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Protection: the new humanitarian fig-leaf
Marc Dubois

Drawing on MSF’s experience in “protection” work in Darfur and other contexts, the paper provides a critical perspective on the development of humanitarian protection into an industry of its own. The humanitarian community consistently overlooks its limits and may contribute to undermining the rights of people in crisis, all the while trumpeting the value of a rights-based approach.

Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA) thinking has filtered into humanitarian action over the past decade. In tangible fashion, this shift has provided guidance and standards for aid itself. Beneficiaries become something greater than populations who need assistance – they become individuals possessing rights. The HRBA thus transforms wants/desires of people in crisis into societal obligations to respond. Humanitarian organizations have internalized this obligation to respond in a variety of ways. Importantly, HRBA has prompted and reinforced the shift in humanitarian action away from pure delivery of assistance to the inclusion of protection activities. Further, HRBA thinking has stimulated an increasing integration of human rights frameworks, focus and activities into humanitarian action.

 The Four Delusions of Humanitarian Protection

Over the past decade, “protection” has grown from specialized function to jargon champion in humanitarian circles. The progressive abandonment of the relief-only paradigm, or rather the progressive expansion of the relief-protection paradigm beyond the towers of the protection-mandated entities (ICRC, UNICEF and UNHCR), filled an appalling gap. The struggle to prevent what some labelled the “well fed dead” or “well-fed raped” should certainly elicit our welcome. But Darfur and other violent crises remain nasty and brutish, even for those living in relatively stable camp settings, raising questions about the protection role played by humanitarians.


  • Delusion 1: The “protection gap” is the problem.

It is not the lack of protection activities or legal protections, it is the surplus of violence that should be fingered as the primary problem. The humanitarian obsession with protection reflects the degree to which we define the external environment through our activities. Protection gap has become a euphemism. Darfur is the first emergency to be labelled a ‘protection crisis’ [1]. In terms of the responsibility to know our limits, perhaps the first limit is hence the realization that with important (though comparatively insignificant) exceptions, protection (in the sense of providing physical safety) of civilians during periods of violent crisis is not our job.


  • Delusion 2: The humanitarian community is able to provide meaningful protection.

Some NGO protection activities or the many excellent suggestions and guidance that fill books deserve praise and incorporation into our daily activities. But we seem to have lost sight of the meaning of these actions, or more importantly the meaning of the word we use to describe them. “[…] a new determination to develop truly practical programming that protects people from all forms of violation, exploitation, and abuse during war and disaster has emerged in recent years.” [2]

That seems fairly ambitious – somewhere on the scale of bringing peace, harmony and prosperity to all the people on Earth. Do we humanitarians really believe we can achieve anything approaching such a goal? The point is not to belittle the work done by humanitarian workers when it comes to protection, but to recognize its obvious limits. When humanitarians talk about protection activities, they are talking about documentation, training, awareness raising, and well-worn models such as building latrines in a safe area.


Delusion 3: The public’s belief that somebody is at the front lines, making people safe.

Diminishing the luster of aid itself – promoting the message that aid is not a solution to the problem – is an inherent source of consternation for the providers of aid. Institutional donors do not broadcast the fact that their funding purchases band-aids, not cures. Nor do we humanitarians earnestly wish the public to realize this inherent limitation. Certainly western governments do not wish for their publics to be critical of the superficiality of their aid-only efforts. The public feels good about funding protection work – drawn to the idea of protecting people and blissfully unaware that their contributions go to bridging the coverage gap. Donor governments are able to brag about the protection work they are doing, 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 defense of people’s lives with funding a civilian protection bureaucracy to defend rights. Important? Yes. Positive impact? Yes. Incomplete? Certainly. Dishonest? Absolutely


  • Delusion 4: Integrity is the only thing at stake.

One result is an increasing absence of aid organizations delivering aid, instead seemingly satisfied to engage in protection work. As one member of a prominent international NGO said regarding their performance in Darfur at the peak of the humanitarian upsurge (late 2004, 2005): “We’ve got more protection officers in Darfur than water and sanitation engineers.”

Governments not especially friendly to the presence of humanitarians have also noticed. When the author was defending an MSF report to Sudanese authorities, they charged that the only reason for this public reporting was to increase donations. It should be clear that the perception that humanitarians are busy making noise for their own financial gain endangers their presence (relationship with authorities) 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 the Sudanese government’s suspicions, viewed more generally, may not be entirely unfounded.

There is a great risk to humanitarian access to populations in crisis from the linkage between protection activities and their potential to embarrass governments or directly threaten the interests of individuals within those governments. Obviously, engaging in protection work involves a careful analysis of the potential backlash.

[1] Pantuliano, S. and O’Callaghan, S., 2006. The ‘Protection Crisis’: A review of field-based strategies for humanitarian protection in Darfur. HPG Discussion Paper, December 2006, p. 6.

[2] Slim, H. and A. Bonwick (2004) Protection – An ALNAP Guide for Humanitarian Agencies. London: ALNAP.

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