Leadership of protection in the humanitarian sector

Davies, G and Bowden, M.
Publication language
Date published
25 Nov 2022
Plans, policy and strategy
Leadership and Decisionmaking

Bold, moral humanitarian leadership that prioritises humanity, and is willing to accept risks of retaliation by promoting protection in the best interests of affected people, is desperately needed. But leaders are expected to maintain presence and access to deliver services, and often prioritise this whatever the cost. Calculated risk-taking requires institutional and organisational support, even (and especially) when there are risks of failure. Leaders need to be held to account, and hold their teams to account for promoting protection. Crucially, leaders require the right set of skills (e.g. diplomacy and negotiation).

Leaders at all levels must work towards a coherent, strategic approach to reducing protection risks. But this is undermined by the humanitarian sector treating protection as a technical issue, with technical responses. Leaders need to work towards a common plan, agreeing on priority risks to address over the long term, including through sustained humanitarian diplomacy.

To support this, there should a comprehensive understanding of drivers of protection risks, including a political economy analysis, monitoring trends over time. Analysis must come from a range of expertise (peace, political, human rights, research and academia) across multiple levels (local, subnational, national, global). Critically, it should be delinked from individual agency programming and funding so that the most acute risks can be tackled.

Protection challenges are multifaceted and cannot be resolved by humanitarian actors alone. Collective responsibility and mutually reinforcing approaches across human rights, peace and political actors are critical to reducing risks. This requires a mindset shift to ensure protection is central to humanitarian action, and a culture shift to normalise complementary approaches to addressing protection risks within and beyond the humanitarian system. Critically, it requires political will and commitment from the highest level of the humanitarian system.