Safety of Strangers

Understanding the Realities of Humanitarian Protection

Hosted by LSE’s Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa, the 'Safety of Strangers' project explores the impact of humanitarian protection in South Sudan and its borderlands

Principal Investigtor: Tim Allen
Co-investigator: Leben Moro
Naomi Pendle
Co-investigator: Grace Akello

Can humanitarian protection further entrench unequal structures of power?


Humanitarian protection is a contested, contingent and muddled concept. In the daily realities of keeping strangers in violent conflict safe, the confusion surrounding humanitarian protection has prompted reinterpretations of safety that not only challenge humanitarian practice but also remake its assumptions about morality and authority.

That is acutely so in parts of Africa, where the underlying motivations for humanitarian action have both been challenged by political leaders and often seem compromised or confusing to those most affected by humanitarian crises. The Safety of Strangers project investigates these realities by exploring the impact of local protection mechanisms in South Sudan and its borderlands, which has been a primary site for testing humanitarian protection ideas.

The research includes a broad range of disciplinary approaches including anthropology, history, theology, ethnomusicology and curatorial studies. Central to the research and its impact is the training and mentorship of a cohort of early career African scholars in South Sudan and Uganda, while partnering with international and South Sudanese humanitarian protection actors to ensure the research is practical for those who seek to provide protection.


Profile photo of Professor Tim Allen

Tim Allen

Professor Tim Allen is Director of the Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa and the Head of the Department of International Development at LSE. He is currently the PI for the five-year ESRC-funded Centre for Public Authority and International Development. 



Naomi Pendle

Dr Naomi Pendle focuses on public authority, patterns of violence and local governance in South Sudan. Naomi has conduced ethnographic research in South Sudan since 2009, with a focus on Nuer and Dinka communities.



Leben Nelson Moro

Leben is Director of Planning, Innovations and Quality Assurance at the University of Juba. He primarily conducts research on conflict, displacement and resettlement, focusing on oil, conflict and displacement in South Sudan. 



Grace Akello

Dr Grace Akello is a Visiting Professor at the Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa and researcher at Gulu University. Grace focusses on how young people in complex emergencies and the context of HIV/AIDS prioritise and manage their health complaints. 




Providing strangers with safety from conflict’s brutal violence is morally and logistically complicated, especially when that violence is inflicted by people’s own governments. The United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other global authorities have long debated these conundrums and given new meaning to ‘humanitarian protection’, but in reality people claiming to provide such protection do radically diverse activities and have different ideas about who and how people should be kept safe during conflict.

Despite the expansion of humanitarian protection, the consequence is that 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. Even humanitarian protection itself is partly about protecting humanitarians. As moral schemes are constantly renegotiated, power dynamics can embed hierarchies, including between men and women, as well as patterns of social exclusion.

For over forty years, South Sudan has been a seminal site for testing humanitarian protection ideas, and continues to experience a protracted conflict, including extreme kinds of humanitarian violations. Despite large-scale interventions, South Sudanese have not been safe and millions of people have fled into neighbouring countries, and attempts by South Sudanese public authority figures to keep people safe, such as by chiefs, ‘witchdoctors’, vigilantes, bishops, Pentecostals, Nuer prophets and women leaders, have failed.

Aims and objectives

Research: The project will explore how people deal with complex moral, logistical, spiritual and intellectual problems in their daily experiences of protection during conflict, and practices of keeping strangers safe. This includes understanding the hidden moral anxieties of national and international humanitarian protection actors as they work in local contexts, and how other actors contest or co-opt these humanitarian ideas and provide different forms of safety.

In particular the research will investigate the following questions:

  • How should we understand the complex struggles of South Sudanese to protect and stay safe both in South Sudan and neighbouring countries of displacement?
  • What are the hidden moral anxieties of national and international humanitarian protection actors working in local contexts?
  • How are different actors able to contest or co-opt humanitarian ideas to provide different forms of safety?
  • Humanitarian protection concepts, laws and practice are bewilderingly complicated, morally ambiguous and often contradictory. How do people cope with this bewilderment in their everyday lives?

Building local capacity: The project will bring new ideas to these debates by prioritising research and publication by African early career scholars. The research team will work to increase the capacity of the University of Juba to offer teaching on research in humanitarian protection.

Supporting policymakers and practitioners: The project will ensure the research has a positive impact on humanitarian policy and practice. This will be achieved by working closely with three humanitarian organisations, namely an international organisation (Norwegian Refugee Council) and two South Sudanese organisations (Nile Hope and CARD). The project also includes an advisory board of high-profile international practitioners, and findings will be shared through meetings, policy briefs and events with key decision-makers.


The research will draw on a variety of disciplines including history, anthropology, socio-legal studies, political science, ethnomusicology and heritage studies, tracing the everyday experiences and understandings of protection across different regions. Ethnographic observations will be conducted with practitioner partners, namely the Norwegian Refugee Council and the organisations Nile Hope and CARD, to interrogate how these humanitarians respond to different ideas of protection and negotiate authority in their daily practice, including authority over gender hierarchies.

Researchers will also carry out ethnographic work among other actors who seek to provide safety and dignity, paying attention to their material realities. For example, have shelters been built to preserve people’s dignity? Part of this ethnographic work will include legal ethnographies and observations of chiefs’ courts in providing protection.

Early career South Sudanese researchers will participate in the project’s capacity building. Their experience is pivotal to the methodological approach by drawing on lived experiences of protection, their nuanced cultural and linguistic knowledge, and their potential for new epistemic and empirical insights.

The project will also employ the use of visual and musical anthropological methods to work beyond the narrative approaches of interviews, investigating the aesthetic and symbolic ways in which people understand protection. By building a database of oral and object-based interpretations the research will form the basis for an exhibition on how people seek protection. To compliment this approach, an ethnomusicologist will assist researchers to understand ideas about protection expressed through music and song.

Oral history and archival methods will also be used to explore the evolution of protection since the 1990s and the anxieties in humanitarian protection practice during this period. As well as collecting oral histories from protection actors in South Sudan, researchers will humanitarian archives, including the Norwegian Refugee Council archive, Save The Children archive in Birmingham, and the Sudan Open archive developed by the Rift Valley Institute.

Findings and outputs

The project will create a wide range of outputs to engage scholars, policymakers, humanitarian practitioners and affected communities in South Sudan and its borderlands. Researchers will publish academic journal articles and blog posts, including from early career scholars in South Sudan, as well as produce aural and visual outputs, such as exhibition, musical pieces and graphic animations.


Janguan, T., Kirk, T. (2023) Hiding in plain sight: IDP's protection strategies after closing Juba's protection of civilian sitesGlobal Policy. 

Pendle, N. & Craze, J., (2020). A Fantasy of Finality: The UN Impasse at the Protection of Civilian Sites in South Sudan. African Arguments.



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Melissa Parker

Professor Melissa Parker is a medical anthropologist at the Department of Global Health and Development, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She works on health issues in Sierra Leone, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.



Lydia Tanner

Lydia Tanner leads The Research People. She has delivered more than 40 research and consultancy projects for local, national and international NGOs and donors. Lydia completed a PhD in information engineering at Oxford University.



Alice Robinson

Alice Robinson is a PhD student at the Department of International Development at LSE. Her doctoral research focuses on the histories and everyday practices of local NGOs in South Sudan, and their role in humanitarian response.



Ngot Mou

Ngot is an experienced qualitative researcher who has worked on a range of studies on the histories and logics of public authority in South Sudan. He also has experience in oil field environmental remediations and has previously worked in the NGO sector in South Sudan.


Liz Storer

Liz Storer is a PhD student in the LSE Department of International Development. She researches how groups in the West Nile region of Uganda define wrongdoing, injustice and danger, as well as health-seeking at the Uganda-DRC border.



Thomas Kirk 

Tom Kirk is a researcher and consultant based at LSE. His research interests include the provision of security and justice in conflict-affected regions, social accountability, civil society, local governance and public authority.


Profile photo of Kara Blackmore

Kara Blackmore 

Kara Blackmore is an anthropologist, curator and writer working at the intersection of arts, culture and social repair after conflict. For more than a decade she worked with NGOs, governments, corporate entities, cultural institutions and local communities across East and Southern Africa.



Nelly Caesar 

Nelly Caesar Arkangelo holds a Masters degree in Development and Emergency Practice from Oxford Brookes University. She previously worked in the protection sector during the 2013 conflict in South Sudan, and understands the importance of providing mental and physical support.




The Centre for Public Authority and International Development explores how forms of public authority shape and are shaped by interlocking global challenges with risks and opportunities for development and inclusive growth.

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Gulu University provides skilled human resources in education, health, agriculture, technology, peace and security. A pillar of academic and sustainable development, it strives to transform communities and conserve biodiversity.


The University of Juba is a comprehensive premier university of South Sudan. Established in 1975, it currently boasts 20,000 students spread across 15 Schools, 3 Colleges, 3 Institutes, and 4 specialised centers, based in downtown Juba.


Photo: UN Photo/Isaac Billy