Challenging the protection paradigm

Tuesday, February 07, 2012 • by Mara Caputo

Humanitarian aid agencies must work to better understand and enable local capacities for self-protection, concludes a new publication conceived and co-authored by members of ACT Alliance.

The paper published by the Overseas Development Institute is a product of the Local to Global Protection (L2GP) initiative to document and promote local perspectives on protection in humanitarian crises. It presents the findings of five community-based studies on how people living in areas affected by natural disasters and complex emergencies took the lead in protecting themselves and their communities.

“In most of the cases, local action was dispatched more quickly and effectively than that provided by outsiders – and aid agencies often overlooked or undervalued self-protective measures,” explained Nils Carstensen, L2GP project manager and senior advisor on advocacy and emergencies to ACT Alliance member, DanChurchAid.

The case studies – in Sudan, South Sudan, Zimbabwe and (two in) Myanmar/Burma – illustrate how local protection is closely tied to livelihoods: the more mechanisms for survival that locals have at their disposal, the better they can protect themselves during humanitarian hardships. For instance, when vulnerable people have resources to sell, or networks like extended families to rely on, they have a greater capacity to share with others when calamity strikes.

“Sharing is probably the single most important source of immediate response in most emergencies; it’s how people protect themselves and each other – so we should do all we can to help enable sustainable livelihoods,” noted Carstensen.

The paper points to differences between how local civilians and international humanitarian agencies conceive of protection. Customary law, local values and tradition often mattered more to local communities than the formal human rights-based approach of western aid agencies.

People experiencing complex emergencies often live in situations where the state and possibly other armed elements are perpetrators – not protectors. In these situations where little formal rule of law exists, a western rights-based approach to protection may have relatively little traction, while local protection activities – with all their compromises – may actually help limit threats.

Though these traditional self-protection strategies may be critical for survival, they are rarely fully adequate. Local agency cannot substitute for the protection responsibilities of national authorities or international actors. Aid agencies must be vigilant about working to fills in the gaps.

“Agencies must realise that local contributions are more important than outside actions in most instances,” concluded Carstensen. “Their efforts should supplement and strengthen local capacities and actions – not supplant them.”