Local Protection / Global Protection

Nils Carstensen on how communities working to protect themselves view outside organizations.
By: /
November 27, 2012
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Displaced families seeking protection from aerial bombardment in mountain caves while surviving on roots, leaves, and fruit in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. A Christian family deliberately choosing to travel with Buddhist friends in government-controlled parts of southeast Myanmar. Survivors of Cyclone Nargis, in another part of Myanmar, organizing and orchestrating their own survival for weeks before they see the first traces of outside assistance.

A Zimbabwean family trying to mitigate threats from a violent political conflict by demonstrating political sympathies designed to reduce threats, rather than reflecting their political convictions.

Youth in the cattle camps of Jonglei in South Sudan organizing themselves to protect their own communities. But some also organizing themselves to launch violent attacks on other ethnic communities as part of a long history of cattle raiding – and this happening in the security vacuum left by a nascent state and a UN mission struggling to find its place.

These are just a few examples of communities where civilians have engaged in self-protection strategies.

Since 2010, the Local to Global Protection (L2GP) initiative has undertaken research in Myanmar (Burma), Sudan, South Sudan, and Zimbabwe, documenting how people living in situations of natural disaster and/or armed conflict take the lead in protecting themselves and their communities. The research also examines how affected communities view the roles of others, including the state, non-state actors, community-based organizations, and national and international aid agencies. Are they seen as protection actors or sources of threat – or both?

For more than a decade, humanitarian and development agencies have endeavoured to elicit beneficiaries’ participation in their programming, including in relation to protection. However, protection continues to be widely viewed as an activity undertaken primarily by outsiders on behalf of vulnerable communities. Affected communities and their representatives are rarely consulted in a meaningful way in the design of protection interventions. This is problematic because external interventions that fail to recognize and support indigenous efforts may inadvertently undermine existing coping mechanisms, disempowering local communities.

The scope of self-protection

The L2GP studies found that people at risk viewed protection initiatives by outside agencies as relatively unimportant, especially in contexts such as armed conflict-affected southeast Myanmar or South Kordofan in Sudan, where many perceive the state in question as the main agent of abuses.

Local understandings of “protection” are often at variance with – or extend beyond – how the concept is used by international humanitarian agencies. People at risk experience and describe livelihoods and protection as intimately linked, as illustrated, for instance, by the Zimbabwe and South Sudan studies. Customary law and local values and traditions mattered at least as much as formal rights. In Zimbabwe and Sudan, psychological and spiritual needs and threats were often considered as important as physical survival. Furthermore, self-protection activities help to build ‘social capital’ and develop inter-community bonds.

In all the case studies, it was evident that protection concerns and responses are interlinked with politics and a range of social and cultural issues. The Zimbabwe case, for instance, illustrates the complex connections between politics and livelihoods, and the Jonglei study demonstrates how the social and economic importance attached to livestock relates directly to a number of protection issues, including armed conflict and social protection of vulnerable members of the communities.

In both Karen (Myanmar) and South Kordofan (Sudan), natural features such as dense jungle and mountains, along with the knowledge and skills of how to ‘live off the land,’ are seen as being of paramount importance for the survival and protection of particularly displaced communities, as hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to choose a life of displacement and hiding in hills and forests.

In all of the studies, sharing within and between families and communities, along with cohesion and the quality of local leadership, was described as crucial for self-protection and survival. Addressing psych-social issues (loss, trauma, togetherness, fun, etc.) was reported as crucial for finding the strength to survive and help protect others.

In many international organizations, national staff are a repository of institutional memory and usually have a better understanding of the context than most of their international colleagues. But national staff are rarely in a position to fully use this knowledge and insight.

Self-protection – necessary, but not sufficient

It is important to note that, while self-protection strategies may be crucial for survival, they rarely provide the degree of safety, security, and dignity that people need.

Furthermore, some local protection activities expose people to further risk (e.g. labour migration from Myanmar to Thailand). In situations of armed conflict and natural disaster, displaced and other people often face terrible dilemmas, including trade-offs between different risks (e.g. farmers cultivating fields known to be landmine-infested or exposed to bombing in order to produce food; family members exposed to risks of trafficking in order to generate income). Sometimes, individual rights are superseded by family or community needs, as is often the case for the kind of protection offered within customary law and other traditional justice systems.

For these and other reasons, local agency cannot and should not be regarded as a substitute for the intended protective roles and responsibilities of national authorities or – when that fails – international actors.

In addition to self-protection strategies and external interventions, local and national society and political and armed groups also assume various protection roles. For instance, armed opposition forces in Karen and South Kordofan were described as important sources of protection by many of those living in their areas of control. Although local people regard armed/political groups as both a source of threat and a source of protection, outside agents rarely engage with these groups in any substantive way beyond the most basic issues around access and humanitarian law.

Continuing challenges

All five L2GP studies reveal a number of challenges to engaging more meaningfully with self-protection activities. The challenges include the misleading and exaggerated assumptions about the importance of mainstream humanitarian action held by many aid professionals, but also concerns that engaging with self-protection may threaten institutional control and institutional interests of agencies and donors. Fundraising efforts that highlight international interventions at the expense of local action perpetuate the stereotyped perceptions of ‘saviours’ and ‘victims.’ At the same time, agencies may have legitimate concerns regarding humanitarian principles and rights-based programming, and are reluctant to engage with the protection role of armed groups, customary law, local systems of religious and spiritual belief, or ‘exotic’ threats, such as witchcraft in Zimbabwe.

Since its beginning in 2009, the L2GP initiative has been rooted within the ACT Alliance  (an alliance of 125 churches and related organizations that work together in humanitarian assistance, advocacy, and development). In 2012-13, the initiative will continue to document responses to conflict situations, generate new insights, and seek practical ways of promoting and supporting actual community and self-protection activities in a number of crises.

This article has been adapted from an article first published in the World Disaster Report 2012. The full WDR 2012 version may be found at www.ifrc.org/wdr.