Issue 46 - Article 4

Exploring the role of community partnerships and empowerment approaches in protection

March 25, 2010
Jessica Eby, Caroline Thuo, Nejabat Khan, Takeshi Komino and Erol Kekic, Church World Service (CWS) [1]

Even in the face of extreme poverty, conflict and crisis, civilians often play a critical role in responding to threats to their safety and dignity and violations of their fundamental rights. The focus on legal duty-bearers in the academic discourse on protection does not go far enough to acknowledge the part that non-formal actors, including affected communities themselves, play in protection. This is particularly true in contexts where effective government presence is lacking or non-existent. This article pulls together knowledge from Church World Service (CWS) programmes implemented in East Africa and Afghanistan to illustrate how community-based empowerment approaches can reduce protection threats and increase individual and community capacities to cope. While the contexts and conflicts referenced are different in many ways, programmes in these areas illustrate the potential positive impact of community-based empowerment approaches on civilians’ safety and dignity.


Giving Hope in East Africa

The Giving Hope programme helps child heads of household, or youth caregivers, achieve self-sufficiency through an empowerment and asset-building methodology. An estimated 12 million orphans in Sub-Saharan Africa have taken on the role of heads of household. Over a period of three years (2003–2005), CWS worked with partners across East Africa, particularly in Rwanda, to identify and address the needs of orphans and vulnerable children affected by HIV/AIDS and conflict. The Giving Hope programme methodology evolved out of this collective experience.

Rather than focus on their vulnerability, Giving Hope highlights youth caregivers’ inherent capacities and strengths, including their knowledge, skills and relationships. Participants form peer support groups of about 10–15 individuals, and choose an adult from the local community to act as facilitator. Youth group members take turns assisting each other with income-generating projects, financed through an asset-building fund. From 2004 to March 2009, Giving Hope programmes engaged a total of 9,511 youth caregivers in 434 communities in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Mozambique, touching the lives of 31,183 children living in youth-headed households.[2]

Impact of post-election violence on youth caregivers in Kenya

The outbreak of violence in Kenya that followed allegedly fraudulent elections in December 2007 left more than 1,100 people dead and at least 300,000 internally displaced by the end of 2008. Poorer areas were among those hardest hit – including areas with high concentrations of orphans and youth-headed households. In the Kibera slum in Nairobi, where violence was particularly acute, more than 50% of residents are unemployed, and tens of thousands are AIDS orphans.

Young people played a pivotal role in the violence, with youth mobs incited by politicians and community leaders attacking, raping and murdering civilians. While the violence had an ethnic character, the fact that so many young people participated can be seen as a function of their own frustration at a lack of economic opportunity and an oppressive political system, leaving them vulnerable to manipulation by politicians and elders pursuing their own interests.

Although Giving Hope participants generally fit the same socio-economic and demographic profiles as the youths who engaged in violence, the majority of participants stood aloof from the violence. Instead, participants in the Giving Hope programme demonstrated that they were better prepared to cope with, respond to and resist violence than their youth counterparts. There are numerous reports of youth programme participants who intervened to stop other youth from rioting, protected women from rape and organised community meetings in an effort to encourage dialogue. As an example, Rose, a participant from the Mathare slums in Nairobi, witnessed the death of her brother, who was killed when they left their home to search for kerosene in the midst of a mob. A police officer shot in the air to disperse the crowd, hitting an electric wire that fell on Rose’s brother. Months later, while speaking of her brother’s death, Rose was still healing. Yet she was also deeply grateful for the support she had received from her youth group, saying:

Our relatives had fled upcountry, afraid of losing their lives. But my friends from the working group gave us support. They stayed with us every day. They would come to check on us and help us with work. They comforted us and supported us in making funeral arrangements and meeting some of the costs … I received booster capital [to rebuild my business].

Rather than retaliating, Rose continued to meet her support group and participated in peace marches and community meetings. Through these activities, she has mended relations with friends from other ethnic groups, and maintained her dignity and means of survival.

Around the country, youth groups re-established and restocked more than 100 small businesses, and carried out additional income-generating activities. They also organised public events, including a conference in Kisumu that brought together 500 young people to discuss peace and reconciliation; arranged over 50 community sporting tournaments, promoting peaceful social interaction; and produced a television documentary highlighting the role youth played during and after the violence.

While not an explicit programme objective, a secondary result of the Giving Hope programme in Kenya was increasing community capacity to promote safety and dignity in times of crisis. From within a protection risk-reduction framework, the programme was successful in reducing vulnerability to exploitation and incitement to violence and increasing people’s capacity to cope with violence. While this is not a means to stop ongoing attacks on civilians, it is an important component in long-term, sustainable civilian protection.


Relief and reconstruction in Afghanistan

Three decades of conflict and ten years of drought have resulted in widespread civilian insecurity in Afghanistan. There is little or no government presence in many areas, infrastructure is damaged or non-existent, livelihoods capabilities have been diminished, social support mechanisms ruptured and public services destroyed. Recent estimates put the unemployment rate in Afghanistan at about 40%. Violence is both a cause and a symptom of insecurity: in a November 2009 survey, 70% of respondents characterised poverty and unemployment as driving forces behind conflict.[3] Meanwhile, civilian aid workers are increasingly targets of armed groups. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), 38 aid workers were killed, 147 abducted and 73 aid envoys and 63 aid facilities attacked in 2008.[4]

In this context, CWS and partners in Afghanistan implement programmes to address food security, water and sanitation, shelter, health and education needs. In Kandahar and Shamali, families returning after prolonged displacement in Pakistan and Iran are provided with support and resources to resettle and rebuild. In Nangahar, a community health project has significantly reduced maternal and child mortality: in 2007, the neonatal mortality rate in areas served by the Nangahar health programme was five per 1,000 live births, compared to 60 in the general population. In Zabul, reconstruction efforts include rebuilding infrastructure for agriculture and livelihoods activities.

A key factor in the ability of CWS to carry out development and humanitarian programming in Afghanistan is the community-based approach the agency has adopted. Before beginning programmes, provincial and district shuras (local leadership councils)  are consulted to establish criteria for beneficiaries and to publicise information in local communities. Local community members are active partners in the design and implementation of interventions. Some programmes have a community contribution component, whereby beneficiaries contribute their own labour to infrastructure projects in exchange for construction materials. Other programmes engage community members in neighbour-to-neighbour outreach. In this way, community members gain vocational skills (in masonry, carpentry and healthcare) which increase their chances of employment once projects are completed.

The secondary benefits of a community-based approach are numerous, and sustainable. For example, work in Kandahar has improved relations between civilians and local and provincial government representatives. Whereas in the past people had no confidence in the authorities, they now approach them with concerns and questions. Community-based organisations have also been strengthened through this process.

One indicator of increased civilian protection as a secondary outcome of this approach is the diminished prevalence of poppy cultivation in programme areas, particularly in Zabul. Afghan farmers often turn to poppy cultivation for economic reasons, and they face intimidation from the armed groups that control the drug trade. Poppy cultivation also allows armed groups to increase their control over aspects of civilian political, economic and social life. Farmers and community members in the CWS livelihoods programme target areas are committed to reducing poppy cultivation, and follow-up work has shown that fields irrigated by rehabilitated infrastructure built with community involvement are largely poppy-free. This suggests that these communities are better able to assert control over economic activities, and that the threat from illegal armed groups associated with poppy cultivation has diminished. This may be a first step towards enabling communities themselves to resist the destabilising effects of conflict.

The community-based approach in Afghanistan seems to be successful at reducing civilians’ vulnerability to exploitation by armed groups, and reducing the threat posed by those groups. That said, it is important that humanitarian and development programming be kept distinct from the counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan. When such programming is implemented by or associated with military actors or political agendas, not only does the quality of the programming decline and often cease to meet best practice standards,[5] but it may in fact place beneficiaries and aid workers in greater danger. Afghans seem to prefer receiving aid from people in civilian rather than military clothing, and are uncomfortable with military-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs).[6]



Community-based empowerment approaches can help individuals and communities be better prepared to cope with, respond to and even diminish protection threats. While it is important to be realistic about the extent to which community-based responses can be effective in cases where acute harm against civilians is occurring, it is equally important to be realistic about the extent to which state actors control protection outcomes in areas with little or no state presence. Civilian responses can complement those of formal actors in responding to protection threats, even in volatile situations. Further exploration of these community-based approaches may take us one step closer to protection as a preventive rather than a responsive action.


Jessica Eby is Protection Officer for the CWS Immigration & Refugee Program ( Caroline Thuo Reggy is Giving Hope Programme Coordinator for CWS East Africa ( Nejabat Khan Safi is Associate Director for Disaster Management for CWS Pakistan and Afghanistan ( Takeshi Komino is Disaster Response Coordinator for CWS Pakistan/Afghanistan ( Erol Kekic is Director of the CWS Immigration and Refugee Program (


[1]Marvin Parvez, Daniel Tyler, Montrella Cowan and Andrea Lang also contributed to this article

[2]T. Mott et al., Giving Hope: Asset-based Empowerment and Reconciliation for Youth Caregivers, Church World Service/East Africa, May 2009.

[3] The Cost of War: Afghan Experiences of Conflict, 1978–2009, Afghan Civil Society Forum (ACSF), Afghan Peace and Democracy Act (APDA), Association for the Defence of Women’s Rights (ADWR), Cooperation Centre for Afghanistan (CCA), Education Training Center for Poor Women and Girls of Afghanistan (ECW), Oxfam GB, Organization for Human Welfare (OHW), Sanayee Development Organization (SDO) and The Liaison Office (TLO) Report, 2009.

[4] Afghanistan: Annual Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, UNAMA Human Rights Unit Report, January 2009.

[5] Afghan Hearts, Afghan Minds: Exploring Afghan Perceptions of Civil–Military Relations, European Network of NGOs in Afghanistan (ENNA) and the British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG) Report, 2008.

[6] Ibid.


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