Lessons Learned? The Role of Humanitarians in Protection Response (Humanitarian Assistance Webcast 16)

Release Date: 
Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The performance of the international humanitarian system has been under the scrutiny of a number of evaluative reports in recent months – particularly in relation to its actions and inactions in Sri Lanka, 2009. Notably, the reports present a steadfast recognition that lessons must be learned within and across organizations. However, how such conclusions will be integrated in practice still remains unclear. Faced with a state apparatus determined to dictate the parameters of access while simultaneously unable or unwilling to protect the population, the international humanitarian community has often been unable to act in a strategic, coordinated manner. Fingers have been pointed at staff that “had insufficient political expertise and experience in armed conflicts and in human rights,” and were “not given sufficient policy and political support.” Ensuring that field-based staff has the necessary skills and support to make tough choices is, of course, of great importance. However, there are also several underlying questions that point to far larger tasks than capacity building. While recognizing many of the failures in response, some have gone as far as to question if different decisions would have been made if given the chance.

Within this debate, there is an implicit tension between protection mandates and the aversion of humanitarian agencies to engage in ways that may be deemed political. Ensuring physical access is often prioritized and assumed to be, by default, a sufficient contribution to the population, in the absence of a clear conception of humanitarian protection. Speaking out is deemed by some humanitarians to be a political act in itself and in contradiction to the humanitarian principles. While protection strategies aimed at reducing conflict and changing behavior are indeed political, so too is silence. In order to minimize the negative impact of crisis of similar character in the future, the humanitarian system must work to more clearly define, assesses, and addresses protection in its response.

In this context, our panel of experts will address the following questions:

  • Do humanitarian organizations have a role to play in influencing how a crisis plays out? What options do humanitarian actors have when they are being instrumentalised for policies of abuse? 
  • What systematic weaknesses within the humanitarian system were revealed by the international response to the crisis in Sri Lanka? What can be done to address these? How does the international system learn lessons and adapt to changing field realities? 
  • How could these lessons be applied to present-day crises? Is it possible to develop operational best practices without first addressing the perceived constraints of humanitarian principles?



  • Christina Blunt - Senior Project Coordinator, Harvard Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR)
  • Vincenzo Bollettino - Executive Director, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI)

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