Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies (CHRHS)

Jonathan Robinson, CHRHS Global Fellow

I think with the Global Fellow role, it is very much about the more you put in, the more you get out.

Jonathan Robinson

Candid Reflections from a Global Fellow

A Conversation with Jonathan Robinson, CHRHS Global Fellow

Please note that the following are Jonathan’s opinions alone, and do not reflect any of Jonathan’s current or former employers or affiliations.

Can you share about your personal journey into the humanitarian field and how you’ve gotten to where you are today?

I had always been interested in the Middle East and after studying during my master’s degree at university, I knew I then wanted to go out and experience living there. This took me to Syria in 2010 and 2011 and that is where I realized my passion for being out in the region; learning and speaking with people. And so I kind of set myself a goal of being in the Middle East for five years. I was lucky enough to get an internship with the UN’s Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) in Damascus, and it was here that I realized my passion for security. That set me down on a path where I found myself to working all over the Middle East. From working with refugee agencies to private security entities, I eventually gravitated more and more back to the humanitarian sector and aid worker security. So, in 2016 I joined the International NGO Safety Organization (INSO), as a safety advisor for the Syria team from Beirut. In that job, I provided advice, analysis, and information to humanitarian groups operating in central and southern Syria. I joined the Carter Center’s Syria Conflict Resolution Team after getting to know them from Lebanon, before moving to the US to be with my wife. I was then lucky enough to meet folks from the US Naval War College’s Humanitarian Response Program and a position opened up supporting them as a contractor, which is where I find myself today. At almost the same time I got to know CHRHS via a Ph.D. student who very kindly introduced me to the Center. After this,  I just got more and more involved with CHRHS over time. And here we are today, where I am a Global Fellow at the Center. 

Would you say that your career path has been a journey? I think it’s wonderful that you early on said that I’m going to give myself five years in the Middle East to figure this out. I think you were very open to where your path has led you. You weren’t saying I have to do this or that, during a set frame. Which, I think, a lot of people do when they start off in the sector. Everyone seems to start off with a plan, but was that your experience, or am I projecting?

No, that definitely was the case. I know that was your experience as well. I didn’t necessarily set out with a specific role in mind, like to be a lawyer or a doctor, it just kind of happened. You know, I started off with an undergraduate degree in archaeology, so quite different from aid worker security or humanitarian work. I didn’t mean to set a path, I was lucky enough that I could give myself that time and space with the general goal to stay in the Middle East, learn Arabic, and understand different security, political, and social issues in the region. A lot of my journey was down to luck and being able to be at the right place at the right time. Of course, I applied for stuff and applied my experience, background, and education as well, but it wasn’t like I was doing any of it for any prestigious gain if you know what I mean. It was more of that journey where I pursued things that I found interesting and I was lucky to eventually get paid a good salary to stay doing what I loved. I definitely recognize that not everyone is able to do that, and it takes time, but certainly not putting pressure on myself by setting a goal of ‘I have to be a senior researcher at X think tank by the time I’m 26’ really helped get me to where I am today.

Another question for you about your experience as a Global Fellow, I believe you are one of the few who have returned to be a Global Fellow and you are also one of our most engage Global Fellows. So, what advice would you have for others who are interested in pursuing this? And for those who are currently in the program, how to make the best out of this opportunity? 

I think with the Global Fellow role, it is very much about the more you put in, the more you get out. If I had sat back and not been engaged with the center, I don’t think I would have gotten as much back. I have definitely met some amazing researchers and people at Brown. It has definitely led to different teaching engagements, different research opportunities, and strengthened my professional network, especially meeting folks a different events put on by the center. And I’ve received some great advice as well from the folks at the center, both professionally and personally, and overall it has been a great support network. I guess my advice to other global fellows would be: just engage with the center and other global fellows as much as you can, and you will get a lot out of it. It definitely opens doors having the Global Fellows title, and I’ve been really grateful for the opportunity it provides. 

You have been on panels recently and have also been publishing several pieces. Is there anything that you would like to highlight?

My recent panels at Brown and CSIS have been great and I have especially enjoyed getting to speak with students at Brown. The publishing and research opportunities at the center have been really great too, such as a paper I co-authored on humanitarian notification systems in October. I’m also working on a project mapping Civil-Military approaches from around the world as part of a Seed Grant I received from the center. And then there is my own ongoing research looking at Russian action in the humanitarian space as well as the use of open-source data in the demining world, both topics of which I have published on. These are big passions of mine. So as you can see, I always have a lot of projects going on! 

Any final thoughts to share today?

The staff at the CHRHS are so friendly and are excellent connections. You should reach out to them!