Interview: Michael Wessells

Michael Wessells
Sanchi Ravishanker
Publication Year:
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Michael Wessells, PhD, is Professor at Columbia University in the Program on Forced Migration and Health. A long time psychosocial and child protection practitioner, he is former Co-Chair of the IASC Task Force on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings and also served as former co-focal point on mental health and psychosocial support for the revision of the Sphere humanitarian standards. He has conducted extensive research on the holistic impacts of war and political violence on children, and he is author of Child soldiers: From violence to protection (Harvard University Press, 2006). Currently, he is lead researcher on inter-agency, multi-country action research on strengthening community-led child protection mechanisms that link effectively with national child protection systems. He regularly advises UN agencies, governments, and donors on issues of child protection and psychosocial support, including in communities and schools. Throughout Africa and Asia, he helps to develop community-based, culturally grounded programs that assist people affected by armed conflict and natural disasters.


What are some of the key issues your research in child protection focuses on?

I’d like to highlight several issues. The first is, prevention. In humanitarian crises for example, we’re fairly good at responding to the horrors of gender-based violence and separated children or children who have been recruited into armed forces or armed groups but we are not as far along in our thinking and action with regard to prevention. A second issue has to do with sustainability. Having worked in the field of child protection for several decades, I have long been one who appreciates the value of projects. However, a limit of projects, particularly ones that are implemented in a top-down manner where it’s driven by an outside expert, international NGO or even UNICEF, is that local people see it as an outsider project. They don’t take ownership for it so they don’t take responsibility for continuing it. When external funding ends, the project tends to die and the process it had tried to create ends. For me, this is an ethical problem. We have scarce resources and huge needs of children and their communities. We ought to be committed to using the funds available in a way that is accountable to local people. By that, I mean that the actions and positive outcomes should be sustainable. This becomes more likely when local people lead the actions and continue them, with ongoing, sustainable benefits for vulnerable people.

The fact that so much unsustainable work is done in many relatively stable, developed settings indicates that we need to adjust our modality of work.

In acute and complex emergencies, there are times where one needs to focus on saving lives and alleviating suffering. Yet there is a huge upswing in the number of protracted emergencies in armed conflicts, in particular. They require a more sustainable response. I’m very interested in processes that can enable children to reposition themselves in a way that doesn’t upset the balance of power within communities. Young people should play a central role in identifying, addressing and evaluating the problems that face them. A third area is children’s leadership. Children for a long time have been have been infantilized and seen as young people in need of protection. Of course, there’s some truth to this but in many war zones and development settings, teenagers and younger children are active agents who navigate complex environments, cope and engage with the complexities facing them, and actively address and solve the problems they face. A challenge is that adults typically lead NGO projects on child protection, and we haven’t been very good at listening to children. Even when we have listened, we haven’t always used what they’ve told us to directly shape the programme or the action that’s taken. For me, this is a real loss because children have fundamentally different perspectives than adults. Similarly, girls have fundamentally different lived experiences and perspectives than boys have. Although children frequently need support, they also have tremendous creativity and can exercise leadership even amidst crises. I’m very interested in processes that can enable children to reposition themselves in a way that doesn’t upset the balance of power within communities. Young people should play a central role in identifying, addressing and evaluating the problems that face them. These are three main areas I’m working on. What this leads to is a community-led approach to child protection which contrasts with an NGO or expert-led modality.


How do you think an agency like UNICEF can strengthen and amplify the voices of the young people it serves?

I think the best way is for UNICEF to help create space for children to make their own decisions based on their own lived experiences and to take action with and for the community. . If children take action in isolation, as in a children’s club, the effort frequently gets marginalized. People say “it’s good that children are doing that” but the focus is still on children’s issues, which are seen as less important than community issues. Also, there may be pushback, as when adults say, “these guys [children] are getting too big for their boots.” In Sierra Leone, we heard a lot of people who were angry about child rights because they said the child rights NGOs came here and taught children they have rights but they never talked about their responsibilities – which is really key under the African Charter. This misguided approach pitted the power of children against the power of adults, leaving children in a difficult position.  The community-led process that I favor is fundamentally different in that it creates a community approach to a addressing a self-selected harm to children. In this approach, children naturally rise into positions of influence because the effort is to learn about and address harms to children. The fact that children have relevant lived experience beyond the understanding of adults soon becomes obvious. As children become key actors on behalf of the communities, there is deep, meaningful child agency. It’s like child participation on steroids! I think UNICEF can do a lot with regards to creating space for this kind of approach. Especially a space for children to not only voice their concerns but to make decisions with adults and with other community members on what they can do collectively to improve the lives of children.


Given your experience as an advisor to UNICEF on issues related to child protection and psychosocial support, what are your thoughts on how the organization is addressing these concerns?

On issues such as that of ending violence against children, UNICEF does important, excellent work on community level child protection and psychosocial support for children. UNICEF played an important role in developing and now in implementing the first global guidelines on mental health and psychosocial support in humanitarian settings—the IASC Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings. UNICEF’s work on social norms change has been highly illuminating and is opening the door to communities engaging in internally guided processes of critical reflection and change. Also, its work on education and gender-based violence are helping us to think in integrated ways about child protection and psychosocial support.

In regard to child protection, much of the work being done internationally uses an approach that is top-down and stronger on response than on prevention. Although a great deal remains to be learned, the current evidence suggests that community-led approaches which are bottom-up rather than top-down are more effective in regard to prevention. When communities themselves decide to take on an issue such as teenage pregnancy or early marriage, they take ownership for it, pour their creativity, resources, and understanding of how to effect change into stopping the problem in a contextually appropriate way. Of course, one has to take a critical approach as well, recognizing that communities can and do sometimes cause harm to children, including through harmful traditional practices. But the evidence from Sierra Leone, Kenya and India consistently indicates that with appropriate facilitation, one can enable internal, critical dialogues that undermined local harmful practices and enable positive change on behalf of vulnerable children. We are still in the process of building the evidence base, but I would say that the evidence in favor of community-led child protection is very promising.

UNICEF/Sierra Leone has been one of the best partners in the process of learning about and testing the effectiveness and scalability of community-led approaches. In Sierra Leone, UNICEF workers understood very well how to work with communities as agents of change. The UNICEF workers saw that communities might be able to help the Government and the formal system achieve its goals. When communities chose to address teenage pregnancy, and their own action showed signs of reducing teen pregnancy, UNICEF helped the Government and the NGOs to listen and to learn from a more bottom-up approach. Eventually the Government adopted a child welfare policy that placed family and community action at the center.

Globally, however, UNICEF country offices are often less interested in community-led processes, which may appear to be too localized and slow cooking to be taken to scale. For me, it is an empirical question whether community-led approaches are scalable. If they are, and if they are also sustainable, they may prove to yield more on investment than do the dominant top-down approaches to child protection and psychosocial support. In Sierra Leone, the Ministry of Social Welfare Gender and Children’s Affairs decided to use the community-led approach to implement the prevention aspects of its new children’s policy. As we speak, diverse NGOs are preparing to use this approach in four districts as an implementation pilot that will guide a larger scale up effort. So far as I know, Sierra Leone is the first country that is systematically trying to take community-led approaches to scale.


UNICEF has a long history of calling for prevention but collectively, we have been weak on prevention. It’s time that all of us hold up the mirror and ask: are we doing equal diligence on issues of prevention as on response? It would help if UNICEF borrowed some key approaches to prevention from the field of public health, which I’ll come back to in a moment. Additionally, in the era of the SDGS, the question the child protection sector has to ask is: where is our sustainability? It would help significantly if UNICEF got more interested in having sustainable processes and results in the field of child protection and psychosocial well-being. From the work on community-led approaches, a key lesson is that sustainability is increased by cultivating processes of community ownership. Although many other factors influence sustainability, community ownership is fundamental since it goes hand in hand with self-reliance. The next generation of UNICEF work would benefit from breaking community dependency on external support from NGOs and government stakeholders and enabling self-reliance in a holistic system of supports for children.

I for one am not seeing it and I’m as guilty as the next person.

Is there a dream project you would like to collaborate with UNICEF on?

I’ve worked with UNICEF in a lot of different countries before but let me float several dreams. First, I’d love to have a multi-country process of learning about how to enable children’s leadership and agency. Maybe agency isn’t the right word but “child participation” is challenged as well because it means everything under the sun. ‘Leadership’ and ‘agency’ indicate that children are active drivers. For example, if you want to figure out how to keep children in school, it is key to learn from children. Secondly, I would welcome the opportunity to have more multi-country efforts in scaling up the use of community-led approaches on violence against children and all issues concerning child protection. These approaches are proving to be very powerful means of generating inclusivity. In tribal areas of India, this process has even gotten more women involved in the Gram sabha[1], which has usually been dominated by men  This inclusivity brings divergent voices and perspectives into collective discussions, helping the community to become more sensitive and responsive to the situation of the most vulnerable children and families. Out of this collective sensitivity and caring comes locally owned actions to support the most vulnerable and create a protective environment in a sustainable manner. My third big hope is that UNICEF will enable more work on preventing child protection issue, including work on mental health and psychosocial support. If we applied a public heath, population-based approach as a complement to the other approaches (e.g., case management) that are essential for child protection, we could make an enormous contribution to children’s well-being.


What do you envision your area of research to look like in the future?

One of the things I’m keen on is trying to tailor and adapt community-led processes for more humanitarian contexts. The applicability is there in some contexts. For example, there’s every reason to believe that a community-led process would work for Syrian refugees living in Amman, Jordan. The situation is relatively stable and the people are well educated and have good levels of human connectedness. However, it’s important to recognize also the limits of such approaches. For example, in an emergency where spies were rampant and any form of group meeting were viewed as politically organized, highly participatory approaches could be a problem. It’s not a one-size fits all approach yet could be a valuable complement to the top-down approaches that are also highly important in humanitarian work. I think it’s key in humanitarian, and all settings, to promote dignity. We say that promoting human dignity is one of the three main aims we are trying to accomplish in humanitarian work. Yet there’s not much dignity in approaches that make people feel like passive victims or when they are made dependent. This has not been debated or accepted widely but I think there’s a growing set of voices that are usually under the heading of self-reliance or localization of aid that are coming to this view. I would also like to try to help move the discourse around child participation from its current limitations into a new generation where children are seen as dynamic actors, decision-makers and as vibrant community members acting on behalf of their families and communities. It’s not making individuals agents, rather it’s enhancing relationships, social agency, connectedness and action. It’s about enabling children to achieve their fullest potential.


What do you see as being important for the next generation and their potential to improve the state of the world’s children?

I’m really excited about the work of the next generation and see through my teaching their strong commitment and their passion and creativity for supporting children in need. I would hope that the next generation envisions themselves as facilitators. Although they definitely need technical skills, they also need to appreciate the abilities and strengths of local people, and they need the soft skills of humility, deep listening, empathy, trust, respect, adaptability, and ability to manage conflict in constructive ways. All of those soft skills that are so important for engaging with communities in a respectful, deep way that awakens positive social change.

[1] Gram sabha: The Gram Sabha is a meeting of all adults who live in the area covered by a Panchayat. Anyone who is 18 years old or more and who has the right to vote is a member of the Gram Sabha.


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