Issue 46 - Article 2

Making space for community-based protection in the humanitarian protection landscape

March 25, 2010
Kate Berry and Sherryl Reddy

First we lost our lives, then we lost our dignity – it seemed like international humanitarian agencies had their own agendas – they did not give attention to our own capacities to cope with the crisis. Local NGO volunteer, Gaza, 2009

In recent years, international engagement and activity in the field of humanitarian protection has significantly increased. But has this led to enhanced safety, security and dignity for populations at risk? Or have we somehow lost sight of the core subject, goal and agent of protection – namely crisis-affected communities themselves? Protection practice must reflect the right, capacity and desire of crisis-affected communities to engage, and be engaged, in international humanitarian efforts to enhance their protection. The conceptual and operational frameworks and tools for supporting community-based protection need greater attention and development. In this article, we explore community-based protection, drawing on insights and operational experiences gained through the development and field-testing of ActionAid’s manual, Safety With Dignity.[1]

Humanitarian protection

When reflecting on the concept and practice of humanitarian protection, the major issues and debates that come to mind generally revolve around international and state actors. Protection is often conceived of as an activity or process delivered in large-scale humanitarian crises, as part of an organised humanitarian response. Equally, protection is often conceived as a response to the most visible and serious human rights violations perpetrated by states, armed groups or international actors. These conceptions focus our attention on primary (i.e. state in question), secondary (i.e. other states) and tertiary (i.e. international mandated and non-mandated humanitarian actors) levels of protection engagement. As such, humanitarian protection is largely centred on the international community’s protection presence, actions and efforts.

This understanding of humanitarian protection arguably detracts from, rather than enhances, the protection of communities. It often fails to recognise and respond to protection problems that exist at individual, family, social network and community levels; frequently fails to involve the community – beyond initial assessment – in the design, development and evaluation of humanitarian response programmes and interventions; and consequently may lead to humanitarian aid-induced protection problems.

While the role and responsibility of primary, secondary and tertiary duty-bearers is not in question, the role and responsibility of those we seek to protect – at-risk individuals, families and communities – has arguably been marginalised in current international humanitarian protection discourse and practice. The role of crisis-affected populations and communities in surviving and responding to protection threats is critical – not simply as informants to, and beneficiaries of, international humanitarian assistance and protection, but as active analysts, evaluators and agents of their own protection. Yet this features little in current humanitarian protection practice, despite the reality that affected communities actively engage in their own protection before, during and after a humanitarian crisis; before, during and after the entry and exit of external humanitarian actors.


The role of communities in protection

Communities engage in their own protection on a daily basis.[2] They are often the first line of assistance for people affected by crisis and a source of continuing support. Communities can organise their resources to prevent, mitigate or respond to protection threats and increase the safety and dignity of the most vulnerable. At the same time, communities can also actively or unintentionally cause protection problems or contribute to harm. Individuals, families, social networks and community structures can perpetrate, accept or condone violence or abuse. Community power dynamics, based on gender, caste, class, religion or any other factor, can harm, neglect and isolate people, creating protection problems independent of any humanitarian emergency.


What is community-based protection?

Community-based protection aims to empower communities to achieve their rights with safety and dignity. It engages crisis-affected communities – and the humanitarian actors seeking to assist them – in identifying the protection risks of greatest concern to the community, exploring the causes and consequences and reflecting on existing prevention and response strategies.

Community-based protection directs the attention of communities towards protection problems over which they have some control and responsibility. This is possible even in circumstances where the most serious human rights violations are actively perpetrated by the state, non-state actors or international actors. Communities may not be able to stop or prevent such attacks, but they play a critical role in restoring dignity and enhancing physical, economic, social and psychological security for those harmed or affected by such violations.

Community-based protection also recognises that many protection problems pre-exist a humanitarian emergency, and may be exacerbated by it. These problems include harmful traditional practices, domestic violence, public violence and criminal behaviour, neglect of persons with special needs and exclusion or discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity or other social grouping. Community-based protection therefore acknowledges the need to critically examine the role of communities, recognising them both as sources of support and assistance and as sources of threat and harm.

Community-based protection is therefore more than communities being consulted or taking part in rapid assessment or information-gathering processes. It is a continuous process which eng­­ages communities as analysts, evaluators and implementers of their own protection. As such, it can and should be integrated into humanitarian response programmes across sectors and humanitarian contexts.


Operationalising and implementing community-based protection

Very few resources focus on how to integrate community-based protection into humanitarian response programmes. Safety with Dignity aims to provide practical guidance for humanitarian organisations on the integration of a community-based protection approach throughout the programme cycle, across sectors and contexts. It draws together key protection concepts, methods and tools, which can be systematically applied to all programming efforts.

The development and field-testing of the Safety with Dignity manual documented a range of strategies used by crisis-affected communities to enhance their own protection. These fell into four general categories.

The first category is positive protection strategies. Communities actively engage in the mobilisation of resources and allies to develop local strategies for responding to protection problems. For example, in a town in eastern Sri Lanka community organisations and parents were able to stop abuse by teachers against lower-caste children through local-level negotiations with school principals.

The second type of strategy aims to be positive but has harmful impacts. Examples can be found in crisis situations such as forced displacement and active conflict, where communities are faced with limited options and must weigh up relative risks. For example, in a town in the occupied Palestinian territories parents chose to send their children to live with grandparents in another town for the duration of the school year in order to reduce the children’s exposure to violence from Israeli settlers and ensure the continuation of their studies. While parents recognised that this strategy succeeded in its aims, they also acknowledged the damaging impact of family separation.

The third category relates to active engagement in negative coping mechanisms. Here, crisis-affected individuals or communities carry out harmful behaviour as a means of coping with pressures arising from macro-level issues, such as armed conflict or displacement, or life changes such as unemployment, death or divorce. Examples include alcohol and substance abuse, family violence, public violence and suicide. Individuals, families and communities engaging in these strategies failed to recognise their capacity to improve their own protection or their responsibility not to harm others.

The final category is unrecognised resources and capacities. There were many situations where communities failed to recognise and utilise available material, natural and social resources. For example, through participatory protection analysis exercises with women in disaster-affected communities in South-East Asia, those taking part in the exercises recognised that their capacity to assist each other was not solely dependent upon, or limited by, their lack of financial resources. The women realised that simple acts, such as sharing stories of grief, caring for each other’s children and accompanying each other to the health post, were within their capacity and control, and helped them to recover from the impact of the disaster as well as reducing vulnerability to secondary protection risks, such as depression and neglect of their children.

These examples illustrate that communities regularly evaluate and make choices about their safety and dignity, even where options are limited.

Communities play an essential role in protection, but they do not stand alone. In examining community-based protection strategies, the different yet complementary protective roles of communities and states need to be acknowledged. Communities do not replace the state, or its vital security, justice, legislative and social functions. Community-based protection aims to help affected or at-risk communities take action to prevent and respond to protection issues. This includes supporting communities to join with other actors at state and international levels in order to promote and strive towards the achievement of effective protection.

Appropriate and effective community-based protection can be operationalised and implemented through:


  • Actively recognising the role of communities in their own protection, and building upon existing community capacities as a foundational commitment in protection mainstreaming, integration or stand-alone projects.
  • Working together with CBOs and local NGOs to strengthen their capacity to respond to community-identified protection priorities and needs.
  • Integrating a community-based protection approach into the assessment, design, implementation and monitoring phases across programmes in all sectors and contexts. 
  • Ensuring that staff engaged in participatory protection processes are appropriately trained in facilitation skills and do not expose people to harm.

Challenges for community-based protection

While community-based protection is an essential component to building a protective environment, many challenges exist for community-based protection, in theory and in practice. These challenges reflect the operating environment as well as the nature of humanitarian response.

Evolving protection frameworks

Community-based protection is not immune from the challenges facing the wider protection field. In the development of Safety with Dignity, the challenge was to provide effective guidance while using a flexible framework and tools that could enable humanitarian organisations to respond to the specific dynamics and protection dimensions of each affected community. The approach adopted in the manual emphasises analysis,[3] enabling humanitarian organisations to help affected populations assess their own resources and capacities to reduce threats and vulnerabilities and strengthen resilience.


Do no harm

Mandated protection actors have raised valid concerns about non-specialist, non-mandated organisations engaging in protection work without the requisite skills or expertise. As with all humanitarian and development programming, do no harm must be the foundation of any community-based protection intervention, ensuring also that such interventions do not expose affected populations to further protection risks.

Applicability of community-based protection across sectors and contexts

Operationalising community-based protection has arguably been hampered by an assumption that it is best suited to situations of relative stability. Community-based protection may therefore be misperceived as applicable in development contexts only. In fact, the design and implementation of protection-oriented emergency relief, early recovery and longer-term development initiatives that centre on and spring from the affected population themselves is an indispensable component of humanitarian protection. Community-based protection is critical to support protection interventions, ensure that impacts endure beyond the timeframe of the crisis and avoid aid-induced protection problems.

The approach taken in Safety with Dignity is to highlight analysis tools that can be adapted to different humanitarian contexts, including natural disaster, conflict, transition and development settings. It provides guidance on how field staff can work with affected populations to identify their protection concerns and develop positive protection strategies – as far as the context allows – as a framework for interventions across all sectors.



Too often, humanitarian protection is framed and implemented as an activity, process and goal separate and distinct from local capacities, local protection strategies and affected communities themselves. There is a need to enhance operational awareness and the practice of community-based protection among local, national and international actors engaged in protection work – across sectors and contexts – to support the active engagement of at-risk populations in their current and future protection, as individual and collective agents of change.

Effective protection requires strong and genuine partnership between state and international protection actors and local, community-based actors, which recognises the multi-layered complexity of protecting people in crisis. Effective protection calls for a reorientation of the humanitarian protection discourse and practice that embraces the protective agency of crisis-affected communities and their rights to safety, security and dignity.


Kate Berry is a protection consultant and the author of ActionAid’s Safety with Dignity: A Field Manual on Integrating Community-based Protection across Humanitarian Programs. Sherryl Reddy has experience working with government, non-government and UN agencies in humanitarian assistance and protection, and was ActionAid’s Protection Advisor involved in field-testing Safety with Dignity.


[1] Safety With Dignity: A Field Manual for Integrating Community-based Protection Across Humanitarian Programs, ActionAid Australia, October 2009, The manual was developed by ActionAid Australia between June 2008 and July 2009 with funding from the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID). Research, trials and testing of the manual were undertaken by ActionAid offices and local partners in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.

[2] The term ‘community’ is used to refer to a range of actors operating at the local level, including individuals, families, social networks (such as friends, neighbours and colleagues), local organisations/charities and civil society (such as social movements, local media, and activists). In using this term, it is acknowledged that defining ‘community’ is problematic as it assumes a level of homogeneity, unity and common identity by the group, when in reality the term is often used by those outside it. However, it is the most flexible and appropriate term currently available.

[3] The manual contains a toolkit of participatory protection assessment, analysis and action-planning tools that can be applied, adapted and integrated into humanitarian response programmes throughout the programme cycle, across sectors, and across contexts.


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