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WFP food distribution center for IDPs in North Darfur WFP food distribution center for IDPs in North Darfur Photo credit: © Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID

Leaps and bounds: mainstreaming protection in food security

by Paul White and Isabelle Rivolet
15 May 2014

In 2011 the World Food Programme (WFP) asked ProCap[1], the United Nations inter-agency protection capacity project, to deploy Senior Protection Officers (SPOs) to help make operational a protection policy that was in the process of being developed. One SPO was assigned to the WFP Regional Office in Thailand and another to the Country Office in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Because the SPOs were assigned to a UN agency that is not specifically mandated for protection they were in an unfamiliar environment. An emphasis on logistics and tonnage is crucial to the work of WFP and this is sometimes at odds with a strong focus on the protection of beneficiaries. In the early months the SPOs’ work was defined by ‘selling’ protection as an approach that would augment existing programming. In promoting protection internally the SPOs drafted guidance notes, encouraged the development of beneficiary feedback mechanisms, initiated research into the protection and gender aspects of the use of cash and vouchers[2] and tried to ensure that a focus on making protection operational in WFP would be maintained beyond the length of their assignments.

Protection in food security programming

Protection in food security programmes does not occur spontaneously. Those working in food security generally join agencies to use their expertise in nutrition, logistics and food security, not to practice protection. Some will not be interested in protection and may feel that it can wait when people are starving and need food. Food security-mandated agencies have primary responsibilities related to food, hunger, nutrition, agriculture and livelihoods. Agencies do not want to risk being accused of neglecting their mandates while they practice protection.

It is important to take into consideration the daily priorities and constraints of food assistance agencies when developing a shared understanding of the vital role agencies and their partners can play in the protection of civilians, starting with safe and dignified food, cash and voucher distributions. Links between food insecurity and protection risks are better acknowledged, as are the links between livelihoods and protection. In February 2012, WFP, the major food assistance actor in emergencies, adopted a Humanitarian Protection Policy.[3] Agencies including World Vision[4], the Sphere Project and the related Livestock Emergency Guidance Standards (LEGS) have also given more prominence to protection.

The importance of mainstreaming protection into the operational decisions of food security actors affecting internally displaced people and other civilians becomes stark in emergencies, when food security agencies have access but protection actors sometimes do not. Even though there is no shortage of protection issues in conflict and natural disasters some governments refuse to permit the activation of the Protection Cluster whilst embracing a Food Cluster. Some would argue that, because of their far-reaching field presence in an emergency response and their capacity to get things done, food security providers are well placed to take greater responsibility for ensuring that protective activities are at the forefront of the humanitarian response.

The ProCap SPOs emphasised:

• Mainstreaming protection into all phases of the food security project cycle.
• Analysing protection and gender issues ahead of programming.
• Ensuring safety, security and dignity at the point of distribution.
• Eliminating potential dangers for beneficiaries travelling to and from distribution points.
• Preventing sexual abuse and exploitation related to food security.
• Promoting the use of fuel-efficient stoves and safe access to firewood.

Protection within WPF

The Policy Division in WFP HQ and practitioners in the field are developing WFP’s unique brand of protection. What are the implications for food security agencies if they take on more responsibility for the protection of civilians in an emergency? It is always helpful to have a protection specialist embedded in the agency. The culture of a food security agency can be hard to understand for an outsider, especially when the agency places a heavy emphasis on logistics, livestock or international conventions on issues like the protection of seeds or plants. Having a specialist deployed to focus on humanitarian protection and to coordinate with protection actors ensures that the deep-seated cultural differences between food security and protection agencies can be addressed. WFP, with the support of its Standby Partners, has an increasing number of Protection Officers and Protection Focal Points in its Regional Bureaux and Country Offices, and has deployed Protection Officers to work with its food security experts in recent emergencies in countries such as the Philippines and South Sudan. They assist operational staff in identifying and analysing protection and gender issues and adjusting programmes accordingly.

In Ango, Uélés, DRC, the food needs of a population hard hit by repeated attacks by armed groups in 2011 were provided for by WFP. Protection trends underpinned WFP’s planning and programming. Sexual and physical violence, looting, extortion and illegal taxation, abduction, arbitrary detention and forced labour, often committed by military or armed groups, were all considered in the Emergency Operations (EMOP) project. Customary practices such as salongo, community-based labour which marginalises women who are not entitled to property or to harvest income, were also taken into account. A clear link was made between food security and attacks on the assets of displaced people deprived of access to livelihoods, and attacks on women and girls, who suffered sexual assaults travelling to fields, markets and water-points, and while collecting firewood.

The SPOs also sought opportunities to advance a protection agenda in other policy areas. Zero tolerance of sexual abuse set out in various codes of conduct and UN circulars can be used as blocks upon which to build a broader protection strategy focused on gender-based violence. Protection Officers can support WFP Focal Points to ensure that codes are monitored, although enforcement is not considered their responsibility. Protection can be built into complaints mechanisms aimed at identifying fraud or diversion of food or cash. Such mechanisms can take up a variety of protection issues, including the identification of people excluded from food distributions, sexual exploitation or discrimination on the basis of age, gender, religion or ethnicity.

It is important when doing protection work within a non-mandated agency to valorise those aspects of the agency’s work that have protective impacts. Tweaking the WFP Vulnerability Assessment Mapping process, monitoring and evaluation tools and Food for Education programmes can produce protection impacts that might otherwise be missed. Registration of beneficiaries for food assistance, for instance, may help in the creation of new or replacement documents. This can restore or create a legal identity for internally displaced people or others without documentation, and so may have protective dimensions related to preventing statelessness. A well-organised and thorough registration process can also identify people with specific needs beyond food assistance, resulting in referral to protection partners.

Protection Working Groups or similar field structures are not the place where food security people are likely to gather. Many complain that these fora are not sufficiently relevant to justify their attendance, and that protection people talk themselves into irrelevance at meetings because they get bogged down in unnecessary detail. Arguments about who has responsibility for which group of affected people – drought- or conflict-affected IDPs, returnees or refugees – when all are food insecure beggar belief amongst some food security people. Yet a presence at key meetings or on missions where food security-related protection issues arise is vital. Protection responses such as including vulnerabilities beyond IDP, refugee or returnee status, strengthening community participation, integrating processes to help prevent or respond to abuses and violations and supporting the strategic priorities of protection actors are possible at all stages of the food security project cycle. A better understanding of what is doable in food security needs to be elucidated to ensure that both sectors can engage. Protection officers who are not in food security agencies generally are not familiar with operational matters and often try to simply duplicate the work of mandated protection agencies in food security. Protection-friendly practices and policies already exist in food security and livelihoods programmes. It is productive to listen to the food security team and then explore with them alternative ways of using their existing tools and resources to serve a protective purpose. Protection will not have the oversight role it has in a protection-mandated agency and materials generated from the protection world are less likely to be of value than those developed by the food security sector locally. It may be appropriate to rely on principles such as ‘do no harm’ to make it easier for partners unfamiliar with protection language. Do no harm checklists, appropriately contextualised, available and disseminated, are a great asset and can result in staff specifically taking into consideration, for example, whether food inadvertently strengthens the position of armed groups or may undermine people’s efforts to protect themselves and increase their vulnerabilities.

Paul White is a ProCap SPO and Adjunct Academic at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia. Isabelle Rivolet is a ProCap SPO.

This is an article in HPN’s Online Exchange. To read other Exchange articles, please visit http://www.odihpn.org/humanitarian-exchange-magazine.


[1] The ProCap (Protection Capacity) project aims to strengthen the protection capacity of UN agencies through the deployment of Senior Protection Officers. ProCap is managed by the Norwegian Refugee Council. Its Steering Committee comprises UNHCR, UNICEF, OHCHR, OCHA/DPSS and ICVA.

[2] Michelle Berg, Hanna Mattinen and Gina Pattugalan, Examining Protection and Gender in Cash and Voucher Transfers, September 2013, http://documents.wfp.org/stellent/groups/public/documents/communications/wfp260028.pdf.

[3] WFP Humanitarian Protection Policy, 15 February 2012, http://documents.wfp.org/stellent/groups/public/documents/eb/wfpdoc061670.pdf.

[4] Minimum Interagency Standards for Protection Mainstreaming, 2012, http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Full_Report_3752.pdf.

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