Directions for further research

This book has explored the complex set of interactions that exist between the official frameworks that seek to guide the protection of civilians and the way protection efforts take shape in actual practice. In revealing how protection works, I have combined critical theory analysis, notably the nuanced examinations of agency and everyday practice of de Certeau (1984) and Scott (1990), with ethnographic observation, which is best equipped to build a detailed understanding of everyday practices and social interactions. I have explored these interactions through the lens of the international humanitarian worker, a pivotal actor in the complex humanitarian space between the protection frameworks and protection outcomes. However, there are clearly other significant actors in this network that warrant similar attention. One such actor is the local humanitarian worker, who has appeared in this study as the necessary other of the international humanitarian. While there are ongoing policy initiatives to localise humanitarianism and empower local staff, these efforts remain constrained by the established humanitarian discourse identified in this book. An “insider-outsider” examination of the agency and everyday practice of the local humanitarian has the potential to lease out some uncomfortable realties about this power imbalance and how it is sustained, which would inform future policy initiatives. Furthermore, these local actors are increasingly complex figures, challenging the discursive rendering of local/international. Many are part of international diaspora communities, linked into the international, while a few others have returned home after time in the West, further blurring the boundary between national and international.

This book and its findings also have the potential to be a stepping-off point for further research into collective brokerage in relation to international and local humanitarians. The perspective I have adopted for this research - centred around the international humanitarian worker - allows for only a partial understanding of this relationship. There is space to explore it in more detail, whether in the form of the vertical “chain” linking brokers together, or the brokerage “club” in which the brokerage function is assumed by multiple actors in symbiosis (see Bierschenk et al., 2000, pp. 29-30). The power imbalance and how it is sustained would be a central theme of any such study. As discussed in this book, collective brokerage involving national and international staff is not a relationship of equals, rather those with contacts and knowledge beyond the immediate locale have emerged as leaders of the brokerage club, or occupying a place further up a hierarchical brokerage chain.

Brokerage chains and clubs are also likely to link together other actors in the humanitarian space, also warranting further research. For example, the pivotal relationships between humanitarians and armed actors could be explored through the concept of collective brokerage, with individual armed actors filling a broker function in their interactions with the humanitarian broker of Chapter 5. During my own travels for this research, I met such actors, including military personnel officially designated to act as links to humanitarian organisations and the giowing number of “civ-mil” coordinators in the humanitarian sector. If collective brokerage is operating between humanitarians and armed state actors, one could assume similar agents emerge in non-state armed groups.

Applied implications

This research did not set out to provide clear policy recommendations. Such recommendations would follow in the tradition of instrumental scholars who identify failure before providing technical solutions. Instead, this is an attempt fill a gap in knowledge by opening the black box that exists between the official protection frameworks and protection outcomes. It is an attempt to reveal how these frameworks operate in the real world of contemporary conflicts. I leave it to policy makers to take this complex set of relationships further and explore concrete policy options. With this in mind, I offer three areas that warrant their attention.


I have argued that relationships are at the centre of humanitarian protection, ultimately driving positive outcomes for at-risk groups. Rather than a set of rules to be followed or prosecuted if breached, the official protection frameworks act as a narrative glue to establish the networks of alliances, coalitions and partnerships that drive protection. The broker has appeared as a key actor in establishing and sustaining this network in the complex environment of contemporary wars, translating the frameworks to recruit a more diverse network of actors and creating linkages where none exist. Yet this crucial agent in the success of the frameworks is not mentioned in operational directives by any name, nor are they recruited for. Instead they emerge incidentally from the pool of the usual interlocutors who are not necessarily fully equipped to take up such a task. Today’s humanitarian brokers have collected most of their skills through happenstance and life experience, before testing them through trial and error.

Rather than relying on chance, I propose that a new professional should be recruited for and developed. That said, this would be no easy task. Mosse (2011) was correct when he drew attention to similar challenges in recruiting for the development sector:

The participatory turn in international development has made the constitution of expert development identities more complex. Professionals of participatory programs have to deny or conceal their expertise and agency (and their practical role in program delivery) in order to preserve an authorized view of themselves as facilitators of community action or local knowledge, as “catalysts”, hastening but not partaking in the reaction.... Where ... expertise requires self-effacement, it is harder to constitute professional identities.

(₽• 17)

To this end, it is time to think this role through. Ultimately, it is about recruiting and training a group of humanitarian practitioners who refuse to frame protection in purely instrumental terms, but instead pay attention to social processes of protection. It is not only about the fixed knowledge of the formal frameworks, but the varied knowledge of the local context and its actors.


When thinking of these actors and the relationships they establish, it is also worth further reflection on collective brokerage. Just as there is space for further research into these networks, the ideas warrant the attention of policy makers. This is no simple task, as brokerage “chains” and “clubs” (Bierschenk et al., 2000, pp. 29-30) are not easily recognisable. They are not necessarily permanent collaborations, instead constantly appearing, reforming and fading according to the needs on the ground and the actors available. Furthermore, they can be quite intricate structures, with their power deriving from the different positions taken by various members and their interactions. For the international and local staff, this comes through the complementary forms of knowledge held by the different actors in this network. Yet despite these complexities, the perspective of collective brokerage has the potential to provide new direction for policy makers grappling with the power imbalance between national and international staff. What policy initiatives, for example, would change a hierarchical vertical chain, into a club where complementary forms of knowledge are equally valued? This policy conversation can also extend beyond these particular actors, for collective brokerage is a prevalent social formula in institutional settings (see Bierschenk el al., 2002, pp. 25-26).


Reflecting on the value of both formal and informal knowledge, discussed in Chapters 5 and 6, there is space to promote peer-to-peer knowledge sharing among aid workers. This is not a call for expanding the already formidable raft of skills trainings and workshops. Nor is it a call to further duplicate established institutional efforts to share knowledge and experiences. Such formal systems are already in place where aid workers can share past experiences, such as end-of-mission reports and the ubiquitous reflection workshops. Rather, this is a call for spaces and channels where aid workers can share the dilemmas they are facing in a less structured and more spontaneous way.

This would be about further facilitating the informal community of practice that already exists, away from the institutional machinations that tend to undermine openness, collaboration and sharing, and away from the institutional hierarchy, professional competitiveness, career trajectories and organisational turf wars that have a similar undermining impact. There can clearly be structures that facilitate these conversations, but the conversations themselves need to be free to roam. This would also be about encouraging practitioners to recognise and be aware of the personal skills they are carrying from one place to another, about encouraging them to shape and recognise this work as a valuable set of personal practices.

What would such a space look like? 1 offer only sweeping thoughts drawn from the knowledge shared in the previous chapters. Reflecting on the private nature of the existing conversations, this is not a public place, but a closed community, given the freedom to openly talk about their experiences and thoughts. Reflecting on the informal nature of the existing communications, such a space would be about sharing personal stories and anecdotes. Stories have the power to embrace complexity; to borrow from anthropology, they are able to provide the thick descriptions of personal observation and experience that show how protection actually works in complex environments.

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