Time for change if resilience in fragile and conflict affected states is to be realised

by | Nov 11, 2021 | Latest News

Transforming knowledge into action for nutrition & development

In this piece, N4D shares thoughts on two inter-connected issues in fragile and conflict affected contexts (FCAS): (i) resilience building and (ii) more efficient and sustainable means of providing aid. This is timely as we head to the much awaited Nutrition for Growth (N4G) Summit which includes a strong focus on resilience (as well as on financing, Universal Health Coverage and food systems). We consider the current aid architecture and the necessary changes if we are to overcome entrenched interests and increase aid accountability.

The latest (and excellent) Global Humanitarian Assistance Report concludes that the number of countries experiencing protracted crises has doubled to 34 in recent years. FCAS account for two thirds of the world’s poor and have increased numbers of people living in extreme poverty. Humanitarian financing increased by 12% per year between 2012-2018 although this plateaued at circa USD $30 billion by 2020 with just over half of appeals being funded. The report points out that underfunding alongside the increasingly long-term nature of crises makes it even more critical to join up humanitarian, development and peacebuilding efforts. Development actors have been stepping up (including multilateral banks) by providing an increasing percentage of assistance in the form of loans to countries in crisis. Official Development Assistance (ODA) for crisis affected countries increased from 47% of all ODA in 2010 to 65% in 2019 with multi-year financing (MYF) growing from 27% to 42% over the past five years which is a positive. MYF disbursements can be slow and saw a decline in 2020, however. Another stark fact is that the Grand Bargain commitment to increase funding to local actors (so called ‘localisation’) to 25% of all humanitarian financing is at just 3.1% in 2021 – barely an increase since its launch in 2016.

A recent publication by the Centre for Development (CFD) concludes that without a radical restructuring of the humanitarian architecture, underpinned by a revised set of principles, aims and ways of working we will make little headway in our efforts to reach the SDGs and in many instances, we may see recent gains being reversed.

CFD further assert that in spite of a series of humanitarian system reforms in 1996, 2010 and the Grand Bargain in 2016 there has been markedly little progress in financing, localisation and the roll out of coordinated multi-sector programming. Rather, the emphasis has been on normative guidance and technical improvements driven and implemented by international agencies and underpinned by sector hegemony and territorialism. A new review of Nutrition Information Systems by DataDent provides a clear demonstration of the bias towards strengthening technical response by, and through, international agencies. They present data showing only a fraction of funding being spent on country capacity strengthening to improve the collection, analysis, use and monitoring of nutrition related data and the majority of funding being spent on global initiatives which bypass national institutions.

Perhaps the most worrying element of the CFD report, however, is their argument that the COVID-19 pandemic offered the perfect opportunity for the humanitarian sector to pilot and re-enforce change away from an expensive, internationally driven and implemented humanitarian response system but for numerous reasons failed to seize this opportunity. At a time when international actors had little access to populations in need due to COVID -19 restrictions, one could expect greater efforts and resources to support national and local actors who do have greater access to affected populations. However, there is no evidence that this occurred – indeed the reverse appears to have happened with large agencies raising money for themselves rather than facilitating funding for local partners.

The external financing that enables humanitarian response is generally delivered through UN agencies and INGOs who in turn sub-contract local organisations. A comparative cost analysis of this modality has not to our knowledge been undertaken but, based on a comparison of salaries, administrative overheads and transaction costs of a hierarchy of donors (including UN and INGOs allocating resources to local actors) there must be significant potential for cost-saving if greater local response capabilities and resources were realised.

The CFD study lists a range of excuses for the failure to make progress on localisation ranging from lack of belief in capacity for change to fear of disruption and resulting suffering. Sensationalist media ready to jump on any story of misuse or misappropriation of funding clearly also have a role to play in putting the brakes on localisation. There are also donor legal frameworks to contend with which in some instances prevent direct funding of local actors.

Given the inevitability that climate change, resulting displacement and concomitant conflict will result in increased humanitarian need with scarce resources being stretched even further, the necessity for a different model of humanitarian response has never been clearer. Nowhere is this truer than for nutrition where malnutrition is primarily an outcome of multi-sector failure requiring longer-term multi-sector prevention programming, with needs and priorities defined and set by affected communities. FCAS have a disproportionate burden of malnutrition as a result of a range of immediate and underlying drivers straddling multiple sectors yet, the humanitarian nutrition response is focussed on short-term treatment-based interventions rather than longer-term resilience building efforts which are more sustainable, harness multi-sectoralism and offer greater potential to prevent malnutrition. Efforts by the IASC cluster mechanism to co-design and implement multi-sector programmes continue but sector territorialism and competition for resourcing is a frequent (but not insurmountable) challenge.

With predictions for humanitarian need looking increasingly bleak, surely now is the time to establish a more efficient and sustainable means of providing development, humanitarian and peace building support to FCAS. Greater emphasis on resilience building including the prevention of malnutrition as well as a move towards a more equitable partnership with host governments and local actors is needed and the forthcoming N4G summit offers us a real opportunity to support much needed change.

Humanitarian Response Plans in recent years have demonstrated a recognition and understanding of the need to place greater emphasis on prevention of malnutrition but are largely constrained by the short-term nature of humanitarian financing and the priority to save lives. It has been argued by many that development actors need to step up in these contexts to allow humanitarian actors to focus on what they do best in acute crisis. However, while development financing has been increasing in FCAS the lack of data, especially at sub-national level is a serious constraint as it is not clear whether this funding finds its way to the most chronically vulnerable. Improvements in data and transparency would enhance coherence and coordination of development and humanitarian response and importantly, enable the humanitarian system to ‘right size’ itself where transition to longer term support and resilience building is possible. It must be concluded that the current status quo is not a ‘fault’ of either the humanitarian or development sector but rather a systems failure underpinned by a reluctance to relinquish power and resources.

N4D believe that a review of the current nutrition architecture in FCAS is warranted which builds on the excellent 2008 Lancet nutrition series review and takes account of the myriad of positive initiatives such as the SUN Movement, N4G, the GNR and the Humanitarian Summit leading to the Grand Bargain in 2016. It is perhaps the right time to look at our institutional architecture in terms of better understanding where and how progress is enabled and the barriers to change in FCAS. Recent and planned summits have and continue to offer significant opportunities for new and strengthened approaches but without a coherent architecture, a full commitment to localisation and greater accountability for those who make up the institutional nutrition mosaic, we question whether needed change can be realised at the right pace.

We also wonder if this might be the right time to create a multi-sector pooled fund for resilience building in FCAS with contributions from both humanitarian and development actors who work as a coherent system with national and local actors. Such a fund could enable local partners to have a greater strategic and planning role in the roll out of multi-faceted prevention and resilience building programmes.

It is clear that radical change amongst international actors (donors, UN and INGOs) who control and command the substantial global aid budget will be needed to realise N4G ambitions and pledges. Change will definitely not be easy, but do we have any other choice?


  1. Karima Al-Hada’a

    Transition from humanitarian interventions to development depends on the level to which the national and local partners are strengthened and empowered. The first step for localization is understanding the local context; indicating the investment cases in the most impactful sectors. Being close to people’s hopes; and very sensitive to their pains. To capture the opportunities in the eyes of youths and respond to their ambitions not only needs… To respond to people’s aspirations- and help them reach their full potentials.

    • Chris

      We totally agree with you Karima! Perhaps too often those making decisions about support to countries affected by political fragility and conflict do not have a good understanding of the local contexts.


      I can’t agree more. If we don’t think at least a decade ahead in all our programmes- we will remain in the same spot. We may manage to save people from starvation, but we will not be able to a long term impact. Simply they affected population primarily the youth will be worse off. Better to rethink the current response mechanism and develop more futuristic tools for a long term outcomes and sustainable results.

      • Chris

        Thanks so much for your comments! It would be great to hear your thoughts on what more futuristic tools could look like in practice. Certainly the predominant tool of short-term humanitarian assistance is vital but not adequate. As you suggest, we need longer-term initiatives that empower local actors to (in the words of Karima) achieve their ambitions not only their needs.

        • Karima Al-Hada’a

          I believe that the food systems dialogues and their pathways can formulate the foundation of the “ futuristic tools”. A prerequisite is to brainstorm the local innovative initiatives and turn them into long-term interventions. These dialogues should remain at the highest technical levels in the national governments to trigger the innovative approaches through rethinking national policies and systems. There must be a platform for all partners where open and constructive dialogues are encouraged; where people’s and the plant’s interests come first.

          • Chris

            Many thanks Karima for sharing further thoughts on how food systems dialogues & pathways might help transform local initiatives into policies and longer term interventions.

        • Ali Mudhwahi

          There is a need to invest more in health and nutrition systems to efficiently address service delivery requirements. This would empower countries in responding to emergencies including preparedness and mitigation and preparing for the recovery phase. Fragile and conflict states are not expected to reach universal coverage targets unless equipped with the tools of both sensitive and specific interventions. In this case, pooled funding might work where national capacities exist with strong system for implementation applying sector-wide approach schemes.

          • Chris

            Thanks Ali for highlighting the need for investing in sector systems to ensure service delivery capacities.

        • M ALASAADI

          Thanks Chris.
          Having Karima with you is an excellent staring point. She is very passionate and a real philanthropist with a forward looking and inclusive vision.
          For the futuristic tools to be practical you need a hand-on assessment to conducted with all stakeholders. Then develop a customized approach that fits the context in Yemen and be agile enough to navigate through the changing dynamics and various de facto authorities in several regions of Yemen. However, a pilot project in a select region – I suggest – Tehama, will inform your planning and implementation when you get the adequate resources to scale up.. wish you good luck

          • Chris

            Thank you so much for your further comments Mohammed! The more I hear, the more I feel that external actors do not understand the complexities and diversities of the Yemen context, especially the political. Perhaps this is true in many countries…