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Safety with dignity: Integrating community-based protection into humanitarian programming

Time (GMT +01) 09:30 11:00

Amany Abouzeid
- Human Security and Policy Coordinator, ActionAid
Brendan Ross - Middle East Director, ActionAid

Wendy Fenton
- Coordinator, Humanitarian Practice Network (HPN)

Wendy Fenton - Humanitarian Practice Network (HPN) Coordinator introduced the two speakers for this joint HPN and ActionAid event which aimed to present and discuss the findings from the newly releasedHPN Network Paper 68 titled ‘Safety with Dignity: Integrating community based protection in to humanitarian programming’. The paper draws on ActionAid’s recent publication Safety with Dignity: a Field Manual for Integrating Community-based ProtectionAcross Humanitarian Programs, which aims to provide practical guidance on how to integrate community-based protection across sectors and contexts.

Amany Abouzeid ActionAid,  Human Security and Policy Coordinator, presented the key findings from the paper on behalf of the two authors (who could not attend the event). The paper explores the concept of community-based protection (CBP) and the various challenges it faces and discusses how humanitarian organisations can better provide protection. The paper draws on the insights and operational experiences that were gained through the development and field-testing of ActionAid’s manual ‘Safety with Dignity: a Field Manual for Integrating Community-based Protection Across Humanitarian Programs’.

The main argument of the paper is that the international protection agenda has largely focused on the role of state and other international actors, while little attention has been paid to communities as active agents of protection. Crucially however, failure to include crisis-affected populations in the design, development and implementation of humanitarian programmes and interventions may undermine the ability to respond to pre-existing protection problems, lead to decreased safety and dignity of affected populations, and ultimately create dependency, particularly in protracted crisis contexts.

Instead, CBP can assist communities to identify and strengthen their positive local protection strategies that either pre-exist, or emerge in response to the humanitarian emergency and will remain after humanitarian actors have left. The presentation also highlighted the importance of placing community-based protection within the global protection architecture to shift the predominant focus from state actors roles and responsibilities to communities’ role as central subjects and objects of attentions of assistance. As such, communities need to be viewed as active agents in mitigating, addressing, but also perpetuating, protection risks.

The paper identifies three ways to address protection in programming:

  • Protection mainstreaming: minimum level of responsibility, ‘do no harm’ approach
  • Protection integration: actively incorporates safety, security and dignity objectives into sectoral programmes
  • Stand alone protection programming: interventions focus entirely on safety, security and dignity of affected populations

It was stressed that CPB works best when local capacities are recognised, promoted and supported. Practical ways to identify and build CBP strategies can include:

  • Identify positive community strategies
  • Identify and address strategies that aim to be positive but can have harmful impact
  • Identify and address communities’ engagement in negative coping mechanism
  • Tap into potential and untapped resources and capacities

A number of opportunities and challenges to a CBP approach were also discussed. Opportunities include working with CBOs and NGOs to prioritise protection problems, analyse existing strategies, and provide training; integrate CBP into programme cycles and across sectors, and ensure that staff are appropriately trained. Particular challenges that need to be kept in mind relate to the recognition of the limitations of communities themselves, the idea that CBP is contextual and varied, and the clear difficulties in linking CBP across sectors, contexts, and placing it within the broader humanitarian architecture.

Brendan Ross, ActionAid Middle East Director gave the second presentation and started by highlighting that the dignity of affected populations is a central theme in both ActionAid’s manual and the paper. Dignity is also a central issue for West Bank and Gaza crisis-affected populations. In the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza between December 2008 and January 2009 the rush to mobilise humanitarian response and recovery has largely sidelined existing local capacity and initiatives on the ground. Affected populations and local civil society organisations were highly critical and saw it as a process of disempowerment that further contributed to undermine their dignity.

A short film titled ‘Voices from Gaza’ produced by ActionAid in collaboration with the Sharek Youth Forum was screened. The film documented the views of a number of Gazan communities and Community-based Organisations (CBOs) with regards to response strategies and approaches of international humanitarian organisations operating in Gaza. In particular, issues such as ongoing dependency on international humanitarian assistance which continues to undermine Palestinian dignity and self-reliance, and international NGOs lack of collaboration and partnership with local NGOs and CBOs in planning and delivery of programmes were highlighted in the film.

Brendan then discussed the key lessons from two programmes that ActionAid has been promoting in Gaza. Operation Cast Lead negatively affected a large number of women beneficiaries of a micro-finance programme implemented by ActionAid and ASALA - a local microfinance organisation, who had their small businesses destroyed during the conflict.  In the immediate aftermath of the conflict ActionAid proposed to promote a cash grant programme to support women to rebuild their businesses, but ASALA was arguing against this initiative for fear of creating dependency. After four weeks of negotiations between ASALA and ActionAid, ASALA was convinced of the potential benefits of the cash grant programme on women’s livelihoods. The programme proved to be a success: 90% of the women managed to get their businesses back in place and started to repay their loans on   regular basis.

ActionAid has provided direct financial assistance and capacity building, particularly in relation to protection, to a number of CBOs in Gaza. Despite a number of shortcomings in some of the activities that are being implemented on the ground, the development of a strong relationship of trust is a positive feature of this programme. In particular, the relationship of trust that ActionAid has developed with these CBOs has meant that a number of CBOs representatives have opened up and disclosed their views and openly expressed their criticism on Actionaid and other international organisations strategies and approaches in Gaza, some of were captured in the short film.

In response to this feedback ActionAid decided to see how some of the concerns expressed by the CBOs could be addressed and how it could better partner with Palestinian civil society. ActionAid hosted a one-day workshop with a number of CBOs to understand more about their goals, activities and areas where they needed support. The workshop also proved to be a good forum for discussion for the CBOs to come together and discuss their experiences.  The workshop was a great success and one of the outputs was the ’Reach beyond the Wall’ project. The ‘Wall’ is a metaphor to describe the ongoing physical, economic and political constraints imposed by the Israeli Occupation as well as the socio-cultural barriers within Palestinian society.

Wendy thanked the presenters and then opened the floor to questions from the audience:  

One event participant asked what could be done to enhance protection in a context where communities are not organised. Brendan noted that during and in the aftermath of a crisis communities do organise themselves relatively quickly, and in an organic and natural way. He therefore stressed that rather than a question of lack of organisation is often more a question of identifying and understanding how communities are actually organised in a given context. This also means that before project implementation on the ground, undertaking robust analysis of community dynamics is key.

One participant asked how one could work with local communities so as to really encourage and equip them to become agents of change in order to create organisations that can becomestrong active lobbyers and not just mere service providers.

Amany argued that in some cases communities themselves are reluctant to engage with formal institutional authorities. Often there is a long history of reciprocal lack of communication and trust between communities and state authorities. In these contexts community and state actors have minimal interaction and influence on each others, and at best, simply coexist. The idea that communities will suddenly want to become politically active and have a sophisticated, high level of political engagement is therefore often an unrealistic expectation.
Brendan also added that while it is important to encourage political participation it is also true that when working on the ground to re-build local safety nets in the aftermath of a conflict, communities very often value local socio-cultural activities that are centred around their communities and households. For communities this is often more important than high level lobby activities, in many cases seen as too distant and detached from their local day-to-day realities.   

One participant asked what should be a reasonable timeframe for undertaking CBP assessments and understand communities’ structures and dynamics.

Brendan emphasised that a long-term engagement is of crucial importance for building and strengthening relationships of trust and respect with civil society organisations. For example, ActionAid agreed with the donor that the first six months of the five years initiative to support and strengthen CBOs in Gaza needed to be allocated to an in-depth analysis of communities and CBOs dynamics and mechanisms. The strategic planning and identification of partner CBOs exceeded ActionAid initial expectations particularly with regards to the wealth of information that were gathered and the degree of ownership and participation of CBOs in the strategic plan. Indeed, CBOs willingness to participate in this exercise was also due to the fact that they knew that ActionAid was planning to work with them over the next five years.
One event participant asked what role education programmes can play in protection issues for children in particular.

Brendan said that one of the projects that ActionAid supported in Gaza was in schools, where children talked and drew about their experiences and feelings during the Operation Cast Lead Gaza and produced a simple animation, was implemented through schools. This was a successful initiative, which had ripple effects throughout children’s lives and schools asked be involved again.

Wendy drew on her experience in Southern Sudan with Save the Children to highlight the important linkages between protection and education. Despite the relevance of promoting education services in this protracted crisis context, until 2000-01 funding for education was difficult to obtain. Wendy stressed the importance of ensuring that conflict-affected children continue to have a routine and go to school as this gives them an important structure in their lives. Furthermore education can also act as a protective mechanism as children who go to school are less at risk of been recruited by militia.

One participant asked what is the best way to draw donors’ attention to creative local NGOs and CBOs that implement innovative projects.
Brendan noted that this is a key issue that ActionAid is currently grappling with. While donors are clearly inspired by innovative ideas and initiatives, at the same time it is important to draw their attention to the importance of long-term funding, something that is particularly difficult to attain in Gaza, where most donors fund short-term humanitarian interventions, usually with a 12 months funding cycle.


In recent years, the humanitarian and development sectors have seen a significant increase in international attention, engagement and activity falling under the banner of ‘protection’.

International humanitarian actors have embraced the concept and discourse of protection in various forms — through mainstreaming, integration and stand-alone protection projects and programmes. But has this growth in protection resources  and response capacity enhanced the safety, security and dignity of populations at risk? Have these efforts actually achieved effective protection for people in crisis — or have they simply progressed the agendas of international actors?

Network Paper 68 explores the concept and practice of community-based protection and identifies means for increasing and strengthening it.  This paper draws on ActionAid's publication Safety with Dignity: A Field Manual for Integrating Community-based Protection across Humanitarian Programmes, which aims to provide practical guidance for field staff working in humanitarian and development settings on how to integrate community-based protection across sectors and contexts.

In this event, the panel  discussed how effective protection for crisis affected people requires strong and genuine partnership between communities, states and international actors, in order to understand and address the complex factors involved in achieving safety and dignity for people in crisis situations. A short film was also shown.