‘Never let the Silence Reign’: in Conversation with William Chemaly on the future of Global Protection

October 12, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

I recently interviewed William Chemaly, coordinator of the Global Protection Cluster

Here’s a transcript of the highlights

DG: Hi William, you have one of those terribly important sounding jobs that no one outside the humanitarian sector understands. Maybe you could explain who you are and what you do to begin with?

WC: Thanks Duncan. Protection is the heart and soul of humanitarian action. It’s basically to make sure that people are safe and living in dignity in times of crisis. Responding to issues related to safety and dignity when people are disappeared, detained, tortured, displaced, robbed of everything requires a lot of interventions, to deal with survivors of sexual harassment and assaults and crimes, and kids being taken by armed groups. And this collectivity of action from prevention to response to actually telling the story and advocating requires a lot of actors to come together.

In a place like Syria or Yemen or Venezuela today, there is a UN coordination mechanism, the Protection Cluster. We operate in about 30 countries around the world, and we bring together more than 1000 partners, largely people working in their own country, local partners.

The job is to make sense of this massive energy of multiple actors coming together and get some common push to make things impactful for people who are stuck in these conflicts.

DG: So where are we at on protection as a humanitarian community?

WC: The protection situation in the world is in bad shape. We count this year more than 150 million people in need of protection, the highest ever. This is driven by new crises like Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Sudan. But it’s also driven by having no solutions to all the stubborn crises like Syria, Yemen, Congo.

People are hit first time by the conflict, then second time by all the socioeconomic meltdown that comes in its wake, pushing them into very difficult decisions. The shield of self protection and resilience is wearing thin after hit after hit on these communities.

DG: That’s a pretty grim way to start. So let’s move towards. What have you seen change in the last three years?

WC: Talking about success or good in this field becomes day after day, more remote. When we succeed in something, it’s partial, marginal almost. But we have to keep telling some of the positive stories to keep rallying people to work in this field, to support people in their darkest hours. And I’ve seen some areas of protection response really becoming predictable, strong, having an impact on the ground.

In Syria, we see much stronger family unification programs, bringing kids back to their families. Much stronger engagement with armed groups and the military to stop children’s recruitment. In Yemen and South Sudan, people born in displacement camps who didn’t have any legal identities are now getting into the educational system or job markets. They are able to slide into normality.

We see a lot of focus on addressing sexual violence, and while I still believe it is our biggest, biggest failure, this is something that is at the top of the agenda of everyone. The machinery that is trying to prevent sexual violence that is standing by the survivors, giving them socioeconomic and psychosocial support is massive. Yet our impact in addressing it is still so marginal in places like Ethiopia, in places like the Sahel, Syria and Yemen.

I also see very concrete progress in some areas of material safety and protection, like mine action, removing mines, removing explosives from the ground to allow people to go back to school, to go back to markets, to hospitals.

I see this push of professional, dedicated, predictable machineries addressing different parts of protection functioning well. It has many organizations that are dedicated to that, many thousands of staff that are passionate and trying really to do their best.

But in a bigger sense, Duncan, I think humanitarian aid has shifted from a place where the main story was material needs – people have lost their homes, people need food, people have their schools bombed – to a place where dignity and rights have come to the centre.

If we listen to the media, to the plans, to where the budgets of the humanitarian actors are going, definitely protection is gaining ground. Over the last three years, we went from a global budget for protection work of about $450 million to this year about $1.4 billion.

The number of people in need is also growing, but the growth of the response is faster than the growth of the needs. But we need to keep the pressure on.

DG: Do you think the humanitarian sector has made progress in being able to actually change government policies, or is it still more comfortable delivering stuff?

WC: I think it is fair to say that organizations like the ICRC, Geneva Call, UNHCR, WFP, NRC, have definitely grown in expertise in diplomatic negotiations that allow programs to operate on the ground in a comprehensive way.

Humanitarian aid has shifted from a place where the main story was material needs – people have lost their homes, people need food, people have their schools bombed – to a place where dignity and rights have come to the centre

However, out of the 150 million people today in need of protection, we collectively – local actors, international actors, you in NGOs, everyone – can at best access comfortably 50 million of them. So we’re leaving 100 million without any decent chance to receive any comprehensive support.

And what does that mean? That means being able to be in the communities to monitor the situation, to talk to the army groups, to try and change behaviour, to identify children that are being recruited or girls that are being married off, or survivors of sexual violence.

That takes time, trust, presence on the ground. But instead, we see a tendency to use humanitarian access negotiation for material delivery. So we count our access to Tigray or to Northwest Syria by the number of trucks that have come in. And these trucks are crucial – they carry life-saving food and medicine. But it’s not enough: our collective humanitarian advocacy style and needs to be more holistic from a protection sense.

DG: And that, that brings us very naturally into the discussion on localization.

WC: We talk a good game. We’ve made some progress. For example, out of our global budget, 25% of the $1.4 billion goes to local partners. Compared to our traditions and history and compared to other humanitarian sectors, it’s a major achievement.

But we’re far from where we should be. Having this 25% target from the Grand Bargain was an important push, but our sector has to be fully driven by local actors. We have 1,400 members across 30 operations. 90% of these members are local organizations, so I do expect 90% of our budget to go to them, not 25%.

We as humanitarians, as protection actors, we can give them a lot, but we should never, ever contribute to them losing their story

But what I would also like to flag here is that in this whole massive push for localization, which we’ve been really championing, I am also worried that in their advocacy role, international organizations might be hiding behind localization.

Let me explain. There is, Of course a need for local actors to be in the community, to stay and build that local trust and be able to push things forward. But there are points in time where you need that international presence to tell men with guns that we are here to watch, to report, to pressure. We need international actors back in the villages, on the streets, in the camps to take that advocacy role, not to get in the way of local organizations that are delivering the actual projects and programs, but to be clearly visibly in a principled way, standing by people who are suffering from these different crimes.

DG: Final question, do you think people working in protection realize how far they’ve come in terms of that overall budget, the increasing centrality of protection to humanitarian work?

WC: Protection workers are advocates, activists. We come from an underdog mentality where we believe that people don’t want to talk about our issues, don’t want to talk about sexual violence and children’s recruitment, racism or interethnic conflict. So we come to the table, expecting that these things will be swept under the carpet.

But the protection sector today is one of the most robust humanitarian sectors. The amount of conventions, resolutions from the UN Security Council, the Human Rights Council, local constitutional frameworks and other initiatives in support of protection. The number of organizations that have a protection mandate is also quite impressive, from child protection to protection of civilians, to rights related issues, to displace people and so on.

So the number of dedicated experts, staff, budget, time, technical knowhow on protection issues is phenomenal. Yet today, we’re still stuck in this mentality that we are underfunded and that we are under-represented and no one is raising our issues. I think our approach should move and embody a can-do attitude: we are at the table, we are recognized, and yes, we need to push forward, but we’re no longer an underdog outsider that needs to fight for the space. We own the space. Let’s lead.

DG: Anything else you want to say before we finish, William?

WC: I want to end by saying one of my biggest learnings from engaging with people fleeing from conflicts and disasters. Those individuals have lost a lot. Sometimes everything. But they haven’t lost their story. We as humanitarians, as protection actors, we can give them a lot, but we should never, ever contribute to them losing their story.

That story should be told. Silence about what happened to them should never reign and we should never be part of letting the silence reign. We should always, always tell the truth, sometimes loud, sometimes in a whisper – I get that. But never let the silence reign.

DG: It’s been an absolute honour and pleasure to talk to you, William. Good luck in your next stage. You’re going to be a very hard act to follow, I imagine!

ht Rachel Hastie for the idea and the intro