Whenever there is armed conflict, civilians are harmed. Protecting civilians is therefore a core task for humanitarian organisations. One of the most promising approaches is to strengthen communities in their ability to protect themselves. Other approaches include ‘naming and shaming’ armed actors, mobilising influencers and training armed actors. See F. Westphal, S. Stoffel and J. Steets (2022) The logic of protection approaches: four models to safeguard civilians from harm. This article builds on a two-year research project on protection in Iraq. The Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi), the Institute for Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq Sulaimani, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and Geneva Call jointly implemented this research project, which was funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) on behalf of UK Aid. It explains the benefits of strengthening community capacities. It then reflects on experience with this approach in Iraq, which has been problematic in many respects. To better address these issues, practitioners need to understand local political dynamics, do everything they can to break the top-down logic of international aid programmes, and find a good way to balance power and diversity in community structures.
There are good reasons for focusing on community capacities when trying to protect civilians from harm
We often think and talk about civilians as victims when we consider what happens to them when they get caught up in armed conflict. Yet individuals and communities rarely remain passive when armed actors are out to harm them. They may, for example, hide or seek safety in another location, plead with fighters or their leaders, turn to powerful figures to intervene with the armed actor on their behalf and either offer or deny the armed actor their support. A first advantage of protection actors that try to strengthen community capacities is that they don’t just see civilians and communities as passive victims of attacks. Rather, they recognise the agency communities have in protecting themselves and in negotiating with armed actors, and seek to build on it.
Power structures in communities can be patriarchal or exclusionary. When it comes to protection, the perspectives, needs and priorities of women and girls often do not get enough attention. Similarly, the interests of less powerful or marginalised groups – people with disabilities, displaced people or migrants, young people, members of a specific clan, ethnic, religious or political group or the lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer (LGBTQ) community – may not be respected when negotiations with armed actors happen. A second advantage of protection actors who try to strengthen community capacities is that they can try to design processes in a more inclusive way. They can, for example, design community committees in which women and minority groups are well represented or organise separate groups where sensitive issues for women or members of the LGBTQ community can be discussed more openly.
Finally, effective engagement with armed actors requires long-term investment in building relationships. Humanitarian organisations are mandated to focus first on the immediate and short-term needs of crisis-affected people. Planning horizons are therefore usually short and staff are frequently reassigned elsewhere. Building the capacity of communities to self-protect and to engage with armed actors promises to be more sustainable than other protection approaches as it helps build the skills and relationships of community members, rather than of staff members of humanitarian organisations who will likely redeploy.
Protection actors have implemented a variety of activities in Iraq – and some have led to results
So far, so good. What, though, does it mean in practice to ‘strengthen community capacities for protecting themselves’? Iraq has been a rich testing ground. Many international actors have been engaged and a lot of money has been invested, especially in multi-ethnic areas like the Nineveh Plains that were once controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). International protection efforts there have involved one or more of the following:
- Setting up representative structures. Some international actors or their local partners help to set up community committees that discuss protection priorities, participate in training and, where possible and feasible, engage with armed actors. As part of this, protection actors map the community’s composition and power structures and select committee members on that basis. Some develop inclusive approaches to ensure that different ethnic, religious or tribal groups as well as women and young people are well represented.
- Training. Protection actors involved in this kind of activity typically offer some form of training or capacity-building to committee members. This can range from awareness-raising sessions on the rights of civilians in armed conflict to training programmes on negotiation skills.
- Direct or indirect contacts with armed actors. While this doesn’t happen often, some organisations have contacts with relevant armed actors. Where they do, they sometimes support communities either by acting as a go-between or by facilitating direct contacts between community representatives and representatives of the armed actor.
- Financial resources. Some organisations consciously steer clear of offering financial resources or material support to communities because they fear this would raise expectations and distort why community members get engaged. Other organisations make such resources available to build trust and to enable communities to implement projects they deem relevant to protection.
- Protection by presence. Finally, organisations often assume that the presence of their staff can help prevent attacks on civilians. Some, like the non-governmental organisation Nonviolent Peaceforce, specialise in this, deploying unarmed international civilians to areas, communities or individuals at high risk of attack.
Our research in Iraq shows that these efforts can bear fruit. In one example, a protection organisation helped liaise between the community, an armed group and the authorities. This revealed that the armed group had not been blocking the return of internally displaced people for political reasons (as displaced people assumed), but because the area was mined. This helped all sides build trust and jointly search for constructive solutions. In another example, a community committee asked the protection organisation to discuss with the security actor in the area whether they could deploy more educated and experienced people to operate checkpoints. According to the community, this helped reduce harassment and the risk of violence at the checkpoints. In a third example, a community protection group, established and supported by a protection organisation, persuaded an armed actor to vacate civilian buildings.
Community-based protection in Iraq faces critical problems and pitfalls
Despite these encouraging examples, by and large efforts to strengthen community capacities for protection have been far from successful. Several observers we spoke to went as far as saying that the problems with implementing this approach in practice are so pervasive as to discredit it. Experiences in Iraq highlight the following problems.
First, the local political context matters a lot. In some areas, political constellations and power relationships are such that communities and their representatives can influence armed actors, at least to a certain extent. In other areas, however, there is no such political space. As one protection actor we interviewed put it:
What can the community do? They don’t really have a way to communicate with the army. A village may have a sheikh or a mukhtar. They will communicate with the army, but they don’t have any power.
Protection actors should therefore focus their efforts on areas where there is at least some space for communities to influence armed actors.
A second set of problems relates to the role and identity of ‘the community’. Protection organisations often assume that ‘the community’ is a positive force. However, communities (or specific groups or individuals within communities) may also support or participate in rights violations against other communities or groups. In Iraq, for example, community members who stayed in their villages often strongly object to the return of internally displaced people, especially if they have family members who are suspected of being affiliated with ISIS. These communities use their relationships with armed actors to block the return of internally displaced people, rather than to strengthen the protection of civilians.
Second, communities are made up of different identity and interest groups that are often in conflict with one another. Protection actors influence local power dynamics when they create or support representative structures like community committees. In doing so, they face a common dilemma: should they focus on those who already hold power, those who are most likely to have some leverage in political processes and in negotiations with armed actors? Or should they use the process to promote more inclusive forms of governance, strengthening the roles of women, young people and minorities, for example? Protection actors operating in Iraq have approached this question in different ways – although many actively promote the participation of women.
Third, we found that international initiatives support a dazzling variety of community structures, created by humanitarian, development and peace actors. We came across local peace committees, community dialogue committees, community protection groups, community security forums, community committees for social cohesion and peacebuilding, youth committees, community policing forums, leadership committees and committees of wise men. In some villages or small cities, several exist at the same time. In many, community structures and their membership changed repeatedly over time, depending on which actor convenes the committee and decides who participates. This fragmentation of community capacity-building efforts creates obvious practical problems: where structures and training duplicate each other, they waste resources and undermine each individual committee’s relevance and influence. Where they use different approaches, for example to select and compensate committee members, this can create tensions within the community. Participants can easily be frustrated if their committees are discontinued and new ones set up. While international actors have made efforts to coordinate their approaches better, our research identified numerous examples of duplications and inconsistencies.
The fragmentation and discontinuity of community capacity-building efforts are symptoms of a larger, underlying issue: although interventions aim to be community-based, they are driven by the top-down logic of international aid programmes. Aid organisations apply for and receive funding to pursue particular objectives and outcomes, such as protection, security, social cohesion or peace. The community structures they create must support these purposes, and this in turn is reflected in the name, terms of reference and membership of these committees. Therefore there is an inherent tension between the structure of the aid system and genuine community-based approaches in which communities designate their own representative structures, identify priorities and allocate resources.
Three key lessons
What does this mean for organisations that want to strengthen the capacities of communities to protect themselves and engage with armed actors? We believe that experience in Iraq holds three key lessons for protection actors:
- Understand the local political context well before deciding whether and how to engage. Is there space for communities and their representatives to negotiate with armed actors in a way that makes engagement worthwhile? Which individuals and groups in the community hold power and who is marginalised? What community structures exist and what other initiatives are there to strengthen them?
- For a genuine community-based approach, community members should be in the lead and determine which challenges should be addressed. This has implications: protection organisations should not set up a committee that is specifically designated to fulfil their or their project’s purpose. Instead, they should join with other organisations that want to strengthen community capacities, ideally supporting an existing representative body pursuing a broad set of objectives, and explain to their donors why this is necessary. Protection organisations should only engage if they can commit to doing so for the longer term, and reflect from the beginning on what will happen after their intervention ends.
- Balance power and diversity. To what extent does the committee you support need to reflect existing power structures to ensure that it is has leverage, for example when negotiating with armed actors? To what extent should it include representatives of less powerful or marginalised groups to make it more diverse and inclusive? What differences matter most in the given context – gender, age, ethnic or tribal background, sexual orientation?
Experiences in Iraq show that the current structure of the international aid system makes it hard to find good ways to strengthen community capacities. Protection organisations, however, are not only takers, but can also be shapers of the international aid system. They may have more space than they think to adapt their interventions to the local context. In our research, we did not come across any instances where a donor explicitly forbade such adaptation. Using this space more proactively would also help inform and educate donors about local conditions, preparing the ground for more adaptability in the long run.
Julia Steets is the director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin and principal investigator of the research project Protecting Civilians from Harm.