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Civilian protection and humanitarian advocacy: Strategies and dilemmas

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:30


Marc DuBois, Head of Humanitarian Affairs, MSF-Holland

Edmund Cairns, Senior Policy Adviser (Research), Oxfam GB

Prof Hazel Smith, Department of International Relations, University of Warwick


Sorcha O'Callaghan, Research Officer, Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI

Sorcha O’Callaghan opened the discussion by claiming there are “no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems” and that humanitarian organisations are not simply providers of relief but often need to respond to the injustices they see when operating in conflict areas. This raises serious dilemmas and questions: what exactly is this role and can it ever be properly defined? Is it confined to simply drawing attention to the injustices? Or should organisations take positions and try to influence political and military actors? What methods have been tried by humanitarian agencies to protect civilians in different contexts? Has humanitarian advocacy protected civilians? How has the supposed tension between speaking out and staying present played out in practice? What has been the impact on staff security? And the big question, whether, as if often said, agencies would now rather speak to the UN Security Council than get their hands dirty with relief work.

Marc Dubois: Speaking Out, Access and Security: Approaches to Bearing Witness in MSF

Marc Dubois admitted that advocacy is a difficult topic that MSF struggle with in their humanitarian affairs department. He quoted a Humanitarian Exchange article on advocacy in Angola which claimed that advocacy carries risks to programmes and staff - a theme he addressed throughout his presentation.

MSF use a variety of terminology interchangeably in their advocacy work such as témoignage, witnessing, campaigning and speaking out although they are not particularly preoccupied with definitions. DuBois dismissed the myth that MSF is an organisation that tends to speak out. He referred to MSF’s original charter from 1971 which actually states that MSF should “respect medical confidentiality and refrain from publicly expressing opinions - in favour or against - regarding events, forces, and authorities.” This has progressively been changing over the last two decades and recent declarations makes témoignage an explicit part of MSF’s role. This occurs within two core activities: a) through medical aid and bearing witness and b) in cases of gross human rights violations MSF may ultimately be forced to make public denunciations.

These amendments show that the pendulum is changing and in the 2006 La Mancha agreement MSF explicitly declared it should speak out publicly, based on their eyewitness accounts, medical data and experience but not attempt to propose global or comprehensive solutions.

The rationale for bearing witness is multifaceted and is used to expose the nature and extent of suffering, to help address the direct causes of the given crisis, increase protection of vulnerable populations, defend independent humanitarian action, combat MSF complicity and highlight the limited project of humanitarian action. However, DuBois emphasized the moral imperative for MSF to do so, claiming it is part of their identity.

According to DuBois, there is a need to weigh the risks created by bearing witness and the potential benefits to target populations. In order to minimise these risks they have a strategy of defensibility in which they:
a) focus their analysis through the lens of field work and not foreign analysis;
b) do not speak on the behalf of populations;
c) advocate in MSF’s voice and about populations;
d) confront political actors with their responsibility but do not prescribe political solutions;
e) highlight the limits of humanitarian action; and
f) ensure wording is accurate and locally sensitive.

This last point was emphasised as of considerable importance. MSF’s report on rape in Darfur, in contrast to the IRC’s press release on rape in the DRC, did not explicitly say the victims had been raped but simply sought treatment for rape or reported they were raped as MSF could often not verify all the allegations.

DuBois also raised doubts on whether MSF should speak out against incidents of violations when they are not directly linked to their programmes, particularly when there are other bodies and organisations playing that role. Only if they are linked does it become their business and the evidence for any advocacy initiative needs to be rigorously accurate, avoid unnecessary provocation, create distance from beneficiaries, safeguard neutrality and independence and avoid confusion with messages from other political actors. By abiding by these principles, the evidence has a larger impact, particularly on national authorities.

DuBois outlined the strategies used by MSF, which consists of various modes of action, such as bearing witness and persuading, condemning and denouncing relevant stakeholders. MSF also use a variety of tactics depending on the situation which vary from quiet, intermediary, semi-public and public advocacy. All reports need to be consulted with national authorities and staff, as this ensures accuracy, provides knowledge for national staff to defend themselves and is an efficient way of disseminating the information through the local communities.

MSF follow a series of methods in carrying out their advocacy and this includes not speaking out on anything new or unknown to the authorities, presenting and discussing findings with national staff, screening information for political and local sensitivities, ensuring they do not affect MSF’s perception of neutrality and independence, taking into account the risk of manipulation, preparing for possible consequences and ensuring they have their own ‘house in order’. Discussions are carried out at all levels of the organisation in order to ensure these methods are adhered to and that the appropriate course of action is carried out.

DuBois commented that things had so far gone relatively well for MSF with regards to their advocacy and questioned whether this was down to luck or because they were particularly good at the issue. He admitted that it is not due to a perfectly constructed methodology as decisions are often made by instinct and emphasised the protection provided by the fact that they are seen as a predominately white and western NGO.

DuBois questioned the way the dilemma is being framed. It is not simply about a linear balance between advocacy and security risks. This is a false juxtaposition. It could be argued that the reason they are present in Darfur is due to high level advocacy by many different organisations. It is, for example, easier now to work in Darfur than access IDP camps near Khartoum.

MSF do not calculate the risks of carrying out programmes, they establish them and then see how best to carry them out in the specific context. Humanitarian work in conflict zones is inherently dangerous and there is no simple trade off between advocacy and protection.

He concluded by stating the need to be careful about taking protection work to the extreme as this could potentially jeopardise MSF’s moral right to be present in crisis zones. Organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnest International do not have that right and it is important to ensure MSF do not play their role.

Edmund Cairns: Civilian Protection and Humanitarian Advocacy

Edmund Cairns opened his presentation by insisting that although modern Oxfam practice is based on one humanitarian approach, it is by no means the only valid option and there is a need to learn from new emerging approaches and from positive and negative experiences. Decisions are made based on the many discussions that take place within Oxfam and the diversity in humanitarian action on protection and advocacy is a positive development that both provides an organisation with a variety of best suited options, and allows different organisations to play usefully complementary roles.

Cairns contrasted ICRC’s approach to advocating respect for International Humanitarian Law (IHL) by stating examples where it had been breached, and calling for it to be upheld, to Oxfam’s more explicit approach of prescribing specific policies of how certain actors should uphold IHL. These are not seen as conflictive approaches but complementary to each other.

Oxfam’s approach is people-centred and focuses on their needs. This means they engage in both providing assistance such as water and sanitation and helping people reach safety through advocating adherence to IHL. They are both humanitarian approaches and the lack of assistance is no less political than the lack of protection. They both go together and are just as important in terms of advocacy and action. This means that Oxfam does everything possible, within its capacities, to contribute to both protection and assistance, in which it balances its available options for each crisis. This may include carrying out operational programmes, private lobbying and/or public campaigning. It may mean working indirectly through partners and other stakeholders rather directly as Oxfam.

Despite the importance of both programming and campaigning, Cairns emphasised the larger scale of the former which accounts for around £100 million of their budget whilst humanitarian campaigning is around £2-3 million. This responds to the opening question of the debate and suggests Oxfam does not prefer to speak to the UN Security Council than get their hands dirty.

Cairns also questioned the juxtaposition of advocacy and programming, as if they were alternatives, by calling for the need to understand which option, and to which degree, is most appropriate in a given crisis. These decisions are based on the potential risks to security and to programmes and the likely impacts of speaking out. This focus on evidence to justify campaigns is part of Oxfam’s new 2006 guidelines on this matter, that have replaced their 1990’s net benefit tool. This has led to more robust testing of assumptions on the security risks to staff and programmes and a better understanding of the limitations to campaigning and of the evidence needed to ensure its effectiveness.

Cairns highlighted three methods of campaigning: exposing suffering, condemning those responsible and proposing solutions. Oxfam focuses primarily on the first and third way as the second can often create larger security risks. Oxfam does not claim this is the only right approach but that it works well for them in balancing their advocacy and programme work.

According to Cairns, the assumptions in Western media-driven societies that speaking out is always the best option and that INGOs are always the best placed to do it are unfounded. These assumptions are not based on evidence and he called for the need to look at impact-focused alternatives making sure the right audiences are being targeted by the most influential groups for each given crisis. So, for example, in Darfur it may be more important to advocate to the Chinese and Egyptian governments than Margaret Becket in the UK, and that may be best done not by most INGOs, but by other groups with better access to those governments.

Cairns concluded by saying that the debate on whether they should engage in traditional programming against campaigning is a sterile one and most humanitarians recognise the complementarities of both. The question is more whether INGOs should speak out directly themselves or empower others to do so.

Prof Hazel Smith

Prof Hazel Smith highlighted the similarities between the two positions of MSF and Oxfam and emphasised the need to understand that this consensus does not exist throughout the humanitarian sector and that many, particularly small US NGOs, do not understand or are not familiar with the debate. Many simply provide aid and relief in countries such as North Korea and Myanmar without commenting on the atrocities that are taking place there. She called for the need to take the debate to a wider humanitarian audience in which the meaning of advocacy is discussed: What does it entail? Who is it for? And who should carry it out?

In her recently co-authored book, 'Humanitarian Diplomacy', her research found that humanitarian organisations should be aware of:
a) the limitations of humanitarian action – the fact that humanitarian officials are not politicians or political analysts and therefore should not try to play this role;
b) they should follow their mandate;
c) that political actors are not humanitarian actors; and
d) humanitarian actors should not replace the state no matter how failed.

According to Prof Smith, there is a need for pragmatic debate on the topic in which the underlying principle is about accountability. Humanitarian actors are often accountable to many constituencies, both those that provide money and to the beneficiaries. Advocacy is only legitimate with accountability and essentially justifies an organisation’s right to advocate. MSF, for example, do not advocate for their beneficiaries but should they facilitate them to advocate for themselves? Are they in the best position to judge and carry out such processes?

There is a need to understand these dilemmas and how to resolve them in given situations. This will need to take into account partnership issues and identify who has a comparative advantage in carrying out certain tasks. The right solution will entail a certain degree of pragmatism, take accountability into account, respect each organisations’ mandate and diverse partners and priorities and be professional at all times.

Prof Smith concluded that protection issues are not new and that they have always needed to be considered in humanitarian work. However, now the difference is that they are being formalised within organisations.


In the discussion, the issue of accountability or what MSF termed 'defensibility' was brought up, in particular, its implications for organisations’ approaches to using certain evidence to justify their actions. The importance of gathering first hand evidence when reporting information is seen as crucial, particularly when facing challenges by national authorities and in justifying a comparative advantage to other information providers such as political analysts. Accountability issues also play a role on whether humanitarian organisations decide to prescribe political solutions, although different organisations have different standards.

The dilemma of engaging in advocacy is seen as part of the wider challenge of connecting research and policy and the necessary types of advocacy that are needed to influence policymakers. There was agreement on the need to understand the diverse means of advocacy approaches.

Some concern was raised about organisations justifying programme work or presence in a crisis to strengthen the credibility of their advocacy work. This was denied by the panellists as it would go against their mandates and there are alternative ways of strengthening advocacy, such as soliciting information from other organisations and partners with presence on the ground.

The level of consensus witnessed in the room was contrasted to the differences that often exist in the field. The panellists recognised the difficulties of bridging advocacy and programme work and emphasised the importance of consulting field staff and placing policy people in country offices in order to overcome such tensions.


Drawing on examples from field settings, this meeting examined advocacy undertaken by humanitarian organisations to promote civilian welfare and security and its implication for other programming.

Humanitarian actors increasingly construe their role not just as relief providers, but as advocates for the victims of crises. Reflecting in part a greater integration between political and humanitarian agendas, this development exposes divergent views of humanitarianism and involves complex choices for operational humanitarian actors. The work of humanitarian actors in protection is frequently contingent on their ability to influence military and political actors, both local and international. However, advocacy – at least in its more public and denunciatory forms – has potentially serious negative implications for operational aid organisations, most notably in relation to access and staff security.