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Strengthening the Humanitarian-Development-Peacebuilding Nexus

November 9, 2017

I spent a day this week as the guest of the INCAF (the International Network on Conflict and Fragility), a network of donors and multi-lateral organisations hosted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) to improve donor practice in conflict affected and fragile contexts: the kinds of places where development progress has been hardest to achieve, largely due to inadequate governance, and therefore a susceptibility to violence as a way to respond to differences and conflicts.

I was taking part in a discussion about how to improve the linkages between the often separate efforts of donors and multi-lateral organisations in three domains: providing humanitarian services, promoting development, and building stability and peace. This is sometimes known as improving coherence across the ‘Humanitarian-Development-Peacebuilding Nexus’, or HDP Nexus.

Historically these three domains have often been conceptualised, implemented and funded quite separately, even by different cadres within the same organisations. Funding models, staff profiles, and even the culture of each have been distinct. In the past twenty years however, there have been a number of attempts to bring them closer together: after all, the same people are often the beneficiaries of all three sectors, and it’s long been thought sensible to integrate aspects of each sector, in the others. At its simplest, this is expressed in terms of people moving along a spectrum from lifesaving humanitarian service recipient to becoming an agent of change in their own lives. But there are more sophisticated models which claim that peacebuilding and development can be successfully ingrained in the way humanitarian services are provided, that a humanitarian element is not out of place in longer term peace and development efforts, and that peacebuilding is really just part of “good development” in fragile and conflict-susceptible places, anyway. There is no simple, linear progress from humanitarian-to-development in real life, and humanitarian crises can occur anywhere, often unexpectedly, so it makes sense that the different sectors are linked to one another. In any case dividing work into the three separate domains is confusing to beneficiaries, governments, and other collaborators.

We shared many interesting ideas about how to work more effectively across the three elements of the nexus. There are plenty of opportunities for this: e.g. more joint strategising, more sharing of ideas and knowledge, joint projects, etc. It really is high time more collaboration happened in such ways. Of the roughly $142bn of aid spent by OECD donors each year, about half is spent in conflict-affected or fragile countries, where responding to people’s humanitarian needs should not preclude helping them make progress in development and towards sustainable peace.

Obstacles to joined-up working

However, I came away from the meeting quite sceptical about the potential for substantial progress to be made in ensuring consistent, practical collaboration across the nexus, for a number of reasons. First of all, the three elements of the nexus are among the most contentiously political issues that exist: how to allocate resources to provide succour to those in distress; what is the definition of ‘progress’ and how to achieve it; and what do we mean by ‘peace’ and how to achieve it….?

These questions are not merely devilishly difficult to answer definitively, but they are also some of the questions over which people quite rightly disagree and argue. That’s why we have political systems, after all: to examine complex issues on which people hold divergent views. So it is not surprising that collaboration among different actors both within and among the three sectors has been hard to achieve. After all, the – often relatively junior and overworked – staff of donor agencies dealing with such issues in the field aren’t necessarily qualified, nor do they have the systems in place, to debate and come to effective consensus with their counterparts in other agencies.

And they can’t necessarily rely on the political systems in fragile countries where they operate, to provide guidance, as the very places where humanitarian, development and peacebuilding are most salient, tend to be places where political and governance systems are acknowledged to be inadequate.

In addition, each donor agency Is held to account its own parliament, on behalf of its own taxpayers and voters, so is entitled – indeed, is likely – to have different views on these thorny questions as well as on how each of the three elements of the nexus should accommodate the other two. The same is also true for multi-laterals like UN agencies and the World Bank, who are held accountable in relatively blunt ways by their members states.

To make things more complex still, each agency has its own political and strategy cycle, so it is logistically hard for them to plan together. Some donors always seem to be revising their strategy…

None of this undermines the need for those operating in different parts of the Nexus to work in a more joined up way. However, to my mind it is important not to assume that this can be achieved through seamlessly joined-up planning and completely coordinated practical approaches. There will surely always be limits to this. And perhaps there should be, since if all donors agree, it might turn out they do so on the least good way to achieve humanitarian, development or peace outcomes: a kind of lowest common denominator. Or they may just follow the loudest and largest among them, who may well turn out later to have been wrong. That would be arguably worse than the problems which currently result from an uncoordinated approach …

Strengthening the binds that tie

Perhaps, therefore, the best thing to recommend is that they simply agree on a broad, high level narrative, and aim not so much for coordination as coherence. The word nexus is from the Latin nectere – to bind – and agencies can be bound together by a common narrative, without necessarily losing the freedom each needs and enjoys, to fit within its own national or multi-lateral architecture.

What might this look like? I’d suggest it can be quite simple, at first, consisting of three core elements, viz:

  1. That each agency understands that its work is one defined primarily by the idea of human progress: helping people, communities, societies, human society improve their situation
  2. That ‘progress’ includes saving lives, stabilising political situations, and promoting sustainable improvements in people’s ability to achieve their potential
  3. That the common approach to providing succour, stability, and longer-term progress, is always defined – at least partly – in terms of promoting a sustainable increase in dignity, fairness and aspiration, through actual improvements in at least one of the five core material domains of human flourishing:
    1. Welfare (shelter, health, education, a decent living environment, etc.)
    2. Livelihood
    3. Justice
    4. Security
    5. Responsive and effective governance.

This may be too broad, and may be seen as not enough to ‘bind’ agencies together. But the framework has the merit that it’s narrower than the too-unwieldy SDGs, maps to the slightly more technical Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals to which INCAF has already subscribed, and might have more success than requiring so many agencies to follow sets of common guidelines and rules.

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