Community-level approaches to child protection in humanitarian action

By Michelle Van Akin
September 11, 2020

The Traditional Approach

Community-based child protection has been a pillar of child protection in emergencies programming for years. The argument has always been that this is how to make child protection interventions sustainable. By forming child protection committees in the communities where we work and training them on principles and approaches, NGOs will be able to gradually hand over child protection activities to the communities.

At the center of this approach, is the idea that programming developed by international NGOs can be implemented in a variety of humanitarian contexts, such as through the formation of child protection committees to support awareness raising and referrals.

This approach was one of the first child protection modalities that I learned about at the start of my career. I thought it was brilliant. The logic was sound — if we build the communities’ capacity and give them the tools to protect children, then they will be equipped to prevent and respond to child protection concerns. I developed proposals to implement this approach, studied different community-based child protection (CBCP) handbooks and models and sought to implement CBCP in the various contexts in which I worked.

With time, however, I started having doubts. While I had seen this model work in contexts that had strong existing child protection structures, in contexts where this was less formalized, the model did not seem as fit for purpose. I also came to question the utility of taking such a top down, one-size-fits-all approach that didn’t allow for communities to meaningfully participate in the process. I wondered how sustainable it really was to ask communities to replicate a model developed outside of their context and that didn’t incorporate their input and existing capacities.

A New Approach

For these reasons, I was thrilled upon joining Plan International to find out we were examining just these questions through the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action with funding from USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (now Bureau for Humanitarian Affairs). The recently-formed Community-based Child Protection Task Force, co-led by Plan International, undertook an inter-agency research project that sought to develop evidence-based, practical guidance and capacity building materials for child protection actors working with communities in humanitarian settings.

In April 2020, while the global humanitarian community collectively reeled from and sought to adapt to the rapidly unfolding COVID-19 crisis, the newly re-branded Community-Level Child Protection Task Force released A Reflective Field Guide: Community-Level Approaches to Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, along with accompanying capacity building resources and an online learning series. The reflective field guide aims to foster more authentic community engagement in child protection programming. It emphasizes that current programming is agency-driven, which although sometimes necessary, does not always lead to effective or sustainable community-level interventions. Importantly, this resource is not meant to provide prescriptive guidance or suggest that current approaches are “bad” or “wrong,” nor that only bottom-up approaches should be adopted. The reflective field guide simply encourages honest reflection and discussion about our programming, what strong community participation could look like and what we can do as child protection practitioners to facilitate higher levels of community-driven programming.

The reflective field guide itself is composed of six key considerations and 11 guidance notes. The key considerations, drawn from promising practices found during a literature review, outlines the foundation from which effective community-level child protection approaches begin. The guidance notes offer ways to reach higher levels of community engagement and ownership, such as a tool to support action planning with communities. The reflective field guide is available in English, French and Arabic.

To assist colleagues in adopting the reflective field guide, the Alliance also developed two capacity building resources — a face-to-face capacity building package and an online learning series. The face-to-face capacity building package, available in English and French, is composed of two modules, Foundations of Promising Practice and Enhancing our Capacities for Community Engagement. It includes a facilitator’s guide, PowerPoints and other materials necessary to facilitate in-person trainings. The four-part online learning series follows Nina, a girl who has been displaced from her home, while she adjusts to her new setting and interacts with child protection actors. It introduces child protection minimum standard #17 (community-level approaches), reflects on current community-level programming, emphasizes the need for a shift in mindset and introduces the reflective field guide.

Key Message

The key message of this piece of work is that communities are intimately aware of children’s needs and how to address them. That there are always existing community mechanisms to keep children safe. That community members and leaders, parents, caregivers, youth and children have agency in protecting children in their community. Community mechanisms can only be sustained in the long run if communities lead in their design and action, feeling ownership over them. It is the role of child protection actors to recognize this reality and support community members to strengthen what they already do: protect their children.

This message is even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, when child protection actors have to adapt to running programming remotely. In many settings, child protection workers cannot even access the communities they are supporting as governments put in place quarantine and lockdown measures to stop the spread of the virus. More than ever, we should be seeking to strengthen existing community capacities to protect children — as community members are frontline responders during the COVID-19 crisis. In this dynamic context, it is not feasible to try to train communities to replicate humanitarian programming; the focus instead should be supporting communities to strengthen existing skill sets to protect children. The reflective field guide provides child protection actors with the necessary tools to do just that.


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