Beyond humanitarian aid: why the “nexus” ?

Cyprien Fabre, OECD Development Co-operation Directorate

The “nexus” worries. This Latin word covers everything that no one really understands, opens the field to all fears and fantasies, and has probably done as much damage to the coherence of aid as many intricate procedures and endless logical frameworks. Let us try to understand what this means.

A lot of ink has been spilled to explain the nexus, and generally, to express the fears that it causes. A priori, if one is against the “nexus”, no one is against coherence, and many humanitarian projects are implemented in such a way that the primary purpose of providing humanitarian assistance has the related result of easing tensions or creating links between communities with diverging interests. This is Mr. Jourdain’s nexus.

Rather than finding outcomes related to various interventions, whether development, stabilisation or humanitarian, the engagement of international actors in a third country in crisis may be more coherent. It is also a way to help the country in question. Crises are complex, and the emergence of humanitarian needs always reflects a political crisis, erratic governance or fractures in societal tectonics. There can be no humanitarian needs without crises, and humanitarian aid is not a tool to help a country resolve its crises. Thus, for international engagement to be effective, humanitarian aid must necessarily be complemented by an offer that includes, depending on the context, political dialogue, development cooperation, security intervention or any other appropriate instrument. On the other hand, since crises are particularly long, the interaction between their causes becomes more complex, and urgent needs increasingly overlap with long-term needs. There is no specific moment when people’s needs cease to be “humanitarian” and become “development”. Despite this, the current international system is largely based on the provision of humanitarian assistance in the event of a crisis for decades.

With the emergence of humanitarian needs being the latest thermometer of an underlying crisis, the OECD had the idea, at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, to ask humanitarian aid recipients what they thought of this aid. Supported by Germany and the United Kingdom, and through its partner Ground Truth Solutions, the OECD interviewed more than 12,000 people affected by crises and humanitarian workers. Perception surveys were conducted in seven different contexts: Haiti, Lebanon, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Uganda and Bangladesh. The project has led to a number of interesting conclusions (OECD, 2019a).

The interviews showed, for example, that humanitarian aid only meets part of individual needs. People affected by crises cannot live exclusively on humanitarian aid, it is generally insufficient to cover their basic needs. After the initial emergency phase, people generally need to find alternative sources of income, a livelihood at the risk of having to resort to other well-known coping mechanisms, such as dropping out of school or getting into debt.

While humanitarian assistance is not sufficient to meet the basic needs of populations, it is even less effective in helping them achieve economic self-sufficiency. Interviewees consistently cited the lack of economic opportunities and livelihoods as one of their main grievances. In protracted crises, which constitute most humanitarian contexts, affected people want financial autonomy, not eternal assistance. As everywhere, people want to work, for their dignity and well-being. As humanitarian assistance is often unpredictable and not designed to end needs, longer-term approaches must be mobilized at the beginning of a crisis in order to create an environment in which people affected by crises can earn a living.

It was also interesting to note a marked difference between humanitarian workers and aid recipients in their perception of the fairness of aid. Humanitarian workers were convinced that the aid was going to those who needed it most. The beneficiaries of the aid, for their part, replied quite largely in the negative. People without a social or political network, the elderly, the disabled, geographically further away or undocumented, are perceived as not always receiving the help they need. This shows that humanitarian assistance certainly meets the needs of vulnerable people as long as their needs fall into one of the traditional aid sectors, but leaves those whose vulnerability is not measured by sectoral tools off the radar. Out of the cluster, no salvation.

A humanitarian sector organized around thematic mandates (food, education) or categorical mandates (refugees, children) struggles to understand vulnerabilities in a comprehensive way. It is clear that something more, something different, must be mobilized to support the most vulnerable people through the challenges they face. It also requires attention to how we define a crisis in the first place. Labelling a crisis as a humanitarian crisis out of habit or facility can help fundraising but does not encourage policy makers to provide anything other than humanitarian aid. Crises are not humanitarian, they are political, and create humanitarian needs.

However, donor countries have a s wide range of financial instruments at their disposal. They can use levers such as political dialogue, multilateralism, mobilising Official Development Assistance (ODA), for example in the form of development cooperation, humanitarian aid, budget support, peace building or non-ODA measures for stabilisation or military engagement. For a donor country, this is the nexus: understanding a crisis as a whole, and choosing which instrument to mobilize. This does not in any way dissolve the mandates and principles of each instrument. On the contrary, it protects them, emphasizing and basing its commitment on what each instrument can or cannot do according to its role and comparative advantage.

It is complicated, though, otherwise it would have already been done. The way donors operate, the administrative processes in each country and the aversion to commit public funds in risky contexts make it difficult to mobilize resources for anything other than short-term humanitarian budgets provided mainly to the largest humanitarian partners with both expertise and absorptive capacity.  Overcoming these persistent obstacles is a challenge. At the donor level, the OECD Development Assistance Committee adopted in February 2019 a recommendation on the humanitarian – development – peace link (OECD, 2019b). This recommendation provides for the first time a formal legal framework to enable donors to better organize their crisis response. Nothing will be easier on a daily basis for field actors, but interactions between them must be based on a better overall

OCDE (2019a), Lives in Crises : What Do People Tell Us About the Humanitarian Aid They Receive, Éditions de l’OCDE, Paris,

OCDE (2019b), Recommandation du CAD sur l’articulation entre action humanitaire, développement et recherche de la paix, OECD Legal Instruments, OCDE, Paris, OCDE,

Cyprien Fabre is a conflict & fragility advisor at the OECD. After emergency deployments in crisis contexts in the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa with French NGOs’, notably “Solidarités international” he joined the European Commission’s humanitarian department in 2003 in various conflict areas.  Heading the EC-ECHO regional office for West Africa in 2009, he worked on linking emergency, resilience building and development programing. He joined the OECD in 2016 to work on DAC members’ engagement in fragile and crisis and conflict contexts. He also wrote a “policy into action” guidelines series and “Lives in crises”to help translating policy commitments into better programming in crisis. He is a graduate from the Law faculty of Aix-Marseille. 

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