Balancing humanitarian, development and peace activities in countries affected by long-term crises.

by | Dec 21, 2023 | Latest News

Transforming knowledge into action for nutrition & development

If you speak to national actors in countries affected by protracted or recurrent crises many express a strongly held belief that international development partners are focussing too much on humanitarian programming at the expense of longer-term development investment. There is also often a sense that international stakeholders don’t really ‘get’ the fact that there are plenty of opportunities for development type work even in countries embroiled in conflict. 

N4D are hearing this more and more through our work in Yemen, Niger and Ethiopia. These points are raised by guests in our The Politics of Ending Malnutrition podcast. While this isn’t a new refrain, it seems to us to be an increasingly loud one. 

As we know, humanitarian programming is usually negotiated and proffered on an annual basis and invariably involves international implementing partners. National voices suggest that international actors are more interested in maintaining their programming and hold over resources than in building up national systems and advancing localisation. Many national actors will also highlight that implementing their national multisector national nutrition plans through national systems would cost a fraction of what it costs to implement humanitarian programmes through international actors and parallel infrastructure. 

Of course, there are strong counterarguments. Front and centre of a defence is that saving lives is a priority and scarce resources must be prioritized to that end. Additional justifications may include that national financing systems are insufficiently risk-proof while local implementing partners lack technical and absorptive capacity to act as conduits for resources and implementors of programmes at scale. Donors may also prefer allocating large tranches of resources to UN agencies rather than to governments or multiple local actors where there may not only be fiduciary risk but also administrative costs for each contract. In some contexts, donors may fear that aid will be diverted for political reasons or the provision of development aid will legitimise de facto political authorities. 

So in effect, we reach an impasse where little changes. Humanitarian aid dwarfs development, national systems are largely bypassed and national actors responsible for implementing national nutrition plans often have little knowledge of where international resources are going, for what purpose and whether these align with national plans.

In a way, the growing global momentum around strengthening the humanitarian-development- peace nexus (HDPN), is a response to this. It comes from a recognition that cyclical humanitarian programming can change little in countries facing protracted crises and the growing impact of climate change on nutrition outcomes. In these contexts, the key nutrition indicators at best simply appear to be ‘treading water’.

It is difficult to predict whether the nexus ‘revolution’ will lead to the desired changes it is striving to achieve in order to tackle the structural causes of malnutrition in these contexts. After all, calls to shift the balance have been going on for decades – for nexus strengthening read ‘linking relief and development’. The big difference today is the volume of crises which are protracted over many years and also that we are much clearer on the urgent need to consider climate change factors across the nutrition and food systems nexus. What seems clear is that there is an embedded institutional aid system, bureaucratic inertia and limited but competing leadership. This is not to say that those of  working in international development are in anyway malign or ill-intentioned. On the contrary, staff representing international organisations  are invariably hard-working and committed people who often make enormous sacrifices to fulfil a role. However, they work in a system which others before have likened to a juggernaut unable to change course. 

So how do we move on from here?  Well maybe we need to get serious about numbers. What seems to be missing from so much of the nexus discussion are indicators that describe the status of the nexus approach and any progress being made to strengthen it. Where are the global and national targets and dashboards which show in a simple graphic the scale, longevity and cyclical nature of humanitarian programming and nutrition indicators in crisis affected areas of countries? Where are the global and country targets for rightsizing humanitarian aid so that there is greater investment in risk reduction and resilience building programming. How are we tracking shifts from treatment to prevention of malnutrition and impact on incidence and rates of malnutrition? Up until now, HDPN has largely been a theoretical construct but what would  ‘a brave new world’ look like in terms of metrics. Indicators for an HDPN approach would fall into several categories including, development versus humanitarian spend and co-location of spend, multi-sector programming coverage, risk reduction and resilience building activities, localisation, system strengthening and multi-year funding. All these elements of an HDPN approach should have clear measures and indicators to show progress or lack of it. 

If we are serious about changing the status quo then maybe we need to get serious about the numbers. Having said that, the Grand Bargain did exactly that for localisation, setting a goal of 25% for humanitarian programming by 2025. We are currently on 3% with seemingly limited accountability for failing so far to achieve this target. 

Local and national mutual accountability mechanisms informed by data and metrics must be a priority. National and subnational governance mechanisms are being strengthened in many countries to harness the comparative advantages of humanitarian and development actors, align actions with collective outcomes and promote mutual accountability. This needs to be complemented by intensive engagement with the political oversight bodies of donor agencies to highlight, with evidence, the opportunities that exist for more development investments and strengthen national and local systems. This all needs to be supported by a strengthened evidence base on what works to drive more sustainable outcomes in protracted crisis contexts. 

Coming back to the start of this blog, what must it be like for national actors to hear international actors proclaim  ‘country X’ isn’t ready to transition to development yet, when they know from living in that country that there are countless opportunities for development. We imagine (and increasingly hear) that it is infuriating, ill-informed and at times comes across as arrogant. 

As the world sees the growing effects of climate change, population displacement and conflict over scarce resources, we really need to find a way to listen more carefully to what local and national actors are telling us they need and then do our level best to support their endeavours to build their countries´ resilience and develop their service delivery systems.