Issue 46 - Article 1

Protection: fig-leaves and other delusions

March 25, 2010
Marc DuBois, MSF

Over the past decade, ‘protection’ has grown from a specialised function to a key piece of jargon in humanitarian circles: from a side issue to a core component of humanitarian action. As it has grown, so has the need for scrutiny. The articles in this special issue of Humanitarian Exchange attest to the drive to improve our collective humanitarian protection practice, and the equal push to develop a critical perspective on the emergence of humanitarian protection as an industry of its own.

Humanitarian protection aims to ensure that humanitarian action does not place people at greater risk (e.g. the well-worn example of not locating camp latrines in a dark corner of a camp) and to protect people from harm in the first place. It has been defined as encompassing ‘all activities aimed at obtaining full respect for the rights of the individual in accordance with the letter and spirit of the relevant bodies of law (i.e., human rights, humanitarian law and refugee law)’.[1]

How well this concept is understood outside of humanitarian circles is less evident. At the Humanitarian Congress in Berlin last October, I asked the audience for a show of hands in response to the following: if you were walking in the street and saw a group of people beating a child on the ground, which of the following activities would you consider protection?

  1. Run across the street and stop the attacker.
  2. Keep walking. Lobby for better street lighting.
  3. Run home and write down everything you witnessed as a report for publication.
  4. Visit the family of the victim to offer replacements for torn clothing.

We humanitarians consider all four of these responses examples of humanitarian protection, whereas the public overwhelmingly thinks only of the first. This wilfully ignored discrepancy has consequences, and raises important issues regarding the significance of our protection activities.[2] Examining the real-world impact of protection activities highlights massive benefits, but is also beginning to reveal unintended consequences – consequences which must be factored much more fully into our thinking.

This article begins with the assumption that we in the humanitarian community may well be able to articulate the limits of humanitarian protection within our own specialised discourse, but have devoted insufficient critical scrutiny to these limits in our actions and public discourse. In the end, the protection work of humanitarian NGOs may contribute to undermining the rights of people, all the while trumpeting the value of a protection-based approach.

The delusions of humanitarian protection

The rise of the humanitarian protection establishment has created a new enemy: the ‘protection gap’. In places like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Darfur, we are called upon to fight this new enemy, to fill this gap. We must correct our analysis: it is not the lack of protection activities or legal protections in the first instance, but the surplus of violence that is the primary problem. Our obsession with protection reflects the degree to which we define the external environment through our activities. A sort of self-flagellation in the humanitarian community over the death and destruction of our beneficiaries has shifted the spotlight away from the violence and its perpetrators. Suddenly, rape, murder, pillage and general mayhem are a failure of aid-givers, and are addressed in the first instance through protection activities aimed at bridging the gap, rather than directly stopping the crimes.

Our humanitarian-centric analysis of this ‘gap’ amounts to misdirection, and it is the perpetrators who gain, followed by those authorities responsible for ensuring the protection of people. The logic of the protection gap pushes our gaze inward. How do we explain the gap between how the world depicts the violence of Darfur and the humanitarian community’s labelling of Darfur as a ‘protection crisis’?[3] To what degree have we lost sight of the fact that protection of civilians during periods of violent crisis (in the sense of providing physical safety) is not our job?

The humanitarian community, with enthusiastic support from major donors, has gone about building a protection bureaucracy – protection officers, protection working groups, protection modules, protection training, protection partnerships, protection monitoring. This has allowed protection to become one of the key focal issues in any given emergency (earning cluster status in the UN), along with stalwarts such as food security and healthcare. Hence, the protection gap is closed by ensuring that efforts are made to prevent violence through training and awareness, documentation and monitoring of violence, lobbying, facilitating, organising, disseminating and so on. Indicators for progress include increased participation in meetings and the issuing of regular reports. The many excellent suggestions and guidance notes that fill books such as Diane Paul’s The Sheltering Tree, ALNAP’s work on protection or Oxfam’s excellent Improving the Safety of Civilians: A Protection Training Pack deserve praise and should be incorporated into our daily activities. But we have lost sight of the meaning of these actions, or more importantly the meaning of the word we use to describe them. None of this activity is in the same class as the above-described ‘Run across the street and stop the attackers’. Rather, it is humanitarian protection – something most people do not think of as protection at all.

ALNAP characterises the development of protection thinking in humanitarianism as ‘a new determination to develop truly practical programming that protects people from all forms of violation, exploitation, and abuse during war and disaster’.[4] That seems fairly ambitious – something of the order of bringing peace, harmony and prosperity to all people on Earth. Do we humanitarians really believe we can achieve such a goal? Of course not. The key to our hubris lies in the ambivalent meanings given to the term ‘protection’. There is ample room for confusion: protection as a legal framework, protection as a set of activities to promote respect of that framework and protection as activities designed to stop violence. Hence, the real protection gap lies in the gap between the everyday understanding of the word and the specialised meaning given to it by humanitarian NGOs – the gulf between the protection people need and the protection we humanitarians offer.

Why does any of this matter? That humanitarians suffer delusions of grandeur when it comes to their role and capacity for protection seems harmless. It is not. The major political actors and national authorities – those with the responsibility and the means to act – have consistently hidden their failure to do so beneath the well-trumpeted and overly glorified provision of humanitarian assistance. In the end, the illusion – the humanitarian fig-leaf – that crises were being dealt with camouflaged the lesser truth that they were being dealt with only superficially. Yet it now seems that, having delivered the message that aid is not enough, we humanitarians have substituted a specialised notion of protection of rights for actions designed to provide directly and forcefully for the safety of people. We have seized upon the language of protection, colonised it and made the calculated decision to recast even the most mundane of aid activities as protection. The provision of a blanket takes on the garb of protection work; distributing sacks of corn flour equates to protecting people’s right to food.

Promoting the message that aid is not a solution to the problem is anathema to us providers of aid. And institutional donors do not broadcast the fact that their funding purchases sticking-plasters, not cures. Nobody wants their publics to be critical of the superficiality of aid-only efforts. Enter humanitarian protection centre-stage. The public feels good, and donor governments brag about their protection work, satisfying constituents who would call for more than throwing food at the problem. They are able to replace the use of military or diplomatic force in defence of people’s lives with the funding of a civilian protection bureaucracy to defend rights. Important? Yes. Positive impact? Yes. Incomplete? Certainly. Dishonest? Good question.

What does the public perceive when we humanitarians boldly market ourselves as protectors? That the world is doing all it can to make sure people in places like Darfur are safe. Even more important, they notice the particular organisations that are active in this regard. Favoured protection activities – reports, campaigns, letters to the editor, media appearances, mass SMS messages – are all forms of work on behalf of beneficiaries. Unlike aid activities, they also tangibly serve the organisation, improving its financial health. Coincidence? The logic in favour of mainstreaming protection extends beyond the work done on the ground, and expediently dovetails with the incessant drive for public visibility on crisis issues.


Why does this matter?

If the integrity of humanitarian organisations were the only casualty of this delusion being perpetrated on our publics, it would warrant the hand-wringing of insiders, but little more. But what happens when others take notice of our focus on protection? In their eyes, the unqualified goodness of the mainstreaming and programming of protection activities may seem less obvious.

First, people in places like Darfur and DRC will notice the focus on protection. The protection agenda combines ease and lack of cost. Food, medicine, water and shelter are expensive, requiring lots of support staff and difficult logistics. By comparison, the ‘advocacy’ of protection work can be inexpensive and undemanding. An organisation can partake in the noble business of fighting violence – the underlying causes of food shortages and lack of shelter – rather than responding to the symptoms. Do we understand the underlying motivations for the growth of humanitarian protection? Have assistance and protection been juxtaposed, meaning less aid and more monitoring, training and lobbying?[5]

Second, governments have also noticed. When I was defending an MSF report to the Sudanese authorities, they charged that the only reason for this public reporting was to increase donations. In this regard, the perception that humanitarians are busy making noise for their own financial gain endangers their presence and undercuts the power of the protective message. Such accusations will never disappear. But a far more serious threat is posed by the fact that a government’s suspicions may not always be completely unfounded. These issues call to mind the central theme of Hugo Slim’s Killing Civilians, namely that the perpetrators of all this violence understand it completely differently from the way that we humanitarians do.

Third, there are the unintended consequences of protection work. For example, forceful advocacy on behalf of refugees may risk refoulement or the non-admission of newly arrived asylum seekers.[6] Finally, there is a great risk to humanitarian access to people in crisis from the linkage between protection activities and their potential to embarrass governments or directly threaten the interests of powerful individuals. Engaging in protection work involves a careful analysis of the potential backlash. In certain contexts, however, humanitarians no longer control the meaning of their protection activities as interpreted by those with power, guns or blood their hands.

The actual and perceived cooperation of NGOs with the International Criminal Court has sharpened the potential backlash against agencies engaged in certain types of protection work. In Darfur, MSF’s mental health programmes, which involved counselling, were forcibly curtailed by the authorities because they resembled interviews documenting abuse, and so aroused suspicion.

As humanitarians we have thumped our fists on the hallowed tomes of the Geneva Conventions to demand access to civilians in need of assistance. The ‘right of initiative’ clearly establishes the right of an impartial humanitarian entity to offer its services in a conflict situation without this offer being interpreted by states as an unfriendly or hostile act. Others – from Human Rights Watch to the BBC – do not possess such a right, no matter how salutary their work. At what point, though, does a humanitarian agency lose this right of access if its essential aim is to replicate the work of a human rights organisation? At what point does this question affect the entire industry’s access? Does IHL oblige governments to tolerate hordes of rights workers running around in the guise of relief personnel? And, with the creation of the International Criminal Court, can we imagine government officials facing the threat of prosecution for war crimes actually letting this happen with any regularity? What impact does this have on the humanitarian imperative for food, water and healthcare?

And what of the impact emerging from victims and beneficiaries themselves? In many contexts the humanitarian apparatus has become the primary vehicle through which populations exercise their right to be protected from harm – humanitarians becoming the principal conveyor of this fundamental human wish. If people employ the humanitarian community as their protector, then any hope of neutrality vis-à-vis the perpetrators is destroyed. Instead, we become the enemy of the beneficiaries’ enemies.



While NGOs and governments pat themselves on the back for the launch and growth of the humanitarian protection establishment, violence against people maintains its own forward momentum. We should not abandon our work – we should pat ourselves on the back for breaking through the barrier of ‘aid alone’. But we need to understand and accept the limits of humanitarian protection. First, we should stop lamenting the protection gap as if it were the real problem. Second, we need to put institutional interests aside and practice aid/protection for the sake of the beneficiaries. Third, we need to scrutinise humanitarian protection much more closely, both in terms of the reasons for and logic of our commitment, and in terms of its impact.

We humanitarians need to be honest about what we call protection. Limited risk reduction or raising awareness should not be branded ‘protection’ activities when we know the word conveys so much more to the public. That is false advertising – placing the shiny wrapper of protection on our work and handing it to a public unable to look inside the box. Put simply, the protection fig-leaf is our creation, and it is our responsibility to put it right.


Marc DuBois is Executive Director, Médecins Sans Frontières – United Kingdom. The views expressed here are the author’s, and should not be imputed to his employer. Substantial portions of this paper have been published previously elsewhere. See Marc DuBois, ‘Protection: The New Humanitarian Fig Leaf’, Humanitarian Aid on the Move (URD Newsletter), April 2009,


[1] S. Giossi Caverzasio, Strengthening Protection in War: A Search for Professional Standards (Geneva: ICRC, 2001). 

[2] Marc DuBois, ‘Protection: The New Humanitarian Fig Leaf’, Humanitarian Aid on the Move (URD Newsletter), April 2009,

[3] Sara Pantuliano and Sorcha O’Callaghan, The ‘Protection Crisis’: A Review of Field-based Strategies for Humanitarian Protection in Darfur, HPG Discussion Paper, December 2006, p. 6.

[4] Hugo Slim and Andy Bonwick, Protection – An ALNAP Guide for Humanitarian Agencies, ALNAP, 2004.

[5] The attacks on women IDPs seeking firewood outside of the relative safety of some of the big camps in Darfur became almost proverbial. A cynic could argue that the piles of reports written about this protection gap, if provided to the women, would have easily fulfilled their need for firewood.  The gap was well-documented, yet nobody delivered the aid – firewood –that was its root cause.




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