The Triple Nexus put to the test in the field: humanitarian-development-peace.

In this article, Sonia Rahal, Deputy Director for the Sahel and Lake Chad based in Dakar for the humanitarian NGO Solidarités International, explains the position she presented during the National Humanitarian Conference of December 17 in Paris during the roundtable entitled “Humanitarian Nexus – Development – Peace”.  This round table brought together representatives of the OECD, AFD, UNHCR, the European Commission (EPLO), the NGO ENDA in Mali and Solidarités International.

Let us recall here that if the double nexus was put forward during the 1st World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016 in Geneva, the triple nexus adds the specific question of peace and therefore security and the military and provokes many debates as this article shows.

A concept in vogue but which hides longstanding debates, the nexus is above all a response to an observation. The observation that people in crisis situations do not experience compartmentalized realities but have both conjunctural needs for humanitarian assistance and structural needs for development.

Protracted crises have become the norm

This observation is all the more relevant in fragile or protracted crisis contexts characterized by episodic violence, multiple displacements and climatic or health disasters. Today, protracted crises are the norm: two-thirds of humanitarian aid is thus intended for long-term crises with an average duration of 7 years (Hechenberg, Sadanand, 2017)1. One of the main challenges faced by humanitarian aid actors in protracted crises is that humanitarian action alone cannot meet all the needs of populations. In the absence of sufficient development efforts in these fragile contexts, humanitarians have often had to stretch their mandates and sometimes go beyond their initial expertise to fill gaps.

The Nexus and Reform

The Nexus is also part of a broader debate on UN reform. The World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 thus urges to transcend the gap between humanitarian and development and to integrate peace actors. This New Way Of Working advocates a vision where humanitarian, development and peace actors work together towards collective results, based on their comparative advantages and according to the specificity of the context.

Goundam, Tombouctou, Mali. The NGO Solidarités International is present in Mali since 2012 and work as closely as possible to the population. / ©Solidarités International

The divisive issue of the “Peace” pillar

For many NGOs, particularly multi-mandate NGOs, development integration is necessary, and the question is not whether to link humanitarian and development efforts, but rather when and how. On the other hand, the humanitarian community has great reservations when it comes to integrating the third pillar of peace in view of the triple nexus, the definition and operationalization of which are subject to debate. This third pillar is thus approached very differently depending on the actors: while for states and the military, the peace pillar is perceived under the security prism as involving politico-military measures, communities and civil society see it as an absence of violence and a form of social peace. It is difficult to envisage synergies between humanitarian, development and peace actors when the definition remains unclear.

The risk of compromising humanitarian principles

Although many NGOs have incorporated the “do no harm” principle, conflict-sensitive approaches, or social cohesion projects, few consider themselves to have a peacebuilding mandate. The fear that humanitarian principles will dissolve into the triple nexus in favor of a political agenda of security and stabilization is not unfounded.

For instance, in Mali, where the debate over the triple nexus has been heated, NGOs point to constant pressure from the military and politicians to abandon all forms of independence. We have thus seen donors asking for needs assessments to be conducted by military forces or demanding more information in project reports, or a diplomatic representation calling on NGOs to support a military contingent in order to promote its acceptance by the populations. This mixing of genres is extremely detrimental to humanitarian action and the security of humanitarian workers and civilian populations. Let us recall that in Mali, there were 55 kidnappings of humanitarian workers in 2020 by non-state armed groups. This is indicative of a climate of suspicion towards humanitarian workers.

Goundam, région de Tombouctou, Mali / ©Solidarités International

The humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality are not only a theoretical and ideological framework. They guide our policies and procedures; they also reflect commitments made by States such as the European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid adopted by the European Union. Above all, respect for humanitarian principles guarantees our humanitarian access by allowing us to be perceived as a neutral, independent and impartial actor and to negotiate access to populations in often highly volatile contexts.


Ensuring a distinction between the mandates of the different actors:

It is crucial to distinguish between military operations and humanitarian and civil operations in order to guarantee humanitarian space and humanitarian principles. Humanitarian assistance should not be used to further a political or security agenda and should be deployed solely on the basis of the needs of the population.

This does not preclude dialogue between humanitarian and military actors: civil-military coordination must be strengthened when there is significant absenteeism or an inadequate level of representation. These interactions between civil and military actors are fundamental in humanitarian emergencies, each in its own role and responsibilities. It is also necessary to strengthen training to ensure that military actors are aware of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and humanitarian principles.

We must also be very careful about civil-military activities of the armed forces that aim to gain acceptance from the population, such as the Quick Impact Project (QIP), which can be confused with the actions of humanitarians. NGOs advocate for these activities to be infrastructure projects rather than food or medicine distributions, to avoid duplication of aid and confusion of roles. Finally, military forces must always communicate upstream about these activities, which is not always the case.

Barkhane military operation, Mali.

Adapting financing mechanisms and instruments:

Protracted crises have exacerbated humanitarian needs and sometimes negatively impacted development gains. We face large-scale needs in contexts where infrastructure and public services are weak or absent. In the Sahel, where 24 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, humanitarian response plans are less than 50% funded. Therefore, funding instruments and mechanisms need to be adapted to operate in fragile contexts and we need multi-year and flexible funding. Donors also need to be able to translate the ambition of the double nexus into practice. Although there have been initiatives in this direction (European Commission with ECHO, DEVCO and the framework contracts, crisis modification for USAID’s US funding), there is a need for strengthened and concerted dialogue between humanitarian and development donors who still very often work in silos and for more flexible funding instruments and mechanisms. At the same time, it is necessary to ensure that development and humanitarian aid budgets remain separate and independent to avoid politicization of humanitarian assistance.

Ensure the participation of civil society:

Local civil societies play a key role in responding to humanitarian and development needs by working towards the goal of “Leaving no one behind”. The risk of centralizing decision making through the approach suggested by the United Nations in the New Way Of Working (NWOW) through joint objectives is that it may not reflect the voice of the people in a top-down approach. Any nexus approach must therefore include the participation of civil society and local actors in all phases of the project cycle from project design to implementation and monitoring. Working with local actors who are present before, during, and after the crisis increases the likelihood that short and long-term objectives will be achieved.

The Nexus debate has the merit of bringing humanitarian, development and military actors together to reflect on the challenges of aid and peace in protracted crises. It also reaffirms the need for development actors to engage in these fragile contexts and for funding mechanisms and instruments to adapt to the realities on the ground. Finally, in a growing context of politicization of aid, it is fundamental to recall that respect for humanitarian principles is a precondition for all humanitarian action, and to work towards this end.

Sonial Rahal

Deputy Director of Operations for the Sahel and Lake Chad for Solidarités International

  1. Namitha Sadanand and Estefanie Hechenberg, Sphere Standards in Protracted Crises, A case study of DRC and Haiti, 2017

Who is Sonia Rahal?

Sonia Rahal joined the NGO Solidarités International in January 2020 as Director of the regional office in Dakar. From 2015 to 2020, she carried out numerous humanitarian missions with the NGO Save the Children in various contexts such as the Sahel, the Syrian crisis in Lebanon and the Ebola crisis in West Africa.

Before joining the humanitarian sector, she worked for several years in development in West Africa, in the microfinance sector. She holds a Master’s degree from the University of Paris V in Development Law and Politics and a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and Politics from the University of Montreal.

Mr President of the Republic, let us protect the humanitarian aid which is in danger!

Violence-abuses, massive population displacements in DRC and emergency relief | © Solidarités International

What is referred to as “humanitarian space” implies that relief efforts must be able to access populations in danger within the framework of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and in accordance with the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence.

This is unquestionably one of the main issues at stake at the next National Humanitarian Conference (CNH) in Paris on 17 December in the presence of the President of the Republic who announced, at the 75th UN General Assembly on 22 September, that he would present an initiative on the protection, impunity and criminalisation of humanitarian aid at this conference.

Expectations are at the highest level for humanitarian organisations faced with a considerable increase in the needs of populations in danger and, at the same time, a multiplication of political-administrative constraints and an increase in the number of wounded, killed and hostages.

Humanitarian aid is threatened in war zones by the collateral effects of fighting, banditry and threats from groups such as Daesch who, let’s not forget, claimed responsibility for the assassination of 7 ACTED aid workers in Niger on August 9th.

Charline, Antonin, Myriam, Stella, Léo, Nadifa, Kadri Abdou Gamatche, Boubacar Garba Soulay. Victims of the 9 August 2020 attack in Niger.

These dramatic incidents, which increased sharply last year, have been compounded by obstacles, obstacles, and even real threats, due to the “sanctions regime and anti-terrorist laws”, to the point that the UN Security Council recognised this danger at the end of 2019.

Sanctioned humanitarian aid.

Indeed, anti-terrorist laws de facto criminalise humanitarian actors who bring relief to populations in territories where so-called jihadist or terrorist groups operate.  These humanitarian actors can thus be considered as accomplices of terrorists and can be brought before the courts and condemned!

At the same time, a series of obstacles or draconian conditions are placed in the way of humanitarian action and dangerously hamper it. Subject to anti-terrorist laws, banks can go as far as refusing transfers of funds, which are essential for aid programmes in war-torn countries where relief is vital in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.

In addition, donors who finance NGO projects, particularly in France, impose so-called “screening” measures aimed at controlling NGO partners, suppliers and staff using specialised software. These measures can go so far as to require ‘screening’ for the first euro spent and sometimes even include the recipients of aid, as now required by the French Development Agency (AFD).

Priority to International Humanitarian Law over anti-terrorist laws in conflict zones.

Let us be clear. There can be no question of the humanitarian community “screening” relief beneficiaries in the name of International Humanitarian Law. It is a matter of our security and incidentally that this is not where the terrorists are! On the other hand, the constant screening of suppliers, partners and NGO members at the first euro is simply not feasible. This is precisely what Thierry Mauricet tells us in his interview published on Défis Humanitaires.

If one can understand anti-terrorist laws, all the more so as we ourselves are victims of terrorism in our humanitarian missions and even at home, in France in Paris and Nice, as elsewhere in the world, it is easy to understand the existential incompatibility between terrorism and humanitarianism.

And then, let’s be serious. If we seek to fight terrorism, let us look at the States that support it, the weaknesses that allow it and, unfortunately, the errors that can fuel it without ever justifying it.

MSF hospital in Kunduz after an American bombing triggered by the Afghan army. 2015 © AFP

One can indeed wonder when one hears the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior in France acknowledge that we are today paying for decades of denial and weakness.

But there is a broader reflection that must challenge us. Is terrorism, which is always condemnable, artificial intelligence technologies, ambient insecurity, the disintegration of social and national cohesion, not leading us down the dangerous slope of generalised tracing and control inspired by the Chinese model where freedom is in question, as the writer Georges Orwell has already announced.

The President of the Republic can prevent the paralysis of humanitarian action.

That is to say that we are expecting a disruptive initiative from the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, on 17 December at the CNH. And the essential thing for us is that International Humanitarian Law (IHL) prevails and, consequently, the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols that legitimise and protect humanitarians in the exercise of their mission in war zones. And this applies to both States and non-State armed groups.

Consequently, it seems essential that humanitarian actors adhering to IHL and humanitarian principles should have an exemption clause from anti-terrorist legislation in war zones. If France wants to set an example in this respect, it could, as Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier, from MSF, proposes in this edition, include this humanitarian exemption provision in the French penal code in order to preventively protect its nationals who could become victims in the future.

Other important subjects are on the agenda of the CNH (humanitarian nexus – development – peace, climate change, European humanitarian airlift, Humanitarian Strategy of the French Republic, Humanitarian Emergency Fund), and we will report on them in our next edition at the beginning of January.

For the first time, the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, will be taking part in the National Humanitarian Conference and we must welcome this presence which cannot be satisfied with a lukewarm initiative, but which requires a disruptive declaration commensurate with the freedom of action that is indispensable for humanitarian relief in the world.

We do not forget that the President of the Republic declared to the United Nations: “This is why, together with French NGOs and our international partners, we are building an initiative to ensure the effectiveness of international law, the protection of humanitarian personnel and the fight against impunity”. He added: “The neutrality of humanitarian action must be respected and its criminalization must be curbed”.

We can only hope that this will be translated into concrete action.

Alain Boinet

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