Interview: Hanna-Tina Fischer

Sanchi Ravishanker
Publication Year:
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions


Hanna-Tina Fischer, MSc is Senior Research Associate at the CPC Learning Network at Columbia University and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Population and Family Health, pursuing a DrPH in Leadership in Global Health and Humanitarian Systems. Her work focuses on the impact of adversity on children’s wellbeing and development. She analyzes risk and resilience as functions of family level system adaptations to crises.


Context is key.

The question of how can we prevent the negative impact of adversity on children’s wellbeing and development is essential to her work. More specifically, how can reduce risk factors for children and promote their resilience in different contexts? To begin to answer this, Fischer encourages a need to understand the different types of adverse exposures children face and the different adverse experiences children have, not on their own, but within the environments in which they occur. She indicated that “our social and physical environments play a role in determining the impact adverse exposures and experiences can have on children’s wellbeing and development.” Fischer touched on the idea that child protection actors and international organizations have interventions for children on hand that are generic, regardless of the context in which they are implemented. A better understanding is needed of how effective these interventions are in different contexts, and what unintended consequences may arise. While reasons behind generic interventions is understandable, including time and financial constraints especially in humanitarian crises, the lacking engagement with contextual realities remains a challenge. How can we ensure that our interventions really are protecting children, and equally importantly, doing no further harm? In brief, context is key.


So what works for children in emergencies?

Fischer acknowledged there are a number of examples of interventions that appear to be working well but cautioned against labelling these as ‘best practice’. “We often look for global best practice examples that fit the intervention outcomes we aim to achieve in different country contexts, almost like searching for a silver bullet.” She further added, “but these examples are rarely evidence-informed and even if they were shown to be effective, it’s important to understand that just because an intervention works well in one place does not necessarily mean it will work well in another.” To strengthen discourse on best practices, Fischer emphasized the importance of more robust evaluations of interventions, an acknowledged gap in the sector, and a deeper understand the mechanisms that underlie interventions – how does the intervention work, and for whom under what circumstance? Once again, reiterating the idea that context is a fundamental component of interventions, not a separate consideration.


How well is UNICEF playing its role in protecting children?

Given Fischer’s extensive experience with UNICEF, mainly in the space of humanitarian child protection, her insights into the organization’s workings are invaluable. In particular, how the organization works in adverse environments to promote children’s wellbeing.

“Given that UNICEF works in so many sectors that are critical to children’s health and wellbeing – nutrition, education, health, water and sanitation – the organisation is uniquely placed to address urgent protection needs in humanitarian environments,” said a supportive Fischer. 

“Collectively, interventions in these sectors can reduce risks factors children face for adverse exposes and experiences. A challenge, however, remains overcoming silos in bringing these together to address identified risks.” Fischer described another strength of the organisation, its interest in scientific developments and exploring how these can be shared widely. “For example, hosting regular symposia on cutting edge research, such as that on neuroplasticity and adolescent development, illustrate the organization’s efforts to deep dive into certain topics. It’s incredibly helpful to see what the science says and what that means for us, in practice, including for people in the field.” A challenge however is how to ensure the science is shared widely and how findings can be translated it into practice. “UNICEF is an incredible ambassador for issues; it has political clout and strong movement when it puts itself behind certain issues.”


Envisioning the future of the humanitarian community and child protection.

In light of the growing needs from the humanitarian community and child protection, Fischer was prompted to describe what she envisioned her field to look like in the future. “We have started to use the term localization, essentially raising the flag on power imbalances that have been the underbelly of humanitarian and development work. These imbalances need to change.” Efforts are currently underway to promote local ownership of humanitarian responses. “It is likely certain actors will resist these changes, and some will not.” Part of Fischer’s call is to embrace this shift and to ensure it includes an appreciation for the unique social and physical environments in which interventions occur.

“We have to understand the risks children face through a local lens. Anything else is likely going to be counterproductive as we design and implement interventions.


A call of action to the next generation.

“In the future, using a life course approach would be one way to overcome the challenge we face of siloed, sectoral approaches. This means we would use age groups or cohorts as the organizing principle for our work, bringing all sectors around the table,” said Fischer. This essentially means bringing in a focus that we have not had in our coordination efforts in the past, which is the age of child. Fischer’s thinking behind this shift is based on the fact that children’s needs change as they grow and develop, and addressing the risk and protective factors for children at different stages of their development requires a multi-sectoral approach. Fischer acknowledged possible barriers to doing this. “This might be challenging for us as responders to organize as it would require a breaking down of existing models and practices; our modus operandi.” In keeping with what the future of the humanitarian space will look like, Fischer had some advice for the next generation. “Nowadays everyone is a specialist. It’s rare to find people who see the whole anymore.” She added, “We need the ability to quickly understand the connection between issues, factors and needs – especially in emergencies, and not get sucked into tunnel vision.” To do so, Fischer floated the idea of a model where we first see the ‘big picture’ then ‘dive’ into our respective topics. “It is no longer a time to say I just work in education or child protection.” The connection between the different sectors needs to be understood better and strengthened. Social and cultural determinants of wellbeing are also needed to understand the relationship between all factors.

“For our ability to design culturally and contextually relevant interventions, it is imperative we do not lose track of those we are serving. Instead of being blinded to our sectoral intervention as our sole objective, we need to think of the needs of the cohort we are serving and ask ourselves: how do we best work across sectors to meet the needs of children?”

Given that UNICEF is involved in so many sectors, Fischer thinks it would be an interesting approach to unite them. “We know it look long to break sectors down when the cluster approach was established, and it has been effective to an extent, but we are missing the horizontal pieces,” she stated. “Currently, our perspective is very much focused on the individual. After a disaster, we tend to look at the individual needs of those affected, viewing people almost like isolated atoms that have independent needs, instead seeing them of part of social systems. From a child’s perspective, the more pressing question would be: how were families as social units affected by the crisis? What impacts did the crisis have on social support networks and the functioning of the community?” Echoing her previous points, Fischer believes that we should start and base our work on the lived day-to-day realities of those affected, having them guide us as to how best to support them after a crisis.


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