NGOs and practical protection in humanitarian crises
by Susan F. Martin and Elizabeth Moller May 2003

NGOs have traditionally avoided overt involvement in protection activities; instead, this work has typically been seen as the preserve of specifically mandated organisations such as UNHCR and ICRC. However, when these agencies are absent or over-extended gaps in the protection regime emerge, particularly for internally-displaced and other war-affected people. As a result, the current protection regime is coming under increased scrutiny. NGOs are discussing new roles in protection at field level, and looking for practical approaches to improving the safety and security of refugees and the displaced.

Promoting practical protection

In December 2001, the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University in Washington DC and the American Red Cross International Division co-sponsored a workshop on practical protection. The workshop offered a four-part strategy to increase the protection afforded by NGOs to refugees and internally-displaced people (IDPs).

First, by their very presence NGOs support protection. Humanitarian presence, by witnessing abuse, can contribute to deterring it. This can, however, create dilemmas about what to do with this information. If a humanitarian NGO remains silent about the human rights abuse that it has seen, it fails to deter violations, and may even be construed as legitimising these actions. On the other hand, publicly releasing information on abuses could lead to expulsion from a country, thereby depriving civilians of the NGO’s assistance altogether.

Second, a relief NGO can provide protection through education and training. The availability of primary and secondary education tends to reduce the number of children conscripted into the military, for example. When women are trained in income-generation skills and are able to reduce their dependence on relief, they also reduce their vulnerability to abuse. They have less need to trade sex for food or other assistance, and they can better protect themselves and their children from other abuses.

Third, NGOs can encourage self-protection by mobilising vulnerable groups. A community that is educated about its rights and endowed with a sense of entitlement can organise its members for mutual protection. This can prove an even more effective deterrent than the presence of outside NGOs.

Finally, a wide range of NGOs can partake in direct primary protection activities. For example, to better protect unaccompanied and separated children from physical abuse, NGOs can help identify family members, reuniting children with relatives or developing networks of foster families. Human rights training can help reduce attacks and other abuses by the local police. Having advance teams scout out and secure areas before displaced people return helps ensure safe repatriation. The design of a refugee or IDP camp also plays a role in protection. Well-planned latrine placement, for instance, protects women by reducing their exposure to sexual aggression; promoting food security reduces the vulnerability of refugees and displaced people to physical and sexual exploitation.

No doubt each NGO evaluating its protection role will establish a different strategy in line with its specific mandate. However, the framework discussed here may serve as a starting-point for NGOs seeking to identify and expand their protection activities.

Incorporating practical protection into NGO activities

The workshop identified two approaches to incorporating protection into NGO activities:

  • creating a separate focal point with principal responsibility for protection; or
  • revamping every programme with the concept of protection in mind.

There are benefits in identifying protection as a unique and separate function inside an NGO, not least that it gives the protection issue organisational prominence. This kind of internal demarcation can help ensure that NGOs devote resources and time to highlighting protection and working with UNHCR, governments and other NGOs on the issue. However, a separate protection person or unit may have the unwanted side-effect of relieving other divisions from the need to give protection the necessary attention. The alternative approach – redesigning every programme with protection in mind – essentially means looking at all programming through a ‘protection lens’. This is not a new idea; it has been used in public health and other fields for years. Decisions about vaccination or treatment, for instance, are made with a view to the potential impact on other people and other diseases. At the workshop, there was general agreement that failing to ‘wear a protection lens’ when creating and developing programmes risks causing great injury to the people and societies organisations are trying to help.

Forming strategic partnerships to enhance practical protection

Regardless of the overall approach, protection must occur at the field level, not just at headquarters. Establishing strategic partnerships is among the most effective means by which NGOs can broaden their protection roles in the field, gain access to target populations and increase the resources available for more explicit protection activities. For most of the international NGOs at the workshop, local NGOs offer a way of reaching vulnerable population groups and assessing their protection needs. There are, however, drawbacks and potential dangers to forming partnerships with local NGOs for protection. Political bias is one, cultural bias another. Local NGOs may, for instance, give priority to the education of boys over girls. Another problem is that local NGOs are not necessarily well-informed about conditions in areas of displacement or return, as they may have been forced to curtail their work or even shut down during wartime.

NGOs have facilitated stronger protection at field level through alliances with UNHCR. During the late 1990s, for instance, Save the Children and UNHCR undertook a joint project – Action for the Rights of a Child – which detailed the protection needs of children. The project is now on UNHCR’s website. IRC has also undertaken a pilot protection project with UNHCR in Pakistan to screen candidates at risk, and therefore in need of resettlement. IRC works with local NGOs to identify those lacking assistance or prospects of repatriation. Locally-hired lawyers interview applicants to determine if they meet UNHCR’s resettlement criteria. In this way, the local NGOs–IRC–UNHCR alliance can distinguish those refugees most in need of UNHCR’s protection and resettlement assistance from a much larger group, thereby lightening the burden on UNHCR. This contribution was especially important in Pakistan where, prior to 11 September, UNHCR had only two or three international protection officers for one and a half million refugees.

ICRC has also taken important steps to strengthen its collaboration with the NGO community, particularly through a series of workshops since 1996. Over 50 organisations have participated, and the meetings have promoted useful debates on a wide range of protection questions. Finding new mechanisms for collaboration with NGOs is important in part because of ICRC’s strong commitment to confidentiality. ICRC often does not share information with other groups working in the field, making partnerships difficult. As relief agencies increasingly advocate speaking up when made aware of unpublicised abuse, ICRC works behind the scenes to gain adherence to the Geneva Conventions. A division of labour between ICRC and NGOs can help ensure that a wider range of strategies is used to protect civilian populations.

Peacekeeping is a further area requiring collaboration. One of the most critical impediments to practical protection is insecurity during conflict. Often, civilians and the humanitarian agencies that seek to aid them are themselves targeted by warring parties. International and local military forces engaged in peacekeeping can play an important role in protecting civilians and aid operations. NGOs in turn can help train peacekeepers and the local military in fundamental human rights.

Partnerships with human-rights groups and refugee advocacy organisations can play an important role in publicising protection problems that go uncovered by operational humanitarian agencies. In one situation, a call from NGOs in Bangladesh alerted an advocacy agency that refugee women and children were being harassed at night. After confirming the information, the agency contacted the US Ambassador, who approached senior officials in the host country. As compared to the local NGOs, the advocacy NGO was able to gain access to key locations, to verify the relevant information from refugees and bring the information quickly to influential decision-makers.

Training for protection

Before humanitarian workers can promote protection effectively, they must be properly trained. Designing training on protection for field staff whose tasks do not officially encompass this is as challenging as it is important. How should a training component be incorporated into the organisation? Should outside human-rights experts be brought in on a regular basis? Should there be regular training of trainers among the organisation’s staff? The financial implications are significant, and high staff turnover in the field only exacerbates the difficulties.

The Reach Out initiative, which began in November 2000, is one potential model for such training. Reach Out has delivered nine training sessions that address protection services to refugees. Sessions use dialogue with participating organisations, covering the gamut of refugee-related activities. Reach Out works closely with UNHCR, and has led training in a variety of refugee locations, including Zambia, Pakistan, Serbia and Thailand. Reach Out holds its training sessions in the field, with a non-legalistic, programme-oriented approach that is hopefully relevant to most aid workers. The principal focus is on refugee protection, rather than the protection of IDPs.

Local training initiatives are essential to enhancing protection. The internet provides new opportunities to reach large numbers of staff, particularly through interactive websites with online protection training. By making training user-friendly, staff can access it themselves from the field. Ideally, there should be a website with a chat room for sharing ideas and an expert on call to answer field workers’ questions and requests. ReliefWeb is a possible portal for this.

Protection training must be more continuous. UNHCR is developing a training programme based on self-learning and self-testing. This requires participants to complete a number of exercises over several months, and to test the results in the course of their work. UNHCR is designing specific modules to train staff generally in protection. After completing the self-taught course, staff attend learning and discussion workshops. Another effective way to train is through mentoring, where less experienced people are paired with more experienced colleagues on a particular project.


The late Fred Cuny, one of the most creative leaders in the field of disaster response, used the term ‘practical protection’ to refer to the many activities that field staff could undertake to help ensure the safety and security of the beneficiaries of their assistance. From their own presence in the field and the strategies they adopt, NGOs play an important role in securing greater protection for vulnerable groups. These practical approaches to protection hold great potential for improving the lives of the people whom humanitarian NGOs seek to assist.

Susan F. Martin is Director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM) in the Edmund Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, Washington DC. Elisabeth Mollerwas a Research Assistant at ISIM.

The workshop on practical protection was held in Washington DC on 17–18 December 2001. A full summary will appear in International Migration, vol. 40, no. 6. See

References and further reading

Handbook for Applying the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (Washington DC/New York: Brookings Institution Project on Internal Displacement and UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, 1999).

Roberta Cohen and James Kunder, ‘Humanitarian and Human Rights Emergencies’, Policy Brief, no. 83, Brookings Institution, June 2001.

Mark Frohardt, Diane Paul and Larry Minear, Protecting Human Rights: The Challenge to Humanitarian Organizations, Occasional Paper 35 (Providence, RI: Thomas J. Watson Institute for International Studies, 1999).

Diane Paul, Protection in Practice: Field Level Strategies for Protecting Civilians from Deliberate Harm, Network Paper 30 (London: Humanitarian Practice Network, 1999).

Reach Out Training Modules,

Protecting Refugees: A Field Guide for NGOs (Geneva: UNHCR, 1999).