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Protection in Practice: Food Assistance with Safety and Dignity

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How can agencies like WFP be sure that food assistance doesn’t jeopardize the safety of the people they're trying to help? This is the question asked by the authors of a new book exploring the measures WFP has taken to keep people safe while providing them with assistance.

The 2008 attacks in Kandahar – in which Taliban members threw acid at girls going to school – prompted WFP to assess whether food assistance as an incentive to girls’ school attendance may be increasing their exposure to harm.

No evidence for this was found: in fact, the victims’ parents reported that the girls would continue attending school regardless of the incentive of receiving cooking oil. Nonetheless, WFP negotiated with district-level authorities to ensure safe access to school for all students.

Kandahar is one of many examples of complex environments characterised by flagrant abuses of human rights, population displacements and the absence of effective security and justice systems. Environments like these are where WFP concentrates its presence and operational expenditures.

In these types of environments, humanitarian agencies have come to accept that engaging in humanitarian protection - that is assuring civilians’ safety, rights and dignity, alongside material assistance – is central to their roles and responsibilities. As a study by the UK Overseas Development Institute (2007) observed: many agencies are now driven by the “realization that, in many crises, the overwhelming direct threat to the civilian population is not lack of material assistance but lack of safety”.

Prompted by increasing requests for advice from field offices in the face of growing concern for protection of food-assistance beneficiaries, WFP, in 2005, began to explore how the safety and dignity can be strengthened through its work. But first, WFP needed to understand the impact of protection issues on its hunger mandate and whether food assistance contribute to the United Nations’ commitment to the protection of civilians. Some basic questions arose as part of this internal reflection: What does protection mean to an assistance agency such as WFP? Does WFP already engage in protection related activities? It is doing more harm than good in some instances and how can it mitigate those unintended negative consequences on people’s safety and dignity? Is there reasonable scope for improving food assistance outcomes through a protection approach, and if so what skills and tools are needed?

Over the years, WFP has made significant efforts to assess what protection means for the organisation and has strengthened its staff’s capacity to devise strategies to respond to protection problems that are intimately linked to WFP’s assistance. Close to 3,000 staff of WFP and partner organisations have been trained in protection; extensive review of field programmes from a protection perspective have been conducted; integration of protection in field programmes and tools have been underway; and protection experts have been deployed in high-protection crisis countries. In February 2012, the WFP Executive Board adopted the formal policy on humanitarian protection, cementing WFP’s commitment to safer and more dignified assistance, increased awareness of international law and humanitarian principles in its work, and better working relations with relevant actors, including the States, to help promote the protection of civilians within its operational milieu.

As WFP progresses in its efforts on integrating protection into daily humanitarian assistance operations - one of the lessons is that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategy and response. However, there is agreement that WFP needs to invest more in analysing the contexts – including socio-political and power dynamics, and threats, vulnerabilities and capacities of local populations, and how they link to food security and hunger. Such analysis should feed into more nuanced and protection-sensitive field programmes and presence, to ensure that WFP does no harm and to address the underlying causes where hunger is a result of protection gaps or vice versa.

WFP’s edited volume - Protection in Practice: Food Assistance with Safety and Dignity - reflects on WFP’s role and contribution, as well as on opportunities and challenges posed by applying a protection lens in WFP’s operations. Its modest, fundamental premise: Food assistance itself may not be enough to ensure the safety and dignity of a crisis-affected population, but the way in which assistance is delivered can either support or undermine people’s protection.