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Searching for the nexus: Why we’re looking in the wrong place

‘We need to take a harder, deeper look at the power dynamics within our sector.’

Searching for the nexus

The so-called “triple nexus” has burst onto the humanitarian aid scene via a whirr of webinars, guidelines, and planning log frames.

There is a clear commitment to improving crisis response by better connecting key elements of humanitarian action, development, and peace. But will it work?

This is not the first time our sector has seen such grandiose reform initiatives. Past examples of supposedly game-changing moves include: the Accountability to Affected Populations movement (circa 2012); the so-called Transformative Agenda (2011); and the LRRD (1980s) and resilience approaches (2010s).

But, as Sarah Collinson, a research associate at the Overseas Development Institute’s Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG), astutely concluded in this 2016 paper, these flagship reform efforts rarely deliver on their lofty ambitions because “the basic configuration and incentive structures of the sector remain unchanged”. 

Attempting to address the symptoms of our dysfunction without trying to alter the sector’s underlying architecture, drivers, or ideological foundations is, at best, distractingly inefficient, at worst, pointless. 

For meaningful reform to take place – beyond agreeing to the nexus in principle while having no real intention to change the structures and ideologies of separation – we need to take a harder, deeper look at the power dynamics within our sector and what incentivises our behaviour.

The triple nexus simply reinforces the very dysfunction it aims to correct.

Let’s be clear about the problem to be addressed. The problem with the triple nexus is not the lack of linkage between the three silos.

The problem is the silos themselves, or, more precisely, the conglomerated silos of sub-specialisation within each sectoral silo: the way that humanitarian health, nutrition, protection, and water and sanitation often work within their own disconnected sub-sectors.

For me, the triple nexus simply reinforces the very dysfunction it aims to correct, namely the misapplication of three cloistered international crisis response systems to multi-dimensional yet unified, organic whole-of-society crises.  

Critically, the proposed solution of better-linked silos only preserves the same top-down frame of reference that perpetuates the sector’s paternalistic engagement with everything local (crisis, communities, government, and people). In simple terms, the nexus discussion starts at the wrong end.

We must remember that the so-called localisation agenda and other related reform efforts, such as the Grand Bargain and participation revolution, were born out of the increasingly visible failure of the aid system to meet the expressed needs of people – in particular the failure to address immediate needs without displacing in perpetuity long-term aspirations for livelihoods, development, and peace.

So, if we flip the discussion and start at the bottom, then instead of calls to bridge sectors, perhaps we might ask how to arrive instead at a silo-free whole-of-society response. And to move in that direction, we must first tackle the obstacles, such as the way we think about the humanitarian principles.

Principled compromise

There is an oft-cited concern that the “nexus runs the risk of politicising humanitarian action” – but this calls for scrutiny.

Clearly, humanitarian actors have legitimate concerns with regard to access and operational space, given the way in which a nexus with development and/or peace and security colleagues might undermine their actual or perceived neutrality or independence.  

But the humanitarian community gets it wrong in three regards.

To begin with, there seems to be a blindness to the obvious fact that the sector is already profoundly politicised; aid is given in furtherance of the national interest of donor nations because it is a form of soft power and is instrumentalised to serve as the primary modality of engagement with certain conflicts and crises. We are kidding ourselves if we don’t acknowledge this.

Second, some within the sector wrongly weaponise the humanitarian principles as some sort of “get-out-of-the-nexus-free card”, shutting down discussions before they even begin, with sweeping generalisations that the principles are “not negotiable”. The humanitarian principles work as ideals. They are signposts to guide humanitarian decision-making, rather than unbreakable obligations. They are built for compromise – and indeed are regularly compromised. The nexus calls for compromise, not purity.  

We need to have greater humility and recognition of the ethical/principled trade-offs and human cost at the centre of our humanitarian actions.

Third, arguments based on principled neutrality and independence fail to consider how fulfilling the wishes and needs of the affected people (such as development and peace) is central to the principle of humanity. Human dignity cannot – and should not – be divorced from (inter alia) issues of self-reliance, agency, and hope for the future. 

The preoccupation of our sector with the nexus already suggests – as does the history of previous attempts at orchestrated sectoral transformation – that the nexus initiative will produce new processes, platforms, and structures. 

Some of them may prove quite helpful, but they are not likely to disrupt our fundamentally inequitable arrangements of power unless we counter thinking of the triple nexus as a discussion about institutions.

What we truly need is not a new list of targets and buzzwords, but instead a new humanitarian mindset that: conceives of short-term action within a long-term vision of needs; pays attention to the long-term consequences of humanitarian approaches on development or peace; and exchanges analysis and views organically across multi-sector teams (rather than mechanically across bridges). 

All this should be done through a lens where local context and people form the central organisational principle, rather than have that imposed by professional expertise or an institutional brand. 

As argued by a 2016 paper for the HPG/ODI, it is time to let go

At a fundamental level, the nexus calls for humanitarians to look differently at their work. We need to have greater humility and recognition of the ethical/principled trade-offs and human cost at the centre of our humanitarian actions.  

Although humanitarian assistance helps people in crisis, it can also simultaneously undermine their sense of dignity by “reinforcing people’s feelings that they are not self-reliant”. It may also damage the very community structures, social contracts, and civic spaces that are integral to building a lasting peace. 

If there is to be any meaningful change, the nexus needs to evolve not as a policy exercise of governments, donors, and the UN, but rather as a consequence of humanitarian action’s purpose, as defined in the principle of humanity and by the agency of people in crisis.

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