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Network Paper 72 - Local to Global Protection in Myanmar (Burma), Sudan, South Sudan and Zimbabwe

Time (GMT +00) 11:00 13:00

Justin Corbett - author of the South Kordofan/Nuba, Sudan Study
Simon Harragin - author of the Jonglei, South Sudan Study
Ashley South - author of the two Myanmar (Burma) studies (via video link)
Nils Carstensen (ACT Alliance) - L2GP manager and co-author of Network Paper 72 

Dr. Sara Pantuliano -
Head, Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI

Wendy Fenton - Coordinator, Humanitarian Practice Network

Nils Carstensen, coordinator of the L2GP project, described the rationale for the study. He explained how the project originated from a sense that the large volume of debate and analysis on protection is not being matched by improvements on the ground. Moreover, protection activities at the local levels are disconnected from global level efforts, and the global narrative on protection is mainly informed by international efforts, while coverage of what populations are doing to protect themselves, is lacking.

He then summarised key findings, noting that across all case studies local understandings of protection often varied significantly from those of international actors. He added that a majority of local communities felt their actions to protect themselves were more important than those of outsiders. At best, international protection actors’ efforts were seen as modest. At worst, they were absent and sometimes counterproductive.  He stressed that this did not mean local protection activities should substitute for international protection efforts. On the contrary, the study found that self-protection strategies often had negative consequences for local populations, and Nils suggested humanitarian actors could do much more to support these.

Nils then shared some of the key findings from the Zimbabwe case study on behalf of the authors who were unable to attend the launch. They stressed the importance of capturing local cultural and religious phenomena in assessing protection threats. In Zimbabwe, examples include witchcraft, religious sects and cult beliefs. International actors tend to ignore such issues, but for local respondents they represent real protection threats. Nils ended his presentation noting the importance of keeping in mind the differences in perceptions of threats, that there is no single coherent perspective at the local or global levels.

Ashley South
, speaking via video link from Bangkok, presented on the two contexts researched for the Myanmar (Burma) case study: the Karen-populated and conflict-affected south east, and the Irrawaddy Delta affected by cyclone Nargis.

Ashley noted that respondents made little distinction between immediate protection concerns related to physical safety and security, and longer-term issues of livelihoods security. Turning to the main providers of assistance, he added that access for international aid actors has been limited in both areas, and that national and local actors have been the main providers of assistance and protection.

He described how in South East Burma, non-state armed actors, such as the Karen National Union (KNU), play a prominent role. In addition to the provision of food and medical assistance, one example of strategies they use to protect territories and civilians, is the use of landmines. Ashley noted this raises several questions around the definition of protection, who is considered a legitimate protection actor, and the manner in which international support to local protection actors can legitimise parties to armed conflict. On self-protection mechanisms, he highlighted that faith-based leaders played a key role, through engaging in ‘behind the scenes’ advocacy with power holders in order to negotiate protective outcomes.

Moving on to the Irrawaddy Delta, Ashley noted that here too national and local actors – from NGOs to civil society groups, local businesses, as well as ordinary civilians - played leading roles in the humanitarian response following Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Local community leaders in turn negotiated the delivery of assistance, through prioritising protection and assistance for the most vulnerable, and encouraging sharing and support within and between communities.

He added that a number of national actors’ understandings of assistance priorities were at times quite different to those of communities’, and that aid, and how it was targeted, was sometimes in conflict with local values and realities. This he pointed out, illustrated the challenge of identifying the local voice. Even at the village level, elites may have a different understanding of targeting to the poorest households.

Wendy Fenton then invited Simon Harragin, author of the Jonglei case study, to speak. Simon picked up on Ashley’s point about the difficulties of identifying the local voice, stating it was important to keep in mind the inevitable presence of prejudices in the analysis and presentation of local perceptions.

On Jonglei, he noted that the recent outbreak of violence had been predicted by respondents in 2009 and 2010, and that it was therefore important to make the point that the more local the information, the more likely it is to be accurate and have the capacity to predict violence and disasters. The other key finding he stressed was that local communities rely on themselves for their own protection, rather than the government, the UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan, or international humanitarian actors.

He then turned to local understandings of protection, saying how in the local language, protection threats referred to a range of ‘bad’ things including disease, hunger as well as insecurity. Local conceptions of protection also stressed preventative functions of protection, in other words, those actions or structures which will prevent a person dying from hunger, disease or violence. Simon added that this emphasis on the purpose of protection was rather different than that of the international protection regime, which tends to rely on structure. This approach, through its focus on coordination and log-frames, might also be preventing greater interaction between global and local level protection actors. By way of conclusion, he noted that there is often an assumption among international humanitarian actors they share the same concerns as the local communities they assist. Greater interaction would enable local actors to challenge some of these perceptions.

The final speaker, Justin Corbett, presented on the South Kordofan/Nuba case study where research was carried out from the start of 2005 - which marked the end of two decades of civil war and the beginning of a ceasefire period, to June 2011 - when renewed violence erupted.

As with the other case studies, Justin said that attempting to separate physical safety, rights and livelihoods, as international agencies commonly do, was not relevant to local understandings of protection. Similarly, respondents were the primary protectors of themselves and their families. Examples of such strategies included local knowledge of safe hiding places, wild foods as well as medicinal plants. Maintaining solidarity and unity among community members was another important feature of protection for respondents.

Justin noted such self-protection strategies could be better supported by international actors, through more integrated and holistic responses. In this, it would also be important to support local structures, such as networks of voluntary teachers and health workers. For this to happen, humanitarian actors would need to stop avoiding political structures he said, and develop ways of working with them in order to meet humanitarian needs.

He also stressed the importance of meeting needs which were considered vital by respondents in order to meet their needs as human beings, yet which didn’t fit into the international humanitarian box of thinking. One example was that of supplying guitar strings so that communities could hold traditional ceremonies. Such requests he said weren’t always compatible with donor regulations, and agencies were concerned over how such forms of assistance might be perceived by the general public.

Justin then described a number of efforts over the past 6 months to put into practice some of the above lessons learned in the context of renewed violence. Initiatives included setting up local protection teams in Nuba, consisting of young male and female volunteers, whose role is to share local knowledge of wild foods or medicinal plants which may exist in one particular village, with other villages. He described how the teams also disseminate advice on what actions to take during bombing raids to protect physical safety based on lessons generated from the previous period of conflict.

He mentioned the project was presently looking at how to improve advocacy efforts, and specifically, how to promote the voice of local communities on the ground, both among international actors, as well as the general public in Sudan. Justin concluded with a message for the international community, saying international protection actors need to be more opportunistic, willing to take risks and be more humble about what they can or cannot do.

Sara Pantuliano
thanked the speakers and noted that a number of key themes emerged from the presentations:

·         Self-protection strategies play a crucial role, but are no substitute for national or international efforts as they are often unable to provide the level safety, security and dignity that people need, and expose them to further risks.

·         There is a profound disconnect between needs on the ground, what affected populations do to try and meet these, versus the responses of national authorities and international actors. Sara added that the structures charged with delivering international protection have moved the international community further and further away from local populations on the ground, with responses being more pre-established and risk-averse than they should be.

·         The lessons generated by the study are not new, so when are they going to be put into practice? Here she stressed the importance of the predictive capacity of local actors who know what the protection threats are, and can articulate when they will happen, versus the lack of capacity on the part of international actors to respond to these. 


·         Referring to Justin’s presentation, Sara emphasized the importance of developing responses tailored to the cultural context, saying that in the context of violent conflict, assistance that provides psychological relief is just as important as that which responds to physical needs.

·         On the inadequacy of peacekeeping operations in the context of Sudan and South Sudan, Sara suggested that it would be important for some of the project findings to feed into the integrated mission planning process around mandates and coordination arrangements. 

·         On the question of advocacy, she stressed the importance of thinking about who advocacy is directed to, and by whom it is informed, as the case studies made clear that advocacy can be unproductive and sometimes harmful, undermining local protection efforts and international responses.

·         Sara concluded saying an important question was who would lead a re-think in international protection responses and be responsible for pushing a change that is so badly needed? She added that she hoped some of today’s discussions would resonate with the global protection cluster, but that ultimately individual agencies each have the responsibility to rethink their current modes of operation.

Points raised in the question session, and addressed by the various speakers included:

Where respondents asked whether they would have been worse off without support from international actors, or if international support was of no use at all?

Simon noted that this question had indeed been raised, but that it was difficult to give a specific answer: respondents might say they would not survive without food rations for example. This did not necessarily mean they would die if they did not receive it, but might be a way of highlighting their needs and negotiating levels of assistance. Nils added that as researchers they were associated with the aid business, and therefore had to solicit objective answers indirectly. He noted that the most appreciated type of contribution in the case of Myanmar was cash-based assistance, as it helped communities recover some of their decision-making capacity. Justin mentioned that in the context of Sudan and South Sudan evidence did suggest that international actors may have done more harm than good through focusing on the North-South split, giving agencies a false sense of security.

Would a broader definition of protection not risk setting international protection actors up for failure as it implies developing a wide range of responses, ranging from police reform to livelihoods recovery?

Nils agreed with this concern, but stressed that although it may be better to adopt a narrow definition of protection at the international level, it was equally important to minimize the gap between local and global level understandings of protection.

Did the project have any recommendations regarding the UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan (UNMIS), and its inability to protect local populations during times of heightened violence?

Simon said that UNMIS’ protection mandate had not been communicated to local communities, leading to unrealistic expectations of what UNMIS could achieve. He added that UNMIS had also failed to fulfil its responsibilities with regards to preventative action, through not ensuring sufficient presence of peacekeeping troops on the ground. He noted that on the positive side, the new peacekeeping mission for South Sudan, UNMISS, was showing signs of taking a more flexible approach to deployment and engaging more with local authorities. Sara added that in South Kordofan however, there was huge frustration among communities over the inability of international protection mechanisms like UNMIS to learn lessons from past failures, and respond in face of escalating threats, especially as these were well understood before the outbreak of recent conflict.

In what ways can local priorities be given greater consideration in contexts such as Myanmar, where the values of non-state armed actors clash with those of international protection actors? 

Ashley noted that this was indeed a significant problem, and was related to the debate about liberal-democratic agendas shaping humanitarian responses in ways which sometimes are dissonant with local cultural contexts. However, he added, it was also important to ask who represents the interests of local communities. In situations such as Myanmar, where a number of armed groups and civil societies are seeking to represent them, providing assistance through one group might serve to legitimise or support their views whilst excluding others.

The point was also made that international donors, through seeking to engage with organisations that have the capacity to absorb large volumes of funding, may contribute to the marginalisation of local actors. More flexible approaches to funding were needed and it would also be important to include local NGOs and community based organisation in needs assessments and context analyses.

What kinds of support could the Diaspora provide in light of the project findings? 

Justin noted the role of the Diaspora was key, both from the point of view of remittances as well as advocacy at the international as well as national levels. Sara added that it was important the Diaspora ensure its advocacy efforts are well informed, and consistent with the views of their relatives and communities back home.

Concluding remarks: Nils concluded the discussion saying that the L2GP project was now focusing on the practical implications of the study, and urged interested parties with ideas on how to translate the study recommendations into practice to get in touch.


The most striking finding emerging from the studies is how vulnerable people take the lead in protecting themselves and their communities.  Protection initiatives by outside actors, on the other hand, were perceived by people at risk as less important. Often, local understandings of ‘protection’ vary significantly from how the concept is used by international humanitarian agencies. In most of the studies, livelihoods and protection were intimately linked. Customary law and local values and traditions mattered at least as much as formal rights; and psychological and spiritual needs and threats were often considered as important as physical survival.  However, while hugely important for everyday survival, local understandings and self-protection activities are rarely acknowledged or effectively supported by aid agencies.

The paper suggests two distinct but complementary approaches to improving protection in humanitarian crises: strengthening local capacities for self-protection, while at the same time generating the international political action to prevent or stop targeted attacks on civilians.