanitarian disaster, and also how humanitarianism has been transformed with the establishment of operations in Europe to assist refugees and other destitute people migrating across the Mediterranean.

Analytical and empirical depth will be provided through a series of case studies (Calais, Sri Lanka, Syria, for example) that examine the practicalities and institutional learning in famines and complex emergencies. The module presents processes and mechanisms of institutional learning as well as the persistence of some challenges in approach and delivery.

Who should apply

We welcome applications from those who have worked in the field of development and/or conflict. We also encourage those without relevant work experience who can demonstrate a strong interest in humanitarianism and have a strong first degree, to apply.


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MSc Humanitarian Action (Online)

Start of programme: April / October

Mode of Attendance: Online Learning

Entry requirements

  • We welcome applications from those who have worked in the field of development and/or conflict, but we also encourage students without relevant work experience who can demonstrate a strong interest in humanitarianism and have a strong first degree, to apply.

Featured events

2 years



Introducing MSc Humanitarian Action

Rivas Althea-Maria

Dr Althea-Maria Rivas is a Lecturer in Development Studies at SOAS and the programme convenor for MSc Humanitarian Action. She describes what students can expect who join the programme.

What does the programme involve?

This is a brand new MSc programme in Humanitarian Action. It consists of a core module in Humanitarian Principles and Practice, three other taught modules and a dissertation. The programme is taught over two years, with modules starting in October and April. Students are expected to contribute to online discussions, interact with their colleagues and module convenor, and submit work to deadlines. The choice of modules will enable students to build up the requisite theoretical and empirical knowledge to conduct their dissertation, which is the final piece of work.

The core module, Humanitarian Principles and Practice, has three parts: it starts with the groundwork in humanitarian principles and architecture, and then presents the critiques and voices from the global South. The final part deals with practice and the contradictory and challenging contexts for humanitarian work. This structure enables students to build up a critical understanding of the ideological underpinnings, constraints and politics of humanitarian action, alongside an empirical grounding of humanitarian providers and relationships between them. Analytical and empirical depth is developed through reference to case studies that examine the practicalities and institutional learning in natural disasters, complex emergencies and humanitarianism in Europe.

What kind of students will the course appeal to?

The MSc Humanitarian Action is designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of backgrounds and professional experiences, as it is through this diversity in the cohort that conversations around humanitarian action are enriched. As an online programme, it will appeal particularly to those who are not able to move to London or who are not in a position to stop working during their studies. We welcome applications from those who are working in humanitarian organisations, and those who are intending to move into this area of work. We also welcome applications from people who have experience of humanitarian work and are moving towards a career in research or policy-related work.

What facilities are available?

The programme is delivered online through a Virtual Learning Environment (intranet page) that sets out the readings for each week, the guiding questions for discussion and hosts the discussion boards. This page provides a platform to share other material such as videos, internet links, quizzes and feedback on assignments. Students also have access to a vast amount of academic and policy-related material through the SOAS library. The library has subscriptions to relevant electronic journals and electronic books that allow students not only to access their weekly reading but to explore their own research interests and build a thorough knowledge and bibliography to support their dissertation-writing.

What is special about the course at SOAS?

The MSc Humanitarian Action draws on the expertise from across the University and within the Department of Development Studies. The Department of Development Studies has a flagship on-campus Masters programme, MSc Violence, Conflict and Development, that has established a network of staff, students and alumni who are involved in a huge variety of work in areas of conflict. This global network provides an unrivalled set of research, policy work and experience that the MSc Humanitarian Action engages with over the programme of study.

What would you recommend reading before the programme starts?
  • Duffield, M. (2019) Post-humanitarianism. Governing precarity through Adaptive Design. ­Journal of Humanitarian Affairs, 1(1), 15-27. Available here: 
  • Hammond, Laura (2012) “Humanitarian space in Somalia: a scarce commodity” ODI Working Paper. Available here: 
  • Hammond, Laura (2015)  'Neutrality and Impartiality.'  In: Patterson, Jenny and MacGinty, Roger, (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Humanitarian Action. London: Routledge, pp. 87-97. (Routledge Companions)
  • Marriage, Z. (2006). Not Breaking the Rules, Not Playing the Game. International Assistance to Countries at War. London, Hurst & Co.
  • Slim, H. (2015) Humanitarian ethics: a guide to the morality of aid in war and disaster. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Humanitarian Hub Blog


Module structure

Students must take 180 credits comprised of one core and three elective modules totalling 120 taught credits, four supporting mini modules and a 60 credit dissertation.

Core modules: A core module is required for the degree programme, so must always be taken and passed before you move on to the next year of your programme. Core modules are offered in every session.

Elective modules: These are designed to help students design their own intellectual journey while maintaining a strong grasp of the fundamentals. Elective modules can be chosen from a list of subjects offered across SOAS' portfolio of programmes.

Programme infographic

Module Credits Type
Dissertation in Development Studies 60 Core
Core module
Module Credits Type
Humanitarian Principles and Practice 30 Core

Students have to choose a minimum of 30 credits from Development Studies list below. They can then either select an additional 60 credits from this list or 30 from the Development Studies list and 30 from the Open Options list

Development Studies
Module Credits Type 21/22 Availability
Human and Critical Security Studies 30 Elective April
Understanding Violence, Conflict and Development 30 Elective April
Critical Insights in Forced Migration 30 Elective April
Partnerships Beyond Borders: NGOs, Social Movements and Civil Society in Transnational Development 30 Elective October
The Politics of Gender and Feminisms in Development 30 Elective October
Drugs, Conflict and Development 30 Elective October

Open Options - Global Diplomacy, International and Environmental
Modules Credits Type Department
Food Security and Social Protection 30 Elective CeDEP
Climate Change and Development 30 Elective  CeDEP
Understanding Sustainable Development 30 Elective CeDEP
Global Public Policy 30 Elective CISD
Economics, Politics and Society in MENA 30 Elective CISD
Economics, Politics and Society in South Asia 30 Elective CISD
Economics, Politics and Society in East Asia 30 Elective CISD
Modern Africa: History, Politics and Society 30 Elective CISD
Gender and Conflict in the Middle East 30 Elective Gender and Media
Transnational and Diasporic Media 30 Elective Gender and Media
Global Media and Digital Cultures 30 Elective Gender and Media
Gender, Sexuality in Global Politics 30 Elective Gender and Media

Programme Specification

Important notice

The information on the programme page reflects the intended programme structure against the given academic session. If you are a current student you can find structure information on the previous year link at the top of the page or through your Department. Please read the important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules.

Teaching and Learning

Teaching & Learning

This programme is taught 100% online through our VLE. In the VLE you will have access to learning materials and course resources anytime so you can fit your studies around your existing commitments. 

For each module, students will be provided with access, through both the SOAS Library and the University of London’s Online Library, to all necessary materials from a range of appropriate sources. A key component of the student experience will be peer to peer learning, with students enrolled in discussion forums.

Study timetable

In addition to a dedicated Associate Tutor, a study timetable is provided for each module and for the overall programme to help you to organise your time.
The programme is broken down into two study sessions per year. Each subject module lasts 16 weeks, followed by a research mini module lasting 8 weeks.

Sample study timetable
Activity Duration
Substantive module 16 weeks
Reading weeks 2 weeks
Research mini module 8 weeks
Reading weeks 2 weeks


Each module is assessed by five written online assessments (‘e-tivities’*) comprising of 30%, the remaining 70% is formed of a 5,000 word essay.The etivities provide formative and summative feedback to students as a means of monitoring their progress and encouraging areas in which they can improve.

* An 'e-tivity' is a framework for online, active and interactive learning following a format that states clearly to the students its 'Purpose'; the 'Task' at hand; the contribution or 'Response' type; and the 'Outcome' (Salmon, G. (2002) E-tivities: The Key to Active Online Learning, New York and London: Routledge Falmer.)

Research training and dissertation

Research training is a key feature of this programme, the dissertation module is presented in four development parts, which will follow each of your module sessions. Research modules one and three are formative modules only, and are not assessed.

The dissertation is assessed by the submission of a written dissertation of no more than 15,000 words, excluding the bibliography and appendices, which will account for 85% of the mark awarded for the module (research module four). The remaining 15% of the module mark will be based on the mark obtained for a 1,500 word research proposal (research module two).

The research proposal is compulsory for students going on to do a PGDip or MA; MA students must submit a dissertation at the end of research module four.

SOAS Library

SOAS Library is one of the world's most important academic libraries for the study of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, attracting scholars from all over the world. The Library houses over 1.2 million volumes, together with significant archival holdings, special collections and a growing network of electronic resources.

Pre Entry Reading

  • Ahmad, A. and J. Smith (eds), (2018) Humanitarian Action and Ethics London, Zed Books.
  • De Waal, A. Mass Starvation: The history and future of famine. Cambridge, Polity Press.
  • Duffield, M. (2018). Post-humanitarianism. Governing precarity in the digital world. Cambridge, Polity.
  • Keen, D. (2008). Complex Emergencies. Cambridge, Polity Press.
  • Marriage, Z. (2006). Not Breaking the Rules, Not Playing the Game. International Assistance to Countries at War. London, Hurst &co.

Fees and funding

Tuition fees

MA/MSc PGDip* PGCert*
£12,000 See below See below

*PGDip and PGCert are available as exit awards. Interested students should get in touch directly with the course team.

Pay as you learn

Our online programmes can be paid in full at the time of enrolment or on a pay as you learn basis. Pay as you learn means you pay for modules prior to enrolment (£3,000 each).

Postgraduate loans

If you have been a resident in England for three years you may be eligible. For more information, please see Fees and Finance..



A degree from the Department of Development Studies at SOAS will further develop your understanding of the world and how society is organised, with specific focus on violence and conflict, the role of aid, refugees and forced migration. Graduates leave with a range of transferable skills, including critical thinking, analytical skills and cultural awareness.

Recent Department of Development Studies graduates have been hired by:

  • Amnesty International
  • BBC World Service
  • British Embassy Brussels
  • Department for International Development
  • Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)
  • Embassy of Japan
  • Government of Pakistan
  • Hong Kong Economic & Trade Office
  • International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
  • International Labour Organization (ILO)
  • Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)
  • National Health and Medical Research Council
  • Overseas Development Institute
  • Oxfam
  • Royal Norwegian Embassy
  • Save the Children UK
  • The World Bank
  • Thinking Beyond Borders
  • US Department of State
  • UN World Food Programme
  • UN High Commissioner for Refugees
  • WaterAid

Find out about our Careers Service.

A Student's Perspective

I wanted to study the MSc Migration, Mobility and Development because it felt like a really innovative programme which would allow me to look at migration through a critical and analytical lens.

Saliha Majeed-Hajaj


How to apply

Apply now using our online application form.

If you have any questions please email us at 

Application and enrolment deadlines as well as session start/end dates can be found on Online and Distance Learning Key dates - Term dates.

Your completed application will be reviewed by a member of academic staff. If your application is successful, we will send you an official offer within ten working days and you will be asked to submit the relevant supporting documentation. Once in receipt of our offer, we recommend submitting your documents immediately.

Supporting documentation for applications

Please note, we are currently accepting all supporting documentation via email: 

Please email us electronic versions rather than post your physical documents to us.

1. Degree certificates

We require documentation confirming the award of all qualifications listed in your application, which can either be your certificate or academic transcript. This must show: the name of the university, programme studied and the grade/classification you attained. If your university cannot issue official documents in English, we will require a certified translation in English of your degree certificate/transcript.

Evidence can be submitted electronically. Please send original colour scans of the required documentation via email. We don't accept black-and-white photocopies (unless certified by the awarding institution) and may ask for originals or verified copies if needed. We also accept official confirmation directly from the awarding institution.

If you send certified copies, please ensure that each document has been stamped and verified by one of the following:

  • British Council official. (You can find the location of your nearest British Council office from
  • Local British Embassy, Consulate or High Commission
  • Notary Public
  • The issuing university (in the case of academic qualifications)
2. Copy of an identification document

This must be either your passport or birth certificate. This does not need to be certified, and may be sent to us via email.

Note: If your name as stated on your academic documents does not match that given on your identification document, we will also require documentary evidence (such as a marriage certificate) that supports your change of name.

3. Copy of English language proficiency certificate

If your degree was not taught and assessed in English, you will need to submit evidence of your English language competency. This should be either an IELTS or TOEFL certificate (you will need an IELTS overall score of 7.0 including 7 in both reading and writing). This does not need to be certified and may be received via email.

4. References

We may also request that you provide us with references in support of your application. They should be from an individual who knows you on an academic basis. However, if you graduated more than three years ago we will accept a professional reference.

Your reference should include an opinion (in English) on your academic and personal suitability for the proposed programme of study.

Please note that, if necessary, we reserve the right to verify your qualifications with the relevant awarding body and to request further information from you about your background.

5. CV

Please include a detailed CV that lists your employment and educational background including dates. 

Find out more