Safety of strangers: Understanding the realities of humanitarian protection

Project: Research council

Project Details


Providing strangers with safety against the brutal violence of contemporary conflicts is morally and logistically complicated especially when that violence is inflicted by their own governments. The United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other global authorities have long debated these conundrums and, to address the expansion of related practices in the 1990s, gave a new meaning to 'humanitarian protection'. However, this meaning has proved to be complicated and problematic. In reality, people claiming to provide humanitarian protection do radically diverse activities, rely on different forms of enforcement and have different ideas about who and how people should be kept safe during conflict.
Even more importantly, despite the expansion of humanitarian protection, people are often not kept safe but are instead left bewildered. People can have very different moral ideas and different fears, not only of physical harm, but also of spiritual, social and cultural harm. Plus, in reality, all actors have limits to their altruism in practice; even, humanitarian protection itself is partly about protecting humanitarians. In addition, as moral schemes are not static but are constantly renegotiated, power dynamics make a difference to these negotiations and subsequent understandings of why and how strangers should be kept safe. These power dynamics can embed hierarchies between men and women, as well as other patterns of social exclusion.
We are interested in how people deal with these complex moral, logistical, spiritual and intellectual problems in their daily practices of keeping strangers safe in specific localities during conflict. Our research explores the hidden moral anxieties of national/international humanitarian protection actors as they work in local contexts. We also explore how other actors contest or co-opt these humanitarian ideas and provide different forms of safety. Our research uses history, anthropology, curation, ethnomusicology and theology to explore the practice of the UN and NGOs (both international and national), as well as church leaders, chiefs and other local authority figures.
We focuse on South Sudan and its borderlands. For over forty years, South Sudan has been a seminal site for testing humanitarian protection ideas. Plus, South Sudan is currently experiencing a protracted conflict, including extreme kinds of humanitarian violations. Despite large-scale international attempts at humanitarian protection, South Sudanese have not been safe and millions of people have fled over borders and into neighbouring countries. South Sudanese public authority figures, including chiefs, 'witchdoctors', vigilantes, bishops, Pentecostals, Nuer prophets and women leaders have also used a range of strategies to try to keep people safe. We explore these contested ideas of protection, and the authority entangled within these negotiations.
Our team is uniquely placed to carry out this research. Dr Leben Moro and Professor Tim Allen have produced ground-breaking research on protection related themes since the early 1990s. Dr Moro and Dr Naomi Pendle have also carried out some of the only recent research on protection in South Sudan. Plus, our team has nearly a century of combined experience researching in South Sudan and its borderlands.
We also bring new ideas to the discussion by prioritising research and publication by African early career scholars. We do this by increasing the capacity of the University of Juba to offer teaching on research in humanitarian protection.
We, additionally, make sure that our research has a positive impact on humanitarian policy and practice. One way we are doing this is by working closely with three humanitarian organisations, namely an international organisation (Norwegian Refugee Council) but also two South Sudanese organisations (Nile Hope and CARD). Finally, we have an advisory board of high-profile practitioners from other organisations.
Effective start/end date1/09/2131/12/22


  • AHRC

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions


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