Issue 46 - Article 10

Protection through partnership: lessons learnt from Pakistan’s displacement crisis

March 25, 2010
Helen Nic an Rí and Caitlin Brady, Trócaire

In May 2009, the government of Pakistan launched an offensive against the Taliban in Swat, prompting the world’s fastest and largest displacement crisis in over a decade. Over 2.6 million people were uprooted in as little as three weeks. From the outset, it was clear that protection concerns would play a considerable role. Areas of conflict were inaccessible, most of those fleeing were women and children and the vast majority of the displaced stayed in informal camps or host community settings, rather than the purpose-built formal camps. Many IDPs, therefore, remained hidden, unable to access services, unaware of their rights and entitlements and vulnerable to abuse. While the international community struggled to adapt its response accordingly, gaps were many and large, and the resources of the host communities that provided the bulk of support were stretched and strained.

It was also clear from the outset that national NGOs and local communities would play a vital role in providing assistance and protection to IDPs. Given the difficult operating environment, they could reach IDPs that the international community could not. More importantly, certain national NGOs could offer a more comprehensive understanding of context, vulnerability and protection risks.

Initial assessments highlighted a range of protection needs in such areas as registration and identification, family reunification, the protection of children and women, psychosocial support, protection against forced displacement and security in camps and other accommodation settings. In mid-July, the government facilitated a returns process that posed a fresh set of protection concerns; while the government committed itself to safe, informed and voluntary returns, there were strong indications that the process failed to meet international standards.

This article gives an overview of Trócaire’s protection response to Pakistan’s displacement crisis, implemented in partnership with local organisations. Through conversations with national and international NGOs, we have looked at the practicalities of working in partnership on protection issues, the strengths and challenges of this approach and lessons learnt for future interventions.

Protection through partnership: how it worked on the ground

When the crisis occurred in Pakistan, Trócaire was already well established on the ground, with long-term programming on gender-based violence (GBV), in particular sexual and domestic violence against women and girls, and strong links developed with local organisations. Trócaire works through partnership in its humanitarian interventions, and in this case partnered with three national NGOs, two of which had protection experience, while a third had experience in mainstreaming protection. Trócaire’s Protection Advisor was quickly deployed to Pakistan to support the agency’s partners in their assessment of needs and vulnerable groups, in their analysis of protection concerns and in project design. Once agreements were signed, Trócaire maintained a rapid and flexible grant management approach.

Trócaire programme staff worked with partners to develop M&E systems, but found it difficult to provide the level of support required. Funding shortages meant that fundraising and communications objectives influenced the level and type of face-to-face interaction with partners; the partner with most to contribute from a communications perspective received the most visits, while others with greater capacity-building needs were neglected. As Trócaire required only monthly narrative reports, underspends were revealed only at the end of the project cycle, and no-cost extensions were required.

The government returns process created additional complications for Trócaire’s partners, who had never undertaken returns monitoring. Collecting, analysing and sharing data and trends on the returns process for evidence-based advocacy proved challenging, and the learning curve for partners was steep. (In fact, most NGOs, be they national or international, struggled initially to provide the level of accurate information needed). In response, Trócaire gave technical support to partners on monitoring, communicated frequently with them and represented their concerns in the Protection Cluster’s advocacy task force. Trócaire also tried to share out responsibility for attending cluster meetings between partners to lessen the burden of cluster coordination falling on individual organisations.

A programme evaluation at the close of the first stage of the response helped highlight some of the strengths and weaknesses of the partnership, and a programme workshop brought out a number of innovative ideas, particularly around partners’ strong interest in shared learning and capacity-building. The second stage of the response is currently ongoing, and the task now for Trócaire’s country team is to implement some of the lessons learnt.

Protection through partnership: factors in success (and failure)

What caused partners to take up protection programming in the first place? What factors contributed to successful partnership? What challenges were experienced, and could they be overcome in future interventions? In discussion with local partners and other agencies familiar with protection and partnership in Pakistan, Trócaire assessed the international community’s response and its own intervention to extract some learning.

Why did partners prioritise protection?

Firstly, Trócaire’s partners are primarily developmental organisations whose mission statements reflect a strong commitment to justice and the defence of human rights. One organisation is wholly focused on gender-based violence. Organisations, therefore, brought their unique, rights-focused missions to the humanitarian programme. Secondly, partners had gained experience in humanitarian programming, including mainstreaming protection considerations, through previous responses (to the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, the 2007 floods in Sindh and Baluchistan and the 2008 earthquake in Ziarat), and work with other funding partners such as Concern Worldwide, UNICEF and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). Lastly, civil society organisations in Pakistan are key actors in advancing women’s rights and equality issues in Pakistan, and thus brought to the analysis a concern for women’s welfare, access and rights.

What strengths do national organisations bring to protection work?

Critically, national organisations usually have greater legitimacy in dealing with affected populations and advocating for social change, particularly if they are of the same community and face the same cultural and societal constraints. They are less likely to be seen as imposing a Western agenda on local people and tend to have a greater understanding of local context and considerations than international actors do, particularly in sensitive areas like GBV. They also have greater potential influence with the government. In Pakistan, for example, there was agreement among heads of various international agencies that a well-organised coalition of national NGOs with a strong, clear message would be much more effective in advocating to the government than international NGOs could ever be, especially regarding issues of protection. National NGOs are familiar with national legal frameworks, represent a constituency and can mobilise local or national sentiment. At the same time, however, they seem to underestimate their power, and do not present a united viewpoint.

In terms of sustainability, partnership with national organisations contributes to national civil society development, such that leadership in all areas, the public, private and voluntary sectors included, can sit with nationals. Likewise, the longevity of their engagement and commitment to the area is much greater than with international NGOs.

In areas where access is most difficult, national organisations are virtually the only providers of humanitarian aid. Even though international NGOs are also staffed mainly by Pakistanis and move around in low-profile vehicles, their access is still restricted by government policies and by security protocols. While gaining increased access is seen as an advantage of working through partners, however, there are concerns that international NGOs are passing on security risks to their national partners, which have more limited risk management capacity. Training in this area is a high priority for Trócaire’s partners, especially those working on sensitive protection issues such as GBV.

What challenges does partnership with national organisations pose in protection?

In Trócaire’s experience, technical and management capacity are the most commonly cited challenges to partnership in Pakistan, particularly in the case of protection, a sector in which technical capacity tends to be more elusive (for many reasons, including the relative newness of the sector and the cultural sensitivity of the subject). National organisations generally pay staff less and have fewer senior technical staff to advise field teams than international NGOs. National NGOs generally have less awareness of international legal instruments and less institutional experience of managing protection programmes. While technical support was provided to all partners in Pakistan to the extent possible, gaps in the response were still evident, including in the consistent reporting of protection concerns to Trócaire and/or the Protection Cluster for use in programming and advocacy. Monitoring and reporting of abuse by partners ultimately fell short of expectations. Financial monitoring was another area of concern, and was not always strong enough to ensure expenditure within the project timeframe.

Discussions with national partners also revealed a lack of confidence and/or awareness of the international response structure, including cluster and pooled funding mechanisms. Some partners felt that these systems were irrelevant to national NGOs, despite the impression of many international staff that these NGOs made positive contributions and received high levels of funding within the Protection Cluster. Partners communicated a number of constraints to participation in the cluster system, including location (national NGOs do not always have an office in the capital), language and, critically, the number of staff capable of effectively representing the NGO. Even very strong national NGOs may have only a few senior technical staff, with many responsibilities and little time to meet the demanding schedule of cluster meetings.

What are the lessons for funding partners?

Unsurprisingly, many factors that contribute to successful partnership more generally are also critical to partnership in protection. Arguably the most important factor in any partnership is long-term engagement and investment from the funding partner, with a commitment to building technical and financial capacity. This includes funding adequate overheads and competitive salaries to enable national NGOs to hang onto their technical and operations staff. This is particularly the case in protection programming, as protection experience and capacity is more limited and perhaps harder to build than capacity in other sectors. Organisations with no protection experience will need to start small, with protection mainstreaming, to build technical capacity. With organisations that lack existing capacity in specialised areas such as GBV or child protection, it may never be appropriate to carry out stand-alone protection programming in these areas in emergencies. Through mainstreaming protection in their interventions, however, organisations may still have a role to play in preventing and/or responding to protection concerns.

Technical advice from the funding partner is important during all stages of implementation, but critically so during the assessment and planning stage, to ensure adequate protection analysis and coherent project design. While the principles of protection may be present in staff thinking, they need exposure to the range of protection responses, such that they can not only report on rights violations, but also support solutions. Sustained support in developing and implementing strong M&E systems is critical for accountability, and for partners to expand their institutional funding base, including accessing pooled funding.

Funding partners have an important role in linking national NGOs engaged in protection to international legal instruments and standards, including the Red Cross Code of Conduct, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and international humanitarian law, and can best do this during humanitarian crises. Implementation is the best teacher, and small-scale training, as needed, for staff in critical areas during the project cycle will add value and increase technical acumen. It is also critical to build capacity and confidence in evidence-based advocacy, supporting national partners to monitor against the Guiding Principles (and other relevant standards) and properly analyse and present data for effective messaging. This may require long-term commitment, as the skills needed for developing advocacy strategies and messages are only acquired with time. Relationships with networks must also be developed, and again, this can take time. In the short term, however, funding partners can represent the messages and interests of their implementing partners in advocacy forums, such as the Protection Cluster. Working in this way, Trócaire and its partners in Pakistan were able to play a strong role and make a valuable contribution to cluster-based advocacy.

While local partners may resist some aspects of joint work or coordination among themselves, Trócaire found that encouraging coordination between partners from the outset (through informal communication, partner meetings and learning exchanges) had several positive benefits, sharing the burden of coordination with the cluster system, increasing learning and innovation and contributing to more efficient capacity-building. Other examples of good practice in partnership that bear mentioning here include support in operations (finance, logistics, administration and security), timely and flexible grant management and a harmony of interests. In particular, Trócaire found that closer financial oversight could have avoided a number of underspends.

Trócaire’s experience of working with partners in protection during the displacement crisis in Pakistan has been a major learning opportunity, no less for Trócaire than for our partners. With this article, we have tried to communicate the successes and challenges we faced, and relate those to the more general experiences of agencies working in the same area. Our hope is that this will encourage other protection agencies to increase their partnership portfolio and work to improve the quality of partnerships. While sometimes challenging, there is real value in this approach.


Helen Nic an Rí ( is Humanitarian Policy and Protection Officer, Trócaire. Caitlin Brady is Regional Humanitarian Officer (


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