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The Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus: What does it mean for multi-mandated organizations?



Conflicts are increasingly protracted; climate-related shocks are more intense and frequent. Both contribute to a cycle of vulnerability. Sustainable development and durable solutions to displacement are not possible without peace. Humanitarian relief, development programmes and peacebuilding are not serial processes: they are all needed at the same time.

To reflect this understanding, the concept of a ‘humanitarian-development nexus’, or a ‘humanitarian-development-peace nexus’ has developed. It focuses on the work needed to coherently address people’s vulnerability before, during and after crises.
It challenges the status quo of the aid system, which is overstretched and operates with little coordination between project-based development and humanitarian interventions, resulting in it not effectively meeting the needs of the most vulnerable people.

The idea is not new. The nexus is a continuation of long-running efforts in the humanitarian and development fields, such as ‘disaster risk reduction’ (DRR); ‘linking relief rehabilitation and development’ (LRRD); the ‘resilience agenda’; and the embedding of conflict sensitivity across responses.

Unlike previous efforts, however, the nexus dialogue goes beyond a programmatic or conceptual approach. It relates to ongoing structural shifts across the aid system that are changing how aid is planned and financed. These will have profound implications for what we do, how we do it and with whom we do it. For example, the UN and the World Bank set up the New Way of Working (NWoW) to deliver the nexus approach. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has made the nexus a priority and members of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) are showing some signs of changing how they fund programmes. It also has strong relevance to the Grand Bargain and the UN Development System Reform (UNDS Reform). All UN agencies and many donors and multi-mandated NGOs are supportive of the approach. The broader changes to the system, and to some extent the way in which donors deliver funding, indicate that the nexus framework is more likely than previous initiatives to impact how aid is coordinated, funded and delivered.

The emphasis on a more coherent approach offers many opportunities. Meeting immediate needs at the same time as ensuring longer-term investment addressing the systemic causes of conflict and vulnerability – such as poverty, inequality and the lack of functioning accountability systems – has a better chance of reducing the impact of cyclical or recurrent shocks and stresses, and supporting the peace that is essential for development to be sustainable. The implementation of a nexus approach could provide a substantial opportunity to enhance gender justice, including through long-term support to women’s rights organizations and ensuring that women’s rights are integral to both immediate responses and longer-term outcomes. Similarly, the potential emphasis on local leadership and the development of national and local systems to accountably provide essential social services offers the opportunity for more sustainable, appropriate and transformative responses. The current dialogue includes a welcome emphasis on early warning, early action and prevention.

However, along with such opportunities, aid agencies need to be aware of potential challenges. Where long-term development goals are prioritized across the whole system, there is a risk that immediate humanitarian needs do not receive adequate responses. While humanitarian action always takes place within a political context and may often be flawed, where the state is party to a conflict and/or unable or unwilling to meet the needs of the most vulnerable people, an increased emphasis on the role of state-led institutions, (which may come about because development programming often works more intentionally with national and local authorities), risks squeezing out the acceptance and delivery of independent and impartial assistance. There is also potentially greater space for donor agendas to politicize humanitarian interventions.

On the other hand, prioritizing humanitarian assistance across the response (as happens in many protracted and cyclical crises) risks failing to strengthen local systems to accountably provide essential social services, and prevent and prepare for future crises. It can also lead to ignoring the systemic causes of conflict and vulnerability, including poverty, inequality and the lack of functioning democratic systems. It can potentially even weaken existing systems by bypassing them.
Similarly, wherever conflict sensitivity is not prioritized, there is a risk of exacerbating social tensions and doing harm. There is currently little consensus on what the integration of peace in programmes is, nor how it should be achieved.
Oxfam believes peace should be framed as a bottom-up, community-based approach that addresses root causes (‘positive peace’), rather than being framed in terms of security (‘negative peace’).

Achieving the right mix of humanitarian, development and peace approaches, and how they are integrated, is critical. A nexus approach should never be a reason not to deliver timely humanitarian assistance where needed, nor a reason to scale back development assistance.

Recognizing and responding to these changing contexts has become the new norm for many multi-mandated organizations, which are transforming themselves alongside the wider aid system. For Oxfam, the nexus approach has similarities to, but goes beyond, its long-standing One Programme Approach, which aims to combine humanitarian and development programmes with campaigning for structural change. It also has much in common with Oxfam’s Framework for Resilient Development, which is designed to enhance people’s absorptive, adaptive and transformative capacities to manage, navigate and sustain change in complex systems. However, truly delivering a humanitarian-development-peace (‘triple’) nexus approach goes beyond these frameworks as they currently stand. It will involve rethinking finance mechanisms, ways of working, the expertise needed and reflection on how we set standards and define success. Notably, more deliberate and consistent integration of conflict sensitivity and enhancing local capacities for peace is needed.

Some specific lessons identified through the experience of Oxfam’s ongoing programmes include:

  • the need for holistic, integrated contextual analyses that still ensure there is space for stand-alone, needs-based humanitarian assessments;

  • long-term strategies that support systemic transformation across long-term cycles, particularly in fragile contexts; and

  • investment in adaptive management.

These should allow programmes to remain agile and responsive to changes in context and enable capacity-sharing and collaboration between humanitarian, development and peace actors that helps implementers to step out of their comfort zones. Furthermore, using holistic analysis to inform cross-disciplinary indicators of success would incentivize work between humanitarian and development staff. Therefore, it is important to note that the ‘how’ is as important as the ‘what’ – when it comes to successfully implementing nexus approaches.

In order to develop a nexus approach, colleagues must be brought together, and new behaviours learned. This will require consensus-building, brokering and building new partnerships; navigating and communicating complex ideas; using systems thinking; facilitating open dialogues; and co-creating ideas. Investment is needed to develop joint tools, analysis and language, and to ensure that the views of people affected by crises are integrated at every step, and local leadership comes to the fore. All of this will require flexible funding instruments and changes in programme management structures. The approach also requires humility, mutual respect and compromise. A consistent, high-level, cross-departmental conversation and space for co-creation is needed to ensure that the value of each sector is recognized and learning can happen. While leadership is critical, the nexus cannot ‘belong’ to any one discipline – an ongoing conversation on the basis of complementarity and equality is essential.

This cannot be a top-down instrumental shift that does not reflect and respond to the contexts in which it is being applied. Therefore, as new systems are developed and embedded and learning is explored, it is critical that policy and practice are informed by country-level dialogues. Multi-mandated organizations will need to honestly assess the likely tensions between a focus on joined-up transformational approaches and their appetite for responding quickly at scale and taking risks. This will include determining the right balance between good relationships with governments and the obligation to address vulnerable people’s rights in the face of inequality, discrimination and human rights abuses.

The nexus has the potential to make aid more effective and efficient. It also provides a good opportunity to work with all stakeholders towards a common goal. Efforts to put people’s experience at the centre, build local capacities and ensure a holistic response to current needs and root causes are welcome. However, careful attention to learning lessons, adapting and ensuring that vulnerable people’s rights are front and centre will be needed if the nexus is to truly deliver.