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Searching for the nexus: Priorities, principles, and politics

The hot-button questions around aid’s newest meta-policy.

Man attacked by bees.
Searching for the nexus

People receiving emergency aid want opportunities, not endless hand-outs. Aid donors don’t want to keep paying for the same repetitive short-term projects. And failing to address the root causes of local tensions only invites more conflict.

Those statements – at the heart of the triple nexus approach to delivering aid – are rarely disputed. It's everything else about uniting humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding efforts that's up for (often heated) discussion.

Who's in charge when these efforts are combined? Should emergency aid look beyond the crisis to build resiliency? What role should governments play? And why do relief workers need to care about the Sustainable Development Goals?

The triple nexus approach, according to its supporters, is all about collaboration and synergy, making the most of the comparative advantages of governments, NGOs, and other aid agencies, and working towards jointly agreed goals.

Steps to the nexus: A timeline

The nexus is more evolution than revolution – other initiatives have come and gone over the last 30 years. Earliest, perhaps, was the Linking Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development (LRRD) concept, which gave way to a new emphasis on resilience-building. Here are a few key events in that evolution.

1990s: Joining up

The Linking Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development (LRRD) concept emerges amid a recognition that a better transition from humanitarian response to longer-term development support is needed, but it is criticised for being too linear and falls out of favour due to the politicisation of development aid in the post 9/11 era. In parallel, the UN starts to use the term “relief to development continuum”.

2000s: Building resilience

Calls grow for humanitarian and development actors to work together more closely to help build longer-term resilience and capacity, especially in protracted crises or chronic vulnerability. Conflict prevention, disaster risk reduction, and disaster preparedness come to the fore. “Fragility” takes its place in the lexicon. More than 40 countries sign on to the 2011 New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, committing to “supporting nationally-owned and led development plans and greater aid effectiveness in fragile situations”.

2012-2014: New needs

Global displacement rates soar with wars in Syria, South Sudan, and elsewhere, climate-related tensions, and Islamist insurgencies. With the majority of refugees and IDPs living outside of camps, and many migrants seeking shelter in Europe, governments and agencies must rethink how they respond. The foundation stones for the Comprehensive Refugee Response Frameworks (CRRFs) are laid. The term “compact” is coined for new deals for countries hosting refugees, such as Lebanon and Jordan, to boost their economies and give direct support to the communities where refugees are living.

2015: Leave no one behind

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out ambitious milestones to end poverty, hunger, HIV/AIDS, and discrimination against women and girls by 2030. States agree to “leave no one behind” and to “reach the furthest behind first” – this means development planners can’t just work on the easier, middling problems but must tackle the most vulnerable and poorest in society – those that might typically be regarded as a “humanitarian” caseload. The SDGs leverage new thinking in humanitarian circles about how to break the cycle of protracted emergencies and make aid more efficient.

2016: Agenda for Humanity

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issues a report ahead of the World Humanitarian Summit, One Humanity: Shared Responsibility. It sets out a so-called Agenda for Humanity: prevent and end conflicts; respect rules of war; leave no one behind; and “transcend the humanitarian-development divide”. Its call to “work differently to end need” shifts the emphasis from better – or more – humanitarian action, to reducing the requirement for it in the first place.

2016: The Grand Bargain

Participants in the World Humanitarian Summit sign up to the Grand Bargain, which lists 10 reform goals – including closer engagement between humanitarian and development actors – aimed at making the aid system more efficient and plugging resource gaps.

2017: A New Way of Working

The UN begins to roll out its so-called New Way of Working, an approach based on the ideas of the Agenda for Humanity. These include “collective outcomes”; comparative advantages; and multi-year timeframes. Its backers say the approach aims to “strengthen the humanitarian-development nexus” and to “reduce risk and vulnerability and serve as instalments towards achieving the SDGs”.

2017: Prevention

António Guterres takes over as UN secretary-general and places “prevention” at the heart of his vision for the UN. “We must also bring the humanitarian and development spheres closer together from the very beginning of a crisis… to address structural and economic impacts and help prevent a new spiral of fragility and instability,” he says in his inaugural speech, adding the third dimension of peacebuilding. He describes humanitarian response, sustainable development, and sustaining peace as “three sides of the same triangle”.

2017: New funding

The EU – whose member states provide a large bulk of funding for international emergency and longer-term aid responses – announces its intention to “operationalise the humanitarian-development nexus” and creates new funding mechanisms such as its DIZA programme in Chad.

2018: Give peace a chance

The World Bank’s Pathways For Peace report makes the case for preventing conflict in order to reduce crisis spending, and the bank announces the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Initiative – a pilot collaboration with the UN for integrated responses for those countries at risk of (and already in) protracted crisis and post-crisis situations.

2019: Triple nexus endorsed by major donors

OECD members – rich country donors – agree to “incentivise and implement more collaborative and complementary humanitarian, development and peace actions, particularly in fragile and conflict-affected situations”.


By definition, though, humanitarian aid is a sticking plaster, keeping body and soul together for people in emergency situations; it doesn’t have to claim a long-term benefit, some critics of the nexus argue.

Messy politics and lumbering bureaucracies must be kept at a distance so aid can be delivered quickly to anyone who needs it, and a nexus mindset could compromise that, critics told The New Humanitarian.

They voiced concerns, for example, that emergency aid might be steered to politically expedient purposes, or to influence a conflict, or to reward favoured communities.

Some charged that the nexus approach introduces a “return on investment” rhetoric that pits value for money against the value of human lives, and that an alignment with development and peace actors also creates the potential for new operational risks.

Proponents of the nexus, however, were quick to stress the importance of context-specific programming, and to insist that the approach is not seeking to undermine principled humanitarian action or allow politicisation.

“As humanitarians, our number one priority is to protect the most vulnerable people,” Carlos Martin Ruiz de Gordejuela, spokesman for the EU’s emergency aid department, ECHO, told TNH. The nexus, he said, is about “build(ing) synergies and complementarities between the various players involved”.

Humanitarian principles – humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence – are “not negotiable”, he stressed. “At the same time, we have an obligation to explore avenues of collaboration in order to be as effective as possible in protecting and saving lives.”

“... we have an obligation to explore avenues of collaboration in order to be as effective as possible in protecting and saving lives.”

Here's a look at some of the most pressing questions at the centre of aid's new meta-policy, drawn from interviews over a series of months with dozens of policymakers, aid workers, donors, academics, and others.

Read on, and then share your thoughts – and the questions we didn't ask but you’d like to.

Send us an email, find @LouiseRedvers on Twitter or contact us via Facebook.

Why combine humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding efforts?

Prioritising only humanitarian assistance risks “failing to strengthen local systems to accountably provide essential social services, and prevent and prepare for future crises”, international NGO Oxfam explains in a June discussion paper on the nexus, adding that such an approach “can also lead to ignoring the systemic causes of conflict and vulnerability, including poverty, inequality and the lack of functioning democratic systems”.

In the paper, Oxfam makes a strong case for greater coherence among different types of aid groups.

“Too often humanitarian actors are trapped in short-term repetitive action, and there are not enough timely and appropriate development interventions, for example in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Sahel, and Syria,” the authors state.

In Afghanistan, Oxfam points out, issues of conflict, gender inequality, climate change, and displacement are closely linked. Humanitarian aid alone thus does little when long-term development needs (jobs, infrastructure, education, and others) are not addressed, and security is vital for any long-term gains.

“We will still save people in immediate danger, and we will always work to feed the hungry and vulnerable wherever they are,” David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme, told TNH. “But research and, frankly, common sense, suggests that economic development reduces the risks that conflicts re-emerge, and that is why the nexus makes sense to us.”

Nexus in action: Hunger and conflict in Burkina FasoRead more

But don’t humanitarian needs always come first?

Or, more bluntly, shouldn’t keeping people alive always be the priority?

Oxfam notes this concern in its nexus report: “Where long-term development goals are prioritised across the whole system, there is a risk that immediate humanitarian needs do not receive adequate responses.”

And TNH spoke to several aid workers who described their unease when contemplating whether a new focus on development could come at the expense of meeting humanitarian needs.

One, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to institutional sensitivities, called out a response to a drought and nutrition crisis in Africa that was channelled through national systems already supported by a development programme.

The aid worker characterised the response as substandard due to poor management by the government (as opposed to allowing a separate humanitarian team to be in charge), and was troubled that the response was hailed by agencies as a role model for nexus-style programming.

An evaluation of a flagship programme in the northwest of Kenya aimed at building resilience among refugees and host communities has also raised concerns about emergency needs being neglected due to an emphasis on longer-term development outcomes.

The Kalobeyei Integrated Socio-Economic Development Plan (KISEDP), launched in 2018, was hailed by donors and the UN as a transformative first-of-its-kind initiative with nexus-style goals.

Funded in part by the EU’s Regional Development and Protection Programme (RDPP) in the Horn of Africa, it set out to promote the self-reliance of 186,000 refugees and 320,000 members of the host community “by enhancing livelihood opportunities” for both refugees and host communities as well as promoting inclusive service delivery”.

But according to the executive summary of a mid-term review (the full report has not been made public) published in December last year: “Kalobeyei’s humanitarian-development nexus has not materialised”.

The evaluation, produced by independent research consultancy Samuel Hall, ranked aspects of the health, economic well-being, and stakeholder buy-in categories as “poor” and found a number to be “deficient”.

“Agencies have presented long-term food and nutrition security and economic opportunities as a growing success, but basic humanitarian needs have been left unmet,” the authors noted, adding, “KISEDP reveals a key lesson: new interventions aim for development, but when they happen in contexts that still need humanitarian aid, problems persist.”

Fighting boxers.

Should emergency aid also address longer-term needs?

The answer lies in the desire to get away from repeating short-term emergency aid projects over and over again.

“It is critical to go beyond saving lives and respond to people’s aspirations,” according to a recent blog post for UK research NGO Development Initiatives written by two senior officials at the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).

“It makes sense for development and peace building actors to mobilise alongside humanitarian ones in conflict and protracted crises,” wrote Matthew Wyatt, head of the Conflict Humanitarian and Security Department, known as CHASE, and Protracted Crises Adviser Barbara Lecq.

Nexus in action: what the donors are doingRead more

The nexus seeks to deliver longer-term stability through greater focus on livelihoods and economic agency, its supporters say. Under the approach, basic food aid, for example, is complemented with the provision of agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertiliser, training, and new irrigation systems to build resilience and improve social cohesion.

This is the approach the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) took toward a project to scale up resilience-based development work in countries affected by protracted crises.

As the organisation explained in a September statement: “By helping communities identify and mitigate risks, improve their management of natural resources, establish more resilient livelihoods and increase local agricultural production, the project intends not only to improve food and nutrition security but also to contribute to reducing conflict and sustaining peace.”

What do the SDGs have to do with it?

“We can't in the long term reduce humanitarian need unless we make faster progress on the Sustainable Development Goals,” UN relief chief Mark Lowcock told delegates at a UN humanitarian affairs meeting in June in Geneva. “These things are all inextricably interlinked with each other.”

But not everyone supports this alignment.

“Development goals are not the problem, but putting the distinct activity of humanitarian action to the service of development is,” Jonathan Whittall, director of the analysis department at Médecins Sans Frontières, told TNH.

“Humanitarianism as a distinct activity” needs to be defended.

Whittall acknowledged that humanitarian aid has not been immune to political reality – and that donors have long applied political filters to their aid allocations and sought to subordinate humanitarian aid to development and peacebuilding agendas. But, he said, the nexus takes things a step further and “humanitarianism as a distinct activity” needs to be defended.

“The 'nexus' promotes the idea that saving lives is not enough, that humanitarianism can only be judged as successful if it promotes development, peace and stability,” Whittall said. “The problem with this is that in order to effectively serve peace and stability agendas there is often a need to choose a side… This can undermine the ability of humanitarians to reach all places in need of assistance by implicating humanitarian actors with one side or another of a conflict.”

Read more: Inside the push to reshape aid

Whittall also explained why he believes the nexus may create new operational risks for emergency responders: “Those humanitarian actors that step outside of the frame of what is considered acceptable – by treating the ever-expanding groups of people that the state deem to be ‘terrorists’ or by providing care to migrants considered as a security threat – risk being criminalised at best or, in some cases, [coming] under direct attack.”

What about the politicisation of aid?

Oxfam raised this question in its report, noting that some donors are “fusing political and humanitarian objectives” by pooling humanitarian and development aid “to achieve security and migration objectives”.

“Aid can only help achieve peaceful and safe societies when it is impartial, needs-based, poverty-focused, owned by and responsive to the people we work with and for, and independent of donors’ military and security objectives,” the organisation warned.

For instance, Raphael Shilhav, EU migration policy advisor for Oxfam International, said trying to stop irregular migration was high on government agendas, particularly within the EU, and that this narrative trickles down into the way aid money is being allocated.

Nexus in action: the politics of migrationRead more

“It was supposed to be the humanitarian development peace nexus, but sometimes that is interchanged with the humanitarian development security nexus,” he said. Often, he explained, it is not always clear what is being discussed: conflict sensitivity, the role of development in peacebuilding, or linking aid delivery in some way with security forces.

“I do think that more coherence in aid work is positive. It is necessary and healthy for everyone to understand the context that they're working in and who else is working around them,” Shilhav said. “The problem with the triple nexus, though, is that donors at some point stop being just a donor and become political actors with political interests, and that filters through into allocations and priorities.”

And, he added: “There hasn’t been the policy discussion and backroom thinking around the triple nexus in the same way that there was about the humanitarian development nexus, and that opens up the door for everyone to push for whatever they think is right.”

Greek figures.

What role should governments play?

Development groups work with governments, and in recent years there has been a real push for countries to work towards meeting specific development targets, having greater say in how and where incoming aid money is spent.

Conversely, while humanitarians do interact with governments, they do not take orders, and strive – where possible – to be independent, impartial, and neutral. These age-old distinctions are challenged – or blurred – by the nexus, and that is a red flag for some humanitarians.

“There is the concern that a lot of the nexus approaches are quite protection blind,” said Brooke Lauten, humanitarian policy and protection adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council.

“Questions around safeguarding principles and safeguarding protection space” (in terms of rights and support for the most vulnerable) have been “left out of the nexus conversation”, Lauten told TNH, adding that more attention is needed “so that we don't go so far down this state-centric approach, to the detriment of principled programming”.

Lauten gave the example of allowing refugees access to work permits. She agreed it was, in principle, a positive step, but added: “It ignores the fact that work permits aren't the equivalent of jobs; it ignores informal labour markets; and it has potentially opened up, women in particular, to forms of exploitation and abuse.”

Whittall, of MSF, said the nexus also “ignores the reality that humanitarian needs are not exclusively due to under-development”, while its placement of local authorities at the centre of programming is potentially “releasing governments from their responsibility in causing any humanitarian needs to start with”.

How tricky is mixing aid with security?

Very, according to the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, a US research unit, which is scathing in its assessment of nexus programming in Mali and says concerns about the nexus “politicising humanitarian action” have “proven valid”.

In its report, Realities and Myths of the Triple Nexus, published in June, it calls for “urgent introspection” about the policy in such a complex context as Mali.

The researchers found that humanitarian relief “has been subsumed and instrumentalised by security priorities and international military agendas”.

As TNH has reported, the so-called Quick Impact Projects delivered by MINUSMA, the UN’s peacekeeping force in Mali, have increased associations between military forces – parties to the Mali conflict – and humanitarian groups. This may have left field staff vulnerable to attacks in situations where the lines between aid work and military hearts-and-minds initiatives have become blurred.

The report’s authors were concerned about how MINUSMA and the French anti-extremist force Barkhane – both considered parties to the conflict – had, due to nexus alignments between aid and peacekeeping actors, assumed responsibility for humanitarian needs assessments and were also providing security for aid workers.

The study, based on 130 field interviews, proposes that given the complex conflict sensitivities within Mali, it would be better for each leg of the “triple nexus” to work on its own, rather than for organisations to look to align their operations and goals, which risks more politicisation.

It states that the “very notion undergirding the nexus… combining different good things in difficult situations is a myth”, and calls for caution on the “assumption that breaking down bureaucratic silos can render distinct but compatible altruistic activities more effective”.

“Without improving upon each of the nexus’ three prongs individually, inter-linking these prongs will actually have little utility for the local actors on the ground that the triple nexus ultimately aims to serve,” it concludes.

Two clasped hands.

So how will ‘working together’ work?

Like so much to do with the nexus, the answer is complicated.

“What we see a lot of is a one or the other approach, when it should be both,” Leah Zamore, who directs the Humanitarian Crises programme at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, explained when asked about the nuts and bolts of collaboration on the ground.

“This is because development, whether it goes through a government or in parallel, takes so much longer, not just to start, but for the programmes to have an actual impact,” she said. “So you can’t just swap one for the other, which seems to be what some actors are trying to do with this nexus approach.”

Nexus in action: Sowing the seeds in UgandaRead more

Sarah Dalrymple, a senior policy and engagement advisor at Development Initiatives who has been studying how donors fund nexus approaches, told TNH that to “programme effectively on the nexus” a mix of sequential or simultaneous programming is needed.

This means, she said, “more progress made on the linear approach (such as risk financing and scale-up)”, but doing it alongside “simultaneous programming, which is about laying foundations for longer-term development and social protection through things like cash transfers”.

Finding a way to make the transition between humanitarian and development aid without failing those most in need is, Zamore said, the “big challenge” for the nexus.

One option, according to Zamore, is to up the amount of development aid before reducing emergency relief: "Over the long term, it will cost less in human and financial resources to ramp up development – because you're not, for example, trucking water for the next 20 years, which is the most expensive way to get people water. But it is imperative to avoid withdrawing humanitarian assistance in the meantime. So it would still require a level of front-loading that I have just not seen an appetite for.”

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