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Connecting the dots on the triple nexus

UN Photo/Nektarios Markogiannis
UN Photo/Nektarios Markogiannis

The concept ‘triple nexus’ is used to capture the interlinkages between the humanitarian, development and peace sectors. Specifically, it refers to attempts in these fields to work together more coherently in order to more effectively meet peoples’ needs, mitigate vulnerabilities and move towards sustainable peace. While the idea of better coordinated efforts is far from new, the triple nexus is attracting much interest as a result of several converging trends. It is important to understand the context behind the triple nexus, before considering some of its critiques and some of the emerging operational challenges of its implementation.

A decade of progressively worsening conflicts and humanitarian crises

The number of settings where conflict-driven, protracted emergencies and deep-rooted development challenges coexist has dramatically increased in the past 10 years. In 2017, the number of recorded armed conflicts reached its highest number in almost 30 years. Conflicts are also lasting longer: whereas the average conflict that ended in 1970 lasted about 9.6 years, conflicts that ended in 2014 lasted on average 26.7 years. Added to this, the possibility of returning to conflict is high, with approximately one-third of peace agreements now failing within five years.

This is further contextualized by related migration and poverty trends. At the end of 2018, global forced displacement hit record levels, reaching 70.8 million internally displaced persons, refugees and asylum seekers—double the number from 20 years ago. Approximately 84 per cent of refugees now live in low and middle-income countries that border their country of origin. By 2017, the average period of displacement for protracted refugee situations was 26 years. Furthermore, crisis disproportionately affects people in poverty. The OECD projects that 80 per cent of people living in extreme poverty will live in fragile settings by 2030.

It is clear that conflicts and their related humanitarian crises are becoming increasingly complex and protracted. These situations are also increasingly being worsened by climate change.

Despite growing conflict and humanitarian needs, resources to respond to these challenges are under pressure. Humanitarian funding peaked in 2017 but has since slowed. Development aid also levelled off in 2018, particularly for the least developed countries. Conflict prevention is also severely underfunded, receiving only 2 per cent of gross overseas development assistance in 2016. Peacekeeping faces similar financial constraints, leading to the draw down and preparations for the closure of some of the largest multidimensional peacekeeping missions, despite the still tenuous nature of peace in certain host states.

International policy frameworks

Various international actors have recognized these signs of systemic crisis and, since 2015, have made a series of commitments through international policy frameworks to better address them. These include the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and framework on sustaining peace. The UN’s framework seeks to build a common vision of society while addressing the root causes of conflict. Importantly, it promotes better interlinkages between the three foundational pillars of the UN—peace and security, development and human rights—as a means to address structural forms of violence.

The UN’s Agenda for Humanity initiative seeks to initiate reform in the humanitarian system and to improve responses in humanitarian settings where protracted emergencies and deep-rooted development challenges coexist. Created in 2016, it follows a plan to increase cooperation between the humanitarian and development sectors when working towards shared outcomes to reduce needs, risks and vulnerabilities. The initiative’s joint commitment to action seeks to (a) pool and combine data, analysis and information; (b) join up planning and programming processes; (c) optimise leadership; and (d) pursue financial modalities to support collective outcomes. This is commonly referred to as the ‘New Way of Working’ (NWOW). This approach to removing obstacles to collaboration in order to bridge the humanitarian–development divide has become known as the ‘humanitarian–development nexus’ or the ‘double nexus’ and emphasises bringing together actors in the two sectors to collaborate on operations conducted over multiple years to achieve collective outcomes.

International non-governmental organisations are also involved in the nexus. A case-study review conducted in 2018 revealed that many country teams are progressively bridging humanitarian and development processes and goals. These cases exemplify the integration of short-term relief with long-term community needs. For example, village savings and loan associations economically empower refugees and facilitate social cohesion. Other examples provided of a double nexus approach include social enterprises addressing social issues; the integration of women’s rights into refugee support programs; and markets stimulated through cash and voucher services. In a short-period of time the double-nexus was developed at a high-level and effectively deployed on the ground.

Humanitarian, development and peace cooperation: the triple nexus

In December 2016 António Guterres succeeded Ban Ki-Moon as Secretary-General of the UN. At that time, it had already become apparent to some that relief, rehabilitation, early recovery, development, peacebuilding and stabilization often overlap, run simultaneously or intersect on the ground. Furthermore, humanitarian, development and peace interventions all share the same broad objectives of achieving human security and strengthening resiliency.

Guterres’ remarks to the General Assembly on taking his oath of office set out a strong conflict prevention focus. Specifically, he highlighted the need to ‘bring humanitarian and development spheres closer together from the very beginning of a crisis to support affected communities, address structural and economic impacts and help prevent a new spiral of fragility and instability’. Guterres noted that ‘humanitarian response, sustainable development and sustaining peace are three sides of the same triangle’ and that, building on the NWOW, UN agencies would need to become more accountable to its mandate. By explicitly linking the peace and security pillar to achieving the 2030 Agenda and to UN reform, Guterres expanded the double nexus and established the triple nexus.

The triple nexus builds on the momentum of global commitments and frameworks in the context of greater resource scarcity. It asks humanitarian, development and peace actors to consider whether they could conduct their work more holistically with one another to enable them to more effectively relieve global suffering, build resiliency and prevent conflict or its reoccurrence. Since its inception, the triple nexus has become an increasing focus of attention for those operating in the humanitarian, development and peace communities, including donors. In February 2019, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) adopted a Recommendation on the Humanitarian–Development–Peace Nexus, providing a comprehensive framework that can support member countries to implement more collaborative, coherent and complementary humanitarian, development and peace actions. The OECD DAC recommendation, which is not legally binding but holds a strong moral force, encourages its member countries to coordinate across the nexus, to programme within the nexus, and to deliver better financing across the nexus.

Although it may be asserted that the triple nexus represents an improvement over its double nexus predecessor, it has not yet taken over as the norm.

Figure 1. Illustration of the triple nexus
Figure 1. Illustration of the triple nexus

Criticism of the triple nexus

There are number of concerns related to the triple nexus as it currently stands. These concerns have mostly emerged from the humanitarian community, where discussion of the benefits and drawbacks are most advanced. These criticisms include:

Broad consensus of what a triple nexus approach is, or how it should be implemented, is lacking

The triple nexus is theoretically expected to bring together policy frameworks across three sectors and promote joint planning for shared outcomes. When it comes to reality of implementing the triple nexus, practitioners in the humanitarian sector point to a disconnect between high-level declarations and policy frameworks. Some organizations and agencies interpret the triple nexus as an attempt to implement top-down coordination. Others see it as an attempt to train humanitarian practitioners in the methods of development and peace, and vice versa. Assumptions are being made from within each sector about how the other two operate, and actors are rarely coming together to address these differences.

The triple nexus risks politicising humanitarian action

The humanitarian sector operates on the core principles of impartiality, neutrality, humanity, and operational independence. Humanitarian actors have voiced concerns over the risk that humanitarian assistance will be politicised and instrumentalized by peace and security actors. This could result in a loss of neutrality in the eyes of local actors and potentially reduced access to areas in need of humanitarian assistance. Likewise, development sectors also seek to strengthen state institutions, and are as such, political projects. This raises the possibility of misalignment between humanitarian and development purposes.

Existing funding mechanisms are incompatible with the triple nexus approach 

Funding is tied to either humanitarian, development or peacebuilding activities, so there is little funding specifically for nexus programming. Humanitarian funding is in particular often ring-fenced to ensure it is used only for humanitarian purposes. This funding methodology remains incompatible with the triple nexus’ long-term multi-stakeholder approach. There also remains a mismatch of funding timelines. Humanitarian funding is planned on an annual basis, whereas development and peace programming typically planned for one to five years. As such, most funding mechanisms remain incompatible with the triple nexus. One of the core innovations of the triple nexus’ approach is to focus on multi-year timeframes for financing operations.

Operational challenges within the triple nexus

An in-depth study of its early application in Somalia found that even when the triple nexus approach is applied with considerable forethought to a fragile context, the different sectors remain largely siloed. While actors agreed that bridging the divide between sectors is a critical precondition for sustaining progress in Somalia, attention remains focused on delivering effective assistance, as opposed to innovating across the triple nexus. Furthermore, the study provided evidence of a more successful implementation of the double nexus through merging of short-term humanitarian responses with long-term development objectives.

At the UN level, agencies, funds and programmes tend to operate as separate entities with connected, but distinct, mandates. Although the UN’s strategy and reforms have promoted cross-agency coordination, this remains limited. Cooperation tends to be top-down and confined to joint programmes between a few partners at most. Nevertheless, recent reform of the UN development system has sought to address the structural problems that have impeded nexus work. This includes strengthening the role of resident coordinators on the ground to become the highest ranking development representative of the UN system.

In the Middle East and North Africa, CARE, which has a dual humanitarian and development mandate, has reported relative success in implementing the triple nexus. CARE argues that this was only possible when development and peace are approached as bottom-up processes, are rooted in local contexts, take place with local partnerships and make use of networks to pool resources and expertise.

The future of the triple nexus approach

The triple nexus is an emergent approach that aspires to transform the way that humanitarian, development and peace activities are planned, implemented and financed to more effectively and coherently meet needs, reduce risks and build resiliency. To reflect this, it requires changes to an overburdened aid system and must overcome competition and siloed processes and perspectives. Advancing the triple nexus approach must also address valid concerns about potential impact on humanitarian principles. Shared analysis of the needs, risks, vulnerabilities and root causes of conflict would be an important step towards increased coherence and would support collaborative efforts across the triple nexus. Further work is required to define the scope and purpose of the approach and its mechanisms. This should include better understanding of respective roles across the sectors and where a division of labour, or even integrated actions, can be pursued.


Dr Marina Caparini was until recently a Senior Researcher and Director of the SIPRI Governance and Society Programme.
Anders Reagan was a Research Intern with the SIPRI Governance and Society Programme.