Issue 40 - Article 10

A new approach to incorporating protection into humanitarian action

October 9, 2008
Kate Sutton, independent protection consultant

The debate regarding the protection role of non-mandated agencies in humanitarian responses is gradually producing some concrete answers. A recent HPG report recommends that ‘every humanitarian agency should incorporate a minimum commitment to protection into their work’. In a practical sense this should include the incorporation of protection considerations into all assessments and project interventions, and in theory many non-mandated agencies have recognised this as an essential component of humanitarian response programming. However, in practice the incorporation of protection considerations into agency programming remains ad hocand dependent on the knowledge and interest of individuals. The recent response to the post-election violence in Kenya was no exception; protection assessments revealed that displaced populations were increasingly exposed to threats as a result of poor programming practices in sectors including food aid, water and sanitation and shelter.

Part of the challenge in Kenya and other emergency contexts is the lack of clear agency standards to guide protection integration or to measure the accountability and quality of non-mandated agencies’ responses to protection concerns. In order to address this gap, an inter-agency group has developed agency standards for the integration of protection in humanitarian action. This article outlines the development of these standards and examines the potential utility of the tool.

Developing standards

The impetus for developing the standards grew out of a critical review of World Vision’s humanitarian and emergency affairs (HEA) strategy and an analysis of the position of protection within it. World Vision recognised two things: first, that as a non-mandated agency it needed to better define its role in protection; and second, that sector response programmes can either directly promote or hinder the protection of crisis-affected communities. A strategic decision was made to ensure that all programming would positively promote protection through its integration into all sector response programming. This led directly to a discussion regarding how this could be achieved.

In 2006, World Vision Australia funded research to identify and collate all the standards and indicators that related to protection in existing accountability documents. The research was intended to explore the possibility of using a standards format to communicate and promote the incorporation of protection into sector programmes. This seemed appropriate given that, although protection has been embedded as a cross-cutting theme in industry standards for many years, there were no standards exclusively addressing protection. It was assumed that these existing references could be extracted and combined to develop a set of standards to address that gap. The research analysed accountability tools that have already been endorsed by the humanitarian community, and it was assumed that the protection components of these tools had also implicitly been endorsed. Existing accountability documents that were reviewed included the Sphere Handbook, the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) Principles of Accountability, the INEE Minimum Standards for Education in Emergencies, the Red Cross Code of Conduct and the Good Enough Guide. Other sector-specific resources included the IASC Guidelines for Gender-based Violence Interventions in Humanitarian Settings and Standards and Indicators in UNHCR Operations.

World Vision then began developing agency standards and indicators for integrating protection. In its current field-testing version, the first section details agency standards applicable to all sectors in any emergency response. The following six sections detail agency standards for integrating protection into individual sectors (water and sanitation, food aid and non-food programming, livelihoods, shelter, health and education). Each section contains standards, indicators and guidance notes in a similar format to the Sphere Handbook. (See example standard and indicators for food and non-food programmes in Box 1.)

Screen Shot 2012-08-30 at 3.04.48 PM

The tool was initially developed to increase the quality and accountability of protection in World Vision sector programmes. However, insofar as the standards summarised the protection components of industry-wide tools, it was also hoped that they might be applicable beyond World Vision. The Sphere Project, the Global Protection Cluster and the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) encouraged World Vision to share the tool more widely to ensure that the protection standards and indicators were in line with best practice and knowledge in the wider humanitarian sector, and potentially to allow the tool to be endorsed as an inter-agency document at a later stage.

In order to obtain industry feedback on the standards and indicators, the document was submitted for peer review by over 20 agencies and networks including the Global Protection Working Group. This preliminary review process has provided an early indication of the value of the standards and indicators, and highlighted areas that require further clarification and revision. Overwhelmingly, the document was endorsed as a useful tool for the field, and many agencies ascribe its strength to the connection to existing standards, codes and principles. In general, respondents found the language clear and intelligible. Almost all the respondents confirmed that, if attained, the standards would add value to humanitarian response programming, and largely found attaining the standards feasible. One of the most positive outcomes of the peer review process has been the development of an inter-agency group that has committed to field-testing the standards across different agency sector responses in countries including Timor Leste, Kenya, Sudan and Somalia, with funding from AusAID, DFID and World Vision Australia. CARE Australia, Caritas Australia, Oxfam Australia and World Vision have developed a field-testing methodology.

The potential utility of the tool has been confirmed by field staff. In response to the recent post-election violence in Kenya, World Vision targeted over 30,000 households with food and non-food items both in camps and surrounding communities. A protection assessment highlighted substantial concerns (see Box 2). In response to the findings the teams reviewed the standards for integrating protection into food and NFI programmes, and developed an action plan for improving agency practice and advocacy to partner agencies. Measures including more specific targeting of vulnerable groups and protection mechanisms for girls vulnerable to sexual exploitation were put in place.

Screen Shot 2012-08-30 at 3.04.56 PM

The relevance of the standards in Kenya is likely to be replicated in other contexts where safety issues in sector programmes are consistently documented. For example, agency assessments in contexts including Darfur, Sudan (2006) and Mozambique (2008) continue to highlight concerns related to food aid programming, and refer to issues including women having to pay for their own ration cards and a lack of representative inclusion in food aid committees.

In March 2008, the inter-agency group and external advisors including representatives from UNHCR, the Sphere Project and NGOs met at a workshop to discuss some of the significant challenges in the redrafting process and to develop a methodology for field-testing the standards. Key issues arising from the workshop included the necessity of clarifying the definition of a ‘standard’, and in the context of this tool referring to ‘agency standards’ rather than ‘industry standards’. This is a critical distinction in the field of protection, where the ultimate standards must necessarily be international humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law. It was therefore strongly recommended that the tool refer back to the legal basis for each section, as well as referring to relevant existing industry standards such as Sphere. The proposed definition is: ‘the standards articulate a minimum level of agency performance to be reached and maintained in sector responses. The standards are qualitative and meant to be universal statements, so that they apply in all emergency contexts’. It was also recommended that the inter-agency group explore the development of agency standards for livelihoods and peace-building. Oxfam Australia has developed standards for incorporating protection into livelihoods programmes, and these have been incorporated into the field-testing version.

The field-testing started in August 2008, initially in Timor Leste and Kenya. The process will test the standards against the following agreed criteria: clarity, feasibility, measurability, value-added and cost-effectiveness. A baseline survey of current agency practice and community perceptions of agency practice will be conducted, followed by a six-month period in which agencies will make amendments to existing projects in order to comply with the draft standards. Amendments may include anything from changing information provided at food distributions to putting ramps in schools to ensure disabled access. Successful field-testing will be heavily dependent on a strong training component prior to testing, so that agencies have a common understanding of protection and how the standards tool should be used. Communities will be directly involved in the training and testing process, and their feedback will be sought against the testing criteria. At the end of the testing process an end-line survey will be carried out to establish not only agency practice and feedback against criteria, but to the extent possible community perceptions of changes in safety and dignity. The developed field methodology has drawn considerably on the experience of Sphere, HAP and INEE.

The field-testing stage will provide a real indication of the utility and potential impact of the standards for staff and communities in the field. It will also hopefully provide the basis for a final version and the roll-out of the standards. In the meantime, what has already been achieved is an important step towards providing clarity and consistency in the integration of protection into sector programmes. The initiative has moved the discussions regarding the measurement and mainstreaming of protection forward by providing a concrete document for critique and feedback. The inter-agency group continues to learn from the feedback and ideas of agencies and communities, and it is hoped that the final standards will provide agencies with a tool to effectively address community protection concerns in sector programming.

Kate Sutton is an independent protection consultant, formerly of World Vision International. Her e-mail address is: For more information about the project, including copies of the field-testing version of the standards, please contact


Comments are available for logged in members only.