Issue 46 - Article 5

Standards to incorporate protection into humanitarian response: do they work?

March 25, 2010
Louise Searle, World Vision Australia, and Kate Sutton, Oxfam Timor-Leste
WASH programming in Timor-Leste

Many agencies still find it difficult to effectively integrate protection into humanitarian sector programmes. Although protection is a cross-cutting issue in the Sphere handbook and agency staff are trained in the application of Sphere standards, protection issues are frequently not systematically identified and addressed in humanitarian response. Recognising this gap, World Vision Australia undertook a six-month research exercise to code existing standards and indicators relating to protection, leading to the development and publication of Minimum Agency Standards for Incorporating Protection into Humanitarian Response.[1] This tool is intended to help operational agencies to incorporate protection into their humanitarian programming and advocacy. It is not meant to present a comprehensive approach to protection, or to substitute for stand-alone protection analysis and response. Instead, it provides systematic guidance for general and sector staff in the minimum actions that should be taken to improve the safety and dignity of individuals and communities participating in humanitarian programmes.

In 2008, an inter-agency group comprising CARE Australia, Caritas Australia, Oxfam Australia and World Vision Australia began field-testing the Minimum Standards in Timor-Leste and Kenya, with World Vision UK leading field-testing in North and South Sudan, Somalia, Burma and Sri Lanka. A comprehensive framework was developed to assess the utility of the tool and its effectiveness in assisting agencies to integrate protection into humanitarian response. This article documents the field-testing process and provides an analysis of the initial results emerging from Timor- Leste and Kenya.

Field-testing process

Component One: Baseline data collection

Baseline data collection involves an assessment of staff knowledge and understanding of protection and protection mainstreaming, a measurement of agency alignment with the standards and an assessment of community perceptions of agency activities and their impact on a community’s safety and dignity.

Staff interviews, a review of documentary evidence and observation of practice during field visits are used to gather and triangulate data about current agency practice and to determine agency alignment with each standard. Each of these methods utilises questions based on selected indicators to determine alignment or non-alignment, and evidence is provided of the relative strengths and weaknesses of agency practice when measured against each standard. Focus group discussions with communities help agencies understand perceptions of protection and of agency impact on community safety and dignity (for more on this, see the accompanying article in this issue on community perceptions of protection in Kenya and Timor-Leste). This provides valuable triangulation and validation of data provided through the document review and staff interviews, and significant insights into the perceived professional competence and quality of agency practice in mainstreaming protection.

A comprehensive baseline report provides each agency with a snapshot of staff knowledge and understanding of protection, details of current alignment or non-alignment with each standard, and recommendations for increasing alignment. It provides a reference point from which agencies can measure performance against the standards over time, and highlights areas the agency can target to improve its practice in mainstreaming protection.

Component Two: Implementation process: human and financial support to reach and maintain the standards

The implementation process is designed to support changes in agency policy and practice through the provision of key technical staff and financial resources. Protection staff are employed in each location to work across participating agencies to support managers and sector staff to implement changes to increase alignment with the minimum standards. Project funding enables adaptations to the design or implementation of sector projects or the development of new initiatives to meet the standards. Field staff work with protection officers to develop ‘mainstreaming action plans’, which target particular standards and indicators for improvement, and establish a timeline of activities to achieve change.

Component Three: End-line data collection and evaluation

After 12 to 18 months of implementation, end-line data collection examines changes in agency practice and alignment with the standards by repeating the baseline process. An external evaluation collects data on the perceived utility of the tool, the feasibility of implementing the standards and the cost implications of the implementation model.

Application of minimum standards: changes to agency policy and practice

The inter-agency group has finished field-testing the standards in Timor-Leste and Kenya, and this section outlines examples of changes in practice that have occurred as a result of applying the standards and indicators in these contexts.

Institutional-level change

Staff code of conduct: In one agency a protection working group was established to review and update organisational policies to incorporate protection and meet the relevant standards. The working group is a cross-functional team comprising senior managers, technical staff and design, monitoring and evaluation staff. In response to a systematic review of its Code of Conduct, the agency established training for staff on their obligations, translated the code into the local language and disseminated it among community members at project sites. A simple pictorial version of the code was shared with community members who were unable to read. Community feedback mechanisms were concurrently strengthened to provide safe and confidential ways for community members to report suspected or actual misconduct.

Responding to human rights abuses: Common Standard 8 ensures that agencies respond appropriately to incidents of human rights abuse by requiring them to establish policies and procedures to guide response to abuses that staff witness or hear about in the course of their daily work. Baseline data collection in Timor-Leste revealed limited guidance for staff on how to respond in situations of abuse, and most staff members were uncertain about what they should do. In response, agencies are developing and documenting inter-agency procedures that will clearly outline steps for response, prioritising the ‘Do No Harm’ principle. In Timor-Leste the draft guidelines are being developed in partnership with government agencies and the protection cluster working group.

Inclusion of protection in the project cycle

Baseline data highlighted that the omission of adequate protection questions and analysis during the assessment phase is a key reason why sector staff find it difficult to include protection in programme design. Some agencies have adapted general and sector assessment formats to include questions to consistently identify issues relating to violence, coercion and deliberate deprivation during initial and rapid assessments.

The standards and indicators have also demonstrated benefits during the monitoring of sector activities. For example, Food Distribution Points (FDPs) in Kenya now include protection mainstreaming indicators that are monitored by staff during distribution. In addition, staff have been trained in protection, and information relating to protection, particularly safety on routes home from distribution points, is collected in beneficiary homes during Post Distribution Monitoring.

Adaption and re-design of project activities

With staff routinely monitoring and reporting safety concerns associated with food programming, changes have been made to the way in which food programming activities are implemented. In some areas the location of the FDP has changed in response to new information about safety on routes to and from distribution. Some FDPs have been split into two smaller points and others relocated. Specific information about the times of day when people are exposed to greatest harm has resulted in more concerted and consistent practice in starting distributions earlier and finishing promptly.

In Timor-Leste water and sanitation teams focused on incorporating protection into disaster preparedness activities. Technical drawings for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) facilities were adapted to ensure access for all users. Contingency stocks were updated with materials and equipment to ensure the safety and dignity of all groups, including ready-to-install solar lighting, locks for toilet doors and frames to assist the elderly and the disabled to access and use facilities.

Field-testing outcomes

Measurable changes in practice

Field-testing demonstrated that agencies can achieve a measurable improvement in alignment with the standards. Overall, all agencies in Kenya and Timor-Leste increased their alignment with the standards. The extent of change is highlighted in Figure 1, which provides the baseline and end-line data for one of the participating agencies.

Figure 1: Alignment with Minimum Agency Standards (Agency A)

Agency A increased alignment across all eight standards. In the baseline Agency A was in alignment with two standards (standards 5 and 6), and with five standards (standards 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6) in the end-line. This represents significant progress in integrating protection in key areas, including prioritising safety and dignity, analysing protection issues in context, providing impartial and equitable assistance and inclusion of vulnerable groups.

 The impact of internal and external factors

The integration of protection at an institutional and programming level has not been uniform across all agencies. An independent evaluation report[2] of the inter-agency protection standards project, completed in October 2009, highlighted a number of factors that contributed to successful change within agencies, which should be considered in the development and implementation of protection mainstreaming strategies.

Senior management commitment and consistent engagement has been an important factor. Protection mainstreaming was more effective in agencies where managers were actively involved and a point person was assigned for project liaison. The skill and competency of the project team was also critical. The organisational and capacity requirements for effective protection mainstreaming have been emphasised elsewhere, with training to ensure a basic knowledge of protection, the ability to monitor trends and adapt programmes, an organisational policy and commitment to protection and dedicated headquarters capacity among the perquisites for effective protection mainstreaming.[3]

The field-testing itself was also identified as contributing to successful protection mainstreaming. The process of measurement created incentives for change and a foundation for inter-agency accountability. The baseline directed agency attention towards areas of particular weakness, and guided the focus of action for each agency, and the end-line measurement provided valuable lessons regarding the effectiveness of mainstreaming action to achieve the desired change in practice.[4]

Agencies report that the process has been beneficial

Overwhelmingly, agencies reported that the project, and specifically the field-testing process, had been beneficial at the field office level. The evaluation assessed that the project added value in terms of the ‘relevance and merit of the standards and associated processes of inculcation’.[5] In a final evaluation workshop in Timor-Leste, agency participants summarised four key outcomes of the project:

  • Consciousness: ‘we have achieved a new consciousness about protection’; ‘we have inspired people to feel strongly about protection’.
  • Knowledge: ‘we have achieved increased knowledge and understanding of protection’.
  • Action: ‘we have achieved enhanced protection for communities through concrete action’.
  • Institutionalisation: ‘we have achieved integration of protection into institutional mechanisms’.[6]


The Minimum Agency Standards for Incorporating Protection into Humanitarian Response tool is assisting agencies to improve how they identify and respond to protection issues in humanitarian response. Lessons from field-testing suggest that establishing minimum standards alone does not improve practice. The process of implementation through the presence and technical skill of protection staff, funding to adapt existing programmes, the systematic analysis of agency alignment with the standards and strong institutional endorsement and leadership support are all having a significant influence on agency practice. Applying an inter-agency approach has also enhanced learning and increased efficiency through the development of collaborative responses.

Anecdotal feedback from field staff and initial results from field-testing indicate that the collation of standards and indicators relating to protection, combined with targeted training, technical and financial support to adapt programming and ongoing field monitoring, is helping to shift protection mainstreaming from a somewhat abstract concept to a visible set of issues with a range of clear and tangible responses.

 Louise Searle is Senior Advisor, Humanitarian Protection, World Vision Australia. Kate Sutton is Protection Coordinator, Oxfam Timor-Leste. The inter-agency protection project in Timor-Leste and Kenya involves World Vision Australia, Oxfam International, Caritas Australia, CARE and CRS (as a local partner in Timor-Leste). The agencies have developed and published the field-testing version of Minimum Agency Standards for Incorporating Protection into Humanitarian Response, and designed the methodology for field-testing and implementation. The project is being funded with support from AusAID and World Vision Australia, with field-testing in North and South Sudan, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Burma led by World Vision UK and funded by DFID. For more information about the standards or the project please contact

[1] See

[2] Dr Paul Crawford, Evaluation Report: Humanitarian Protection Standards (2009), AID-IT Solutions Pty Ltd.

[3] Sorcha O’Callaghan and Sara Pantuliano, Protective Action: Incorporating Civilian Protection into Humanitarian Response, HPG Policy Brief 29, December 2007, p. 3.

[4] Crawford, Evaluation Report, p. 10.

[5] Ibid., p. 11.

[6] Ibid.


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