Why do Antonio Guterres’ ideas on the Nexus matter for NGOs?

by 16th Mar 2018
Bridging the humanitarian/development divide: South Sudanese refugees in Uganda Bridging the humanitarian/development divide: South Sudanese refugees in Uganda

In June 2017 the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, announced that “the UN has to change” and shift to a new way of working. Amongst other action points, and building upon commitments made at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, he highlighted the importance of bridging the humanitarian/development divide through building a ‘Nexus’, with the potential for also integrating peacebuilding work.

As a dual-mandate organisation with a focus on gender, CARE has been ensuring its humanitarian and development work has been connected for years, if not decades. The Nexus might be relatively new language, but positive project outcomes show that humanitarian and development work is much more effective if joined up at the local level.

Yet, after Guterres’ speech, despite our own commitments to transcend the divide, CARE didn’t leap to endorse merging humanitarian and development work. Other NGOs have also expressed concern. How will Nexus approaches impact on humanitarian principles? How would we compare humanitarian ‘apples’ and development ‘oranges’ when selecting priorities?

To work out what our contribution to this workstream would be, we started to research and meet with different stakeholders, including French INGOs with their long history of humanitarian exceptionalism, NGO consortiums International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) and the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR), as well as the International Red Cross and the World Bank. In December 2017 we put together an internal discussion paper, aimed mainly at enabling our colleagues worldwide to engage with and contribute to the conversation.

Context is crucial

Our initial analysis brought out a few key elements. Depending on the context, merging humanitarian and development programmes and governance could be exactly what is needed for more strategic solutions, or it could be highly inappropriate, endangering the lives of people in crisis. So a contextualised approach is essential.

On the global governance level we felt on balance that joining the two areas of work too closely – perhaps through agreeing collective outcomes – is likely to result in undermining the different objectives, leading to highly politicised and bureaucratic processes, and potentially giving incentives for governments to play down humanitarian needs. We have to design for the most intractable and difficult contexts – the Syrias, Yemens, South Sudans and DRCs of the world. Thus, at the global level, we’re really cautious about merging things like programme planning processes, or development governance with the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC).

Responding to local-level needs

However, at the field level, CARE colleagues have stressed projects are often already merged or run in parallel, with substantial cross-learning. Often social change, such as changes in gender roles in the household, occur during a humanitarian crisis but then continue after the crisis has passed. Ensuring programmes reduce drivers of conflict at the community level is essential, and is compatible with humanitarian principles in the same way that direct engagement in negotiations between armed groups might not be. Our country teams strongly held the view that the Nexus conversation has the potential to make programmes more effective for the population in need, particularly if it leads to more flexible funding – this could lead to programmes that respond to people’s needs as they change.

Conditionality won’t work

A key concern is that Nexus programming presents a risk that humanitarian aid is instrumentalised for political aims. CARE, along with other humanitarians, believes it is incompatible with the humanitarian principles to withhold or conditionalise humanitarian aid to incentivise engagement with peace processes or development behaviours. An example would be to make access to aid dependent on attendance of representatives at peace talks, or demobilisation, demands we’ve seen from states in both the global North and South. Likewise, multilateral lenders have a culture of conditionality that would be unacceptable in humanitarian response. Humanitarian aid cannot be dependent on an economic business case.

A bottom-up approach to Nexus solutions

But despite all this, the Nexus conversation is exciting. With awareness of the risks, NGOs can engage and realise the potential. Our conversations have highlighted that development work does not necessarily clash with humanitarian principles – it all depends on how you see development. Dual mandate organisations like CARE see development as bottom-up, driven by communities, rather than top-down, as government, the World Bank and donors might see it. Understanding these differences, and using that analysis to drive Nexus solutions and agree where they are appropriate and where they are not, is critical to realising the potential without undermining humanitarian principles.

At CARE, we’re assembling a number of case studies to inform both our work and that of others, and refine indicators and definitions to help identify in advance where Nexus programming will be useful, and where caution is needed. Given how critical the UN is to both the development and humanitarian ecosystems, it’s essential that UN agencies, multilaterals like the World Bank and their donors recognise the challenges and risks, and integrate civil society concerns into their thinking as we move forward. And it’s incumbent on us in civil society to develop propositions and concrete examples for them to integrate.