Preventing the nexus becoming the next fad requires transformational change in the aid system

May 14, 2021
Damian Lilly
Anti-government protesters in Myanmar

It’s five years since the New Way of Working helped launch the nexus approach at the May 2016 World Humanitarian Summit. New approaches that promise to radically improve the way aid is delivered (‘integration’, ‘resilience’, etc.) usually have a shelf-life of a few years after which interest wanes as the next fad comes along. Preventing the nexus suffering the same fate requires radical change in the way aid is delivered in crisis countries.

In many ways the nexus is just the latest incarnation of efforts, starting in the 1990s, to achieve a more joined-up approach to humanitarian and development assistance, while recognising their impact on peace. By introducing the notion of ‘collective outcomes’, the nexus has advanced policy thinking in this area, and there has been widespread uptake of the concept judging by the amount of research, workshops, guidelines, training and pilot projects dedicated to it.

However, there is still a gaping gap in understanding about how the nexus should be applied in practice. The guidance that has been developed has taken too organic and laissez-faire an approach, and left too many questions unanswered. This will lead to confusion and eventually frustration, and interest in the nexus will fade as a result.

A piecemeal approach has been adopted which encourages greater collaboration between humanitarian, development and peace actors, but fails to acknowledge (let alone address) the fundamental institutional reforms required to bring about such change. The problem is not the lack of links between the different silos in the aid architecture, but the silos themselves.

Sustaining interest in the nexus over the next few years will require the following to be addressed:

First is a fuller recognition that crises have changed. It is no longer possible to compartmentalise the impacts of armed conflict, displacement, climate change, etc. The Covid-19 pandemic is a textbook case of the systemic risk fragile states face today, yet the UN still dealt with it separately as a public health, humanitarian and development problem with limited application of the nexus. Nexus thinking is not just relevant to protracted situations but should be applied to the indivisibility of problems throughout the different phases of crises. In Myanmar, where I was based since the beginning of the year, the political crisis resulting from the military coup in February has added to the ongoing challenges of Covid-19 and armed conflict. Each problem is so closely entwined that it makes little sense to tackle them separately.

Second is the need for streamlined leadership. The reform of the Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator system has created a clear focal point for advancing the nexus. But the repositioning of the UN development system is establishing parallel – not integrated – humanitarian and development coordination structures, particularly at the field level. In 2017, the UN Secretary-General launched a major restructuring of the UN’s peace and security pillar that established the Department of Political and Peacebuiding Affairs (DPPA) and created joint geographical divisions with the Department of Peace Operations (DPO) to ensure a seamless approach to conflict prevention, peacekeeping and peacebuilding. In a similar vein, some sort of co-hosting or amalgamation of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Development Coordination Office (DCO) should now be considered to provide a joined-up approach to humanitarian and development leadership and coordination.

Third, there needs to be one integrated plan for humanitarian, development and peace assistance. A nexus approach is hamstrung by there being separate, often competing, strategies. It is UN policy to have a single integrated strategic framework, but these are rarely linked to the allocation of resources and therefore have limited influence on how programmes are actually implemented. A serious discussion should be had about the merit of bringing together Humanitarian Response Plans (HRPs) and Sustainable Development Cooperation Frameworks into a single plan against which donors can allocate funds. There are precedents for such joint planning, for example with the UNHCR- and UNDP-led 3RP for Syria for the humanitarian and development response for Syrian refugees. At the agency level, Save the Children from this year will have a combined emergency and development planning process. Other agencies should follow suit.

Fourth is the need for more flexible funding mechanisms from donors. Financing of the nexus has not facilitated but rather is hindering nexus programming as donors maintain separate funding channels for humanitarian, development and peace activities. Despite the Grand Bargain commitment to increase multi-year funding there has been limited progress. The knee-jerk reaction is to develop separate pooled funds to finance activities that don’t fit the normal models of assistance, which confuses the matter rather than simplifying. While the fiduciary and other risks are different for short-term emergency assistance as compared to long-term development aid, donors need to come up with more flexible funding mechanisms for activities that straddle the nexus.

Fifth, there needs to be a dedicated multi-stakeholder coordination mechanism to take forward the nexus approach. The UN established a Joint Steering Committee to bring together its relevant agencies, but since Covid-19 it has not been particularly active and it does not include donors or NGOs. The OECD has a working group to implement the recommendation it adopted on the nexus. The IASC also has a results group on the topic producing guidance, but there is no formal coordination mechanism involving all the relevant actors, and with the mandate to drive forward the process. At the field level, it is being left to ad hoc working groups, which side-lines the issue.

Few would disagree that there is a need for a more joined-up approach to humanitarian, development and peace action to address the challenges faced in crisis countries. The greatest impediment to applying the nexus approach is not conceptual, but institutional. It requires a fundamental rethink about how aid is delivered, and how agencies work together. To prevent interest in the concept fading, relevant actors should come together to plan the next phase of its implementation.

Damian Lilly is an independent consultant.


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