Linking protection and livelihoods in conflict: is it worth the effort?

October 20, 2008
Sorcha O'Callaghan and Susanne Jaspars

While aid actors often differentiate between people’s protection and people’s livelihoods, this distinction tends not to be as obvious to those affected. The threats that people face are frequently interrelated. In fact, the direct targeting of civilian populations (and their assets) is often a deliberate tactic in war. And even if not intended, violence has major implications for people’s livelihoods because it can disrupt basic services, limit access to employment, markets and farms, and even undermine social networks. Likewise, protection and livelihoods are also connected in the way people respond to destabilising situations. We only have to think of women searching for firewood as a source of income in Darfur – where the risk of rape is preferable to the death of their men – to grasp how closely people calibrate costs to their safety and dignity against their economic status.

Alexander Tyler’s article in HPN’s latest Humanitarian Exchange Magazine presents a strong argument for linking protection and livelihoods. This is a topic of growing concern for agencies grappling with how to address the causes and consequences of protracted crises and how to help those at risk find safer options to meet their basic needs. It is also an area of interest for the Humanitarian Policy Group, which is currently undertaking research on this issue with the Danish Refugee Council. What we’ve found so far is that there are a number of ways that agencies can integrate protection and livelihoods.

Firstly, and at a minimum, aid organisations can incorporate protection (or risk) analysis into their work, in order to minimise unintentional harm. In Somalia, for instance, changing the time, place or method of aid delivery has reduced the likelihood of diversion and looting. Understanding protection concerns also means that agencies can go further and support safer means of production. In DRC, helping people to grow alternative “low-risk” crops has decreased destruction. In Darfur, programmes which help increase yields from limited land areas have helped people to farm more safely.

Secondly, with a good understanding of protection issues, aid agencies can also target their interventions to geographical areas, populations or individuals most at risk. This allows those affected to benefit from the (often minimal) ‘protective presence’ of aid workers. More importantly, though, the assistance provided can also reduce vulnerability and increase protection. Evidence shows that combining food aid with other livelihoods interventions reduces the need for people to adopt strategies that involve risks to their safety and also helps them avoid engaging in exploitative working conditions.

Thirdly, livelihood interventions can also address the humanitarian consequences of violence through assisting people to meet their basic needs. In Darfur, agricultural assistance and vocational skills training has not only reduced people’s expenditure and supported their subsistence in the short-term, it has also provided a basis for later recovery.

Finally, linking protection and livelihoods can provide a less contentious way of engaging in protection issues. Tackling concerns about freedom of movement may, for example, be too sensitive for some agencies to take on, but highlighting the need for access to markets may be less controversial.

But linking livelihoods and protection also comes with some challenges. A key issue is coming up with criteria for identification of beneficiaries. From a livelihoods perspective, those with the potential to maintain livelihoods strategies in the short to medium term are prioritised, whereas from a protection viewpoint, those who are most vulnerable are emphasised. Resistance to incorporating livelihoods programming into conflict settings because it is seen as being a development approach is another challenge. Where it is tried, it is parcelled as an ‘early recovery’ activity, which risks it being undertaken according to recovery rather than humanitarian objectives. More fundamentally, both livelihoods and protection programming are seen as complicated. They require strong technical skills, rely on an in-depth understanding of context, and are often longer-term programmes rather than short-term projects. The question, therefore, is whether the extra effort required is worth it. We’re still gathering evidence to try to show that it is, but are very interested to receive feedback from agencies working on these issues.

Do you have examples of efforts to link protection and livelihoods that we can learn from or profile in our work? Have you experience of positive or negative lessons? Do join this discussion and give us your views or email the project team at


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