Issue 39 - Article 3

Reclaiming mainstreaming: Oxfam GB's protection approach in DRC

July 10, 2008
Sophia Swithern, Oxfam GB

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), civilians are often the first victims and the deliberate targets of violence and abuse. They are therefore not only in need of humanitarian assistance, but also of safety. As one woman in Ituri put it: ‘We want safety – because once we have safety we can have everything else’. Protection work means addressing people’s need for safety in the context of a humanitarian response – understanding patterns of fears, threats and abuses, and working with others to identify solutions and take action. Humanitarian organisations like Oxfam GB, which do not have a specific protection mandate, can take steps to help protect civilians. Our community-based programmes mean that we are often well-placed to understand threats and contribute to solutions. One of the biggest challenges is that ‘protection’ and ‘mainstreaming’ are two of the most over-used and imprecisely defined words in the humanitarian lexicon. We need to make them meaningful and manageable in practice. This article looks at Oxfam GB’s experience in Eastern DRC as it begins to do exactly that.

Oxfam GB’s approach to humanitarian protection

Oxfam does not have a formal protection mandate like UNHCR or ICRC, and is not a specialist protection organisation like the Norwegian Refugee Council. For us, protection means improving the safety of civilians in our humanitarian programming. In practice, it means trying to reduce the threats of violence, coercion and deliberate deprivation to civilians, and reducing their vulnerability to these threats.

This simplified approach is the result of a decade’s engagement by Oxfam GB in humanitarian protection. Since 2002, we have actively been ‘doing’ protection in a range of humanitarian settings, linked to our core public health, food security and livelihoods responses. There is no single model of what an Oxfam GB protection programme looks like. It does and must vary according to needs and context. For example, in order to reduce exposure to sexual violence in Darfur we distributed firewood and fuel-efficient stoves, whereas in Colombia we supported indigenous communities to lobby central government on issues affecting their safety. However, what has emerged from a review of our experience is a three-level model of engagement. This draws distinctions between mainstreaming protection, integrating protection and protection programming:

  • Mainstreaming protection means putting people’s safety at the heart of all of Oxfam GB’s humanitarian work. Our aim is that humanitarian responses should routinely assess, analyse and monitor the risks to civilian safety, and take appropriate action to improve it.
  • Integrating protection, which builds on the base of mainstreamed protection, and means incorporating protection activities or ‘mini-projects’ into a larger humanitarian programme to sit alongside other sectors of work, such as public health, food security and livelihoods.
  • Protection programming has the primary objective of improving civilian safety, and is of sufficient scope and scale to be considered a specific programme.

In July 2007, Oxfam GB committed to a global approach to protection whereby, as a minimum, protection will be mainstreamed into all our humanitarian programming. This will involve ensuring that our programmes do not put people at further risk and actively try to make people safer, and that we actively analyse, monitor and respond to the protection environment as a routine part of our humanitarian programming. From this basis, we can then decide whether and how specific countries should go further and integrate protection activities into larger humanitarian responses, or run specific protection programmes. The challenge now is to ensure that this commitment to mainstreaming is put into practice in a way that is effective and manageable: as the Global Protection Adviser puts it, ‘we need to reclaim mainstreaming’. It is a challenge shared with other commitments to mainstreaming (gender, HIV), and with other humanitarian actors who may not see themselves as protection specialists. Our experience of beginning to mainstream protection in humanitarian programming in DRC in 2006–2007 has provided some useful lessons for this process.

The protection context in Oxfam’s working areas in Eastern DRC

Despite significant positive developments since the 2002 peace agreement, the situation in the provinces of North and South Kivu and the territory of Ituri remains extremely volatile. Over a million people are internally displaced in these areas. Sexual violence, harassment at illegal checkpoints and forced labour are widespread, and have become ‘normalised’. The perpetrators include the Congolese army (FARDC), demobilised soldiers, local authorities, armed groups or simply ‘men with guns’. In some areas, people are also facing abduction, killings, looting and violence by a proliferation of armed groups.

There is no shortage of legal standards to spell out exactly which rights are being violated. DRC has signed and ratified the major international human rights and refugee conventions, as well as the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). These human rights principles are prominent in the new Congolese constitution (2006), as well as in a new law on sexual violence. But despite delivering the first case to the ICC, impunity is the norm in DRC, with a police and judiciary that are absent, inadequate or corrupt. In reality the state, in the form of the armed forces and police, is more likely to be a perpetrator than a protector. A report from the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Congo (MONUC) states that the FARDC are responsible for 40% of human rights abuses (MONUC Human Rights Division, The Human Rights Situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, report for July–December 2006, 8 February 2007, The police and other state security services are responsible for 48%. Almost a quarter of sexual violence cases reported to MONUC are committed by the police. The few FARDC brigades which are well-disciplined are scarcely able to protect themselves, let alone civilians. Without food, water and accommodation, and often denied their meagre $22 monthly salary, they are under-trained and ill-equipped.

With state capacity to protect so weak, the international community is maintaining the presence of MONUC, the largest peacekeeping mission in the world. MONUC has a robust mandate allowing it to use force ‘to ensure the protection of civilians under imminent threat of physical violence from any armed group, foreign or Congolese’. MONUC has made an enormous difference to civilian safety in DRC, particularly in Ituri and Goma (which MONUC troops effectively defended in November 2006). According to civilians in Ituri, if MONUC were not present ‘we would leave tomorrow. It simply wouldn’t be safe for us without MONUC. Not yet’. Yet MONUC has sometimes been accused of behaving more like an observer mission, using force only in self-defence and doing little to physically protect civilians. Civilians cite attacks on Bukavu in 2004, Rutshuru in 2005 and Sake in 2006 as examples of the international community’s failure to protect them, and there is much confusion about the practical scope of MONUC’s mandate. One community leader told us that MONUC does not protect civilians against violence from the FARDC and FDLR rebels because ‘they have stopped intervening now that Congo has a valid government’. The peacekeepers need clearer guidance to help them implement their mandate in practice, and this needs to be clearly communicated to civilians who are expecting protection.

With UNHCR, MONUC co-chairs the protection cluster, which exists to identify and respond to gaps in civilian protection. In some locations it has undertaken projects to monitor protection, train the Congolese army in human rights, build the capacity of the judiciary and advocate with local authorities. The performance of the protection cluster is, however, very inconsistent across the country. In Ituri, for example, the absence of NRC and ICRC means that the cluster is ill-resourced to gather information and respond to protection threats. In other locations, there is a shortage of UNHCR protection staff, and the agency has to choose between prioritising its role in refugee returns and its role as cluster lead and agency of ‘last resort’ for the protection of civilians still within DRC. Given the lack of protection by the state and the pressures on the formal international protection agencies, there is a clear imperative for all humanitarian actors to incorporate protection into the design and delivery of their programming.

Oxfam’s approach to mainstreaming protection in DRC

Oxfam GB has worked in DRC since the 1960s, and currently delivers a water, sanitation and public health response in Ituri and North and South Kivu. In recent years, protection has been a central pillar of Oxfam’s advocacy on issues such as the mandate and deployment of peacekeeping forces and reform of the Congolese military. In 2006, a strategic commitment was made to more explicitly and systematically address protection within our programming. To begin this process, a Protection Adviser was recruited for a six-month period to build the capacity of the team through action-oriented training, to undertake protection assessments in the communities where we are already working and to produce a strategy and practical tools for mainstreaming protection.

One hundred staff members from Oxfam GB and other NGOs were trained to use protection tools to analyse common threats and design responses. In North Kivu and Ituri, the Oxfam teams immediately put their training into practice, designing and carrying out a protection assessment in 17 communities, building the capacity of the team to gather sensitive information about protection. In mixed focus groups and individual interviews the teams asked about the main protection threats people were facing, who the perpetrators were, what the formal protection actors were doing to protect them, what their own coping mechanisms were and what solutions they would like to see.

What was most striking about the results was the enormous variation in the type and severity of threats, even between geographically close locations. This was particularly the case in Ituri – when we asked communities to rate how safe they felt on a scale of 1–10, with 1 being completely unsafe and 10 being completely safe, one community responded with 9.1, whereas another just 20km away responded with 1.25. Some communities in North Kivu reported that the FARDC were a major threat, but one said that troops were in their area well-disciplined and posed no threat to the population. The variability and changeability of the protection situation indicate the importance of localised and ongoing monitoring. A one-off, regionally generalised assessment could not have accurately reflected the real protection picture for individual communities.

The effectiveness of community coping mechanisms also differed in the face of threats of different severity. In some places, communities said that they had functional alert systems or simple responses, such as men accompanying women to the fields. In others, submission was the only option, with people stopping their visits to the fields, or giving up whatever was demanded of them in armed robberies or at illegal checkpoints. In one location, people said that they were thinking about poisoning their own crops – it would mean they would ruin their fields and it would not make them any safer, but it would prevent armed groups from taking their harvests.

Based on the assessment, Oxfam GB drew up a protection strategy, focusing in its first year on mainstreaming protection in ongoing humanitarian programming. This will provide a basis to explore the possibility of protection programming, depending on the protection issues that emerge. The mainstreaming model was based around the programme management cycle, providing guidance to programme managers and teams on what needs to be done to integrate protection at each stage. A challenge with mainstreaming anything is to keep guidance detailed enough to avoid becoming a simple ‘box-ticking’ chore, yet manageable enough that it does not overtake the overarching aim of the programme. So, for the needs assessment and programme design and evaluation stages, the Protection Adviser worked with programme managers to come up with meaningful questions, objectives, indicators and means of verification.

The implementation and monitoring stage is in many ways the most important. We know that we have mainstreamed protection properly when a humanitarian team is able to identify protection issues when it is implementing its programmes in communities, handle the information sensitively and find an appropriate response. This needs to be the responsibility of the whole team, with the programme manager making the strategic or sensitive decisions. We integrated protection into weekly field reporting formats and set out guidelines for three options of action for managers in response to the information they were receiving from the field teams. These were:

  • Referral of the issue to another agency competent to respond, or to the protection cluster to identify who can fill the gap.
  • Local-level advocacy to reduce people’s vulnerability or to reduce the threat to them.
  • Adapting the programme to reduce people’s exposure or vulnerability to the threat.

Programme managers were given guidance on how to choose from amongst these options, depending on the issue, their own capacity and that of other organisations, and potential risks.

Factors for success

At the time of writing, this approach is still very new in the DRC programme, and it is too early to evaluate it. However, a number of issues can already be identified. One was the fact that the decision to mainstream protection was proactively made, prioritised and ‘owned’ by the DRC programme management team. This meant that team members understood the necessity of protection and were committed from the start, rather than feeling they had to deliver on yet another externally imposed requirement. It was also striking that programme staff were very quick to grasp the meaning and relevance of protection, once they had received initial training. One staff member explained: ‘I used to think that protection was something difficult, but in fact it is obvious – it is what we see every day in DRC’. Not a single person in the DRC team questioned the relevance of protection, and all were keen to find ways to take it forward in their work. Some individual programme staff members had already been carrying out protection interventions in their daily work, although not calling it protection. For example, one public health promoter had heard that a group of IDPs were being beaten by the FARDC. He raised the issue with a receptive military commander in the area, who was able to influence the perpetrators to stop. He regarded this not as a ‘protection intervention’, but as the obvious thing to do in his job.

Oxfam’s advocacy focus on protection in DRC was also a favourable factor. Oxfam had been advocating at national and international levels on the presence, mandate and conduct of MONUC troops and security sector reform in DRC, and protection was one of two pillars in the DRC advocacy strategy. There was also a network of local NGO ‘advocacy focal points’, who regularly provided situational analysis to the Oxfam advocacy team. Whilst the links between advocacy and programming on protection need to be reinforced and systematised, there is potential for mutual benefit. The experienced advocacy team and focal points can help the programme teams to undertake local-level advocacy, and can also take issues forward at a higher level.

Externally, the humanitarian environment, whilst inevitably imperfect, was much more conducive to protection monitoring and action than in many other settings. Compared to Darfur, where Oxfam has also been working on protection, there is a relatively large ‘humanitarian space’. Although some areas remain inaccessible and there have been attacks on humanitarian personnel, it is generally possible to publicly raise protection issues with the authorities. The presence of the protection cluster, although again imperfect in places, also meant that there was at the least a designated forum and lead agencies for protection coordination for programme managers to refer protection issues to. Where strong protection actors such as NRC, ICRC and UNHCR were present, there was much more optimism amongst our teams that mainstreaming protection might be a valuable part of a bigger process.

Constraints and challenges

Despite this favourable environment, the success of protection mainstreaming is by no means guaranteed. The biggest potential internal challenge will be enabling staff and managers to find time for it. Staff are working in difficult conditions to deliver large-scale water, sanitation and public health programmes, and are extremely stretched. Programme managers feel daunted at the prospect of following up on protection issues, and are therefore reluctant to start. There were also concerns about where the limits of mainstreaming might lie in a country of such widespread and endemic protection problems, and where the successful resolution of an issue can be hard to achieve and measure.

The extent to which a humanitarian organisation can have an impact on protection issues depends significantly on the presence and capacity of specialist protection allies. Protection mainstreaming will therefore be difficult in locations like Ituri, where key protection actors such as ICRC and NRC are absent and participation in the protection cluster is weak. It will become more difficult across DRC if UNHCR and MONUC reduce their investment in protection.

Conclusions and questions for the future

Oxfam and other non-protection specialist humanitarian organisations can and must mainstream protection. We have a duty to take people’s safety into account in our humanitarian programming, not to turn a blind eye to protection issues, and to deal appropriately with them. Mainstreaming protection is a minimum of good programming, a necessary link to specialist ‘protection’ agencies, and can have a positive impact on people’s safety. It is no longer a case of whether we should mainstream protection, but how we do it.

References and further reading

Hugo Slim and Andrew Bonwick, Protection: An ALNAP Guide for Humanitarian Agencies, ALNAP, August 2005.

A Fragile Future: Why Scaling Down MONUC Too Soon Could Spell Disaster for the Congo, Oxfam Briefing Paper 97, February 2007.

Andrew Bonwick, ‘Who Really Protects Civilians?’, Development in Practice, vol. 16, nos 3–4, June 2006.

MONUC Human Rights Division/OHCHR, The Human Rights Situation in the DRC, July–December 2006, 8 February 2006.


The next year in DRC will yield some interesting lessons on two key questions. Firstly, what will it take to make mainstreaming ‘stick’ as a programme approach, and is this possible without a dedicated adviser? And is mainstreaming enough where other actors and the state capacity to protect are absent? As one Oxfam GB manager in DRC explained: ‘We don’t have it all figured out yet, but we need to be brave and try’.

Sophia Swithern is a Humanitarian Protection Adviser with Oxfam GB. She has recently worked in DRC and Liberia. Her email address is:


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