Many aspects of life have changed swiftly from before, and since the early days of, the coronavirus pandemic. Within the international aid system, the nexus approach was flavor-of-the-month at the outset of COVID-19 lockdowns. Many webinars and research reports were dedicated to the need to enhance collaboration between humanitarian, development, and peace actors, given the increasing interconnectedness of these challenges in protracted crises. Decision makers made lofty commitments to break down the divisions in the aid system and turn nexus theory into practice.
Fast forward though and the nexus approach has been almost absent in the COVID-19 response, which should have been an opportunity to advance this agenda, but has instead reinforced the usual siloed approach. The updated $6.7 billion COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan (GHRP) published on May 7 dedicates a mere one paragraph to humanitarian-development collaboration.
While it would be wrong to say that the issue has been dismissed out-of-hand, since there is certainly a lot of coordination between the diverse set of actors responding to the pandemic, there has not been any kind of transformational change in the way aid is delivered. Instead, the COVID-19 response has been managed through the traditional structures of humanitarian and development aid, which have become even more complex.
It is not always easy to bring about change in the midst of a crisis, but the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to radical transformative thinking in many contexts. COVID-19 has arguably exposed, more than any other crisis before, the artificial distinction between different types of assistance, making the nexus approach more relevant and urgent than ever.
As has been widely noted, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a dual set of challenges: a public health emergency resulting from the direct consequences of the virus and, at the same time, a socioeconomic crisis resulting from the drastic measures governments have been forced to take to prevent the spread of the disease.
The humanitarian consequences from the huge human suffering caused is also reversing development progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As previous public health emergencies—such as the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo—have shown, underlying instability and underdevelopment can worsen the impact of such emergencies and also hamper recovery.
The combination of armed conflict and COVID-19 is also a deadly mix. In March, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres used the pandemic as an opportunity to promote peace by calling for a global ceasefire so aid workers could reach people in areas affected by conflict. So far, more than 115 governments, several regional organizations, 200 civil society groups, and 16 non-state armed groups have publicly endorsed this call. There is also a strong human rights dimension to COVID-19 and the response required to ensure access to adequate healthcare to all.
COVID-19 is then a health, humanitarian, and development crisis all at the same, with implications for peace and human rights. It is occurring in crisis zones with ongoing humanitarian operations, but also in developing countries with no pre-existing humanitarian crisis that are now putting in place such a response as well.
It is hard to make a distinction between the different kinds of responses that are required in all contexts. Humanitarian assistance is being used to provide medical treatment for those affected by the virus, but so too is development cooperation required to reinforce weak heath systems in developing countries to cope with the disease outbreak. Development actors are meant to be leading the response to the socioeconomic impact, but humanitarian agencies are also implementing livelihood programs.
Clearly, a holistic approach is required which transcends the divide between different kinds of assistance to address both the immediate needs and the long-term vulnerabilities of societies to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is exactly what the nexus approach was meant to deliver including through—among other initiatives—the UN’s New Way of Working, the centerpiece of which is “collective outcomes” to which both humanitarian and development actors would sign-up to in their respective plans.
These have not been formulated though for the COVID-19 response, which is based instead on three overlapping UN-led plans: the GHRP, the World Health Organization’s Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan (SPRP), and the UN Socio-Economic Framework. These have been presented as a coherent multilateral response to the health, humanitarian, and development consequences of COVID-19, yet there is significant duplication between them. Each UN agency has also launched their own separate appeals. Arguably there should have be one single plan.
The funding mechanisms for COVID-19 response have also been organized around traditional humanitarian and development lines. The Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and country pooled funds are being used to finance the GHRP, while a COVID-19 Response and Recovery Multi-Partner Trust Fund has been set up to support responses to the socioeconomic consequences. Countries covered by the GHRP will not be eligible for funding from the Response and Recovery Trust Fund. Flexible and easily dispersed funding is critical to the response, and one central funding mechanism could have led to a much more efficient and effective allocation of resources.
The GHRP states that “coherent and complementary needs analysis, and planning and funding flows between humanitarian and development actors are more important than ever.” It seems hard to see how this will happen when the COVID-19 response has been designed based on institutional interests and existing structures within the aid system, rather than what the challenges of the pandemic require in terms of a response.
While there has been strong a commitment to the nexus approach since it was launched at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, it has led to limited changes to the pre-existing structures within the aid system for dealing with complex, multi-dimensional, and often protracted crises. For some, the nexus has reinforced the very problem it has sought to resolve. The problem is not the lack of linkages between the different silos in the aid architecture, but the silos themselves.
Taking a nexus approach to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic is imperative for responding effectively to this crisis and protecting those who are most vulnerable. COVID-19 has made it abundantly clear that a different response is needed that adopts a people-focused approach and puts the principles of the nexus into practice. Yet it appears that vested interests and a reluctance to reform have resulted in a business-as-usual response. This will be to the detriment of the people at the receiving end of the assistance to whom it matters little what label is provided to different kinds of assistance. The global, swift, and devastating nature of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the need to finally put the nexus theory into practice, both for this crisis and those to come.
Damian Lilly is an independent consultant working on humanitarian, peace, and security issues.