Image by Mohammad Al-Arief/The World Bank
  • Blog
  • 27 June 2019

From withdrawal to adaptation: How can development actors shift towards sustaining engagement and financing at scale during a crisis?

DI’s Sarah Dalrymple highlights some key research questions towards building coherence across development, crisis and peace sectors

Written by Sarah Dalrymple

Senior Policy & Engagement Advisor/Crisis & Humanitarian Co-Lead (Maternity leave)

DI’s Sarah Dalrymple highlights some key research questions towards building coherence across development, crisis and peace sectors

The role of development actors and financing mechanisms when a crisis occurs is both a critical aspect of the humanitarian–development–peace nexus and a pressing gap in existing evidence. A point of consensus emerging from the discussion between panellists at our recent webinar is that development responses must adapt and remain sustained when a crisis occurs. In line with the emerging rhetoric around the need for longer-term development approaches in protracted crisis contexts, development responses must continue to support livelihoods and service delivery at scale during a crisis, and work closely with humanitarian and peace actors based on the comparative advantages their mandates offer. Doing so (as opposed to shrinking engagement and handing over to humanitarian actors to lead the response) may prevent a crisis becoming protracted in the first place.

Yet the figure below shows that between 2008 and 2017 there was an opposite trend in protracted crisis contexts. Over the first five years of a crisis, development actors (in aggregate) significantly downscaled their activities in crisis-affected countries. In the 27 protracted-crisis countries our analysis identified[i] aggregate developmental ODA fell sharply between the first and fourth years of crisis, before recovering slightly whilst remaining at a lower level. Although humanitarian assistance rose throughout the first five years of crisis, this rise was not enough to replace the fall in developmental ODA. By year four, developmental ODA was almost US$5 billion lower than in year one, but humanitarian assistance had increased by just US$2.6 billion. At the end of year five, developmental ODA had recovered slightly to almost US$4 billion below the year one level, while humanitarian aid rose to US$2.9 billion higher than in year one.

Rise in humanitarian aid does not cover fall in other ODA within first five years of crisis


What aspects of how development responses are planned, delivered and financed in crisis contexts needs to shift to engender an approach of adaptation and sustained engagement?

DI is commencing a strand of research focusing on this specific issue, incorporating country-level analysis. We’ll be seeking country-level evidence; finding cases where development responses have been sustained at scale or reduced following the onset of crisis will help actors to identify both lessons on the challenges faced and options for overcoming these, and to recognise the best practise and successful approaches that could be transformative and scaled-up at the global level and adopted internationally.

The role of development actors once a crisis occurs:

How do fluctuations in developmental and humanitarian ODA affect different sectors and regions?

Where there has been a significant decline, continuation or rise in developmental ODA at the country level in the first five years of a crisis – does it rise or fall across the board or does it affect specific sectors and geographical areas? And how does this align with the focus of humanitarian spending? If we knew whether development aid focused on specific sectors and geographic areas and withdraw from others, or how well aligned it is with humanitarian spending at this time, we could identify where the biggest gaps are in terms of support to service delivery and livelihoods. We could also draw lessons regarding the role of development actors in supporting specific activities during a crisis, and on what worked well, what didn’t, and why.

Our initial data analysis has identified a selection of countries that demonstrate different trends – either a fall in developmental ODA in the first five years of a crisis (e.g. Afghanistan since 2011), or rise in developmental ODA after an initial stumble in the first two years (e.g. in Nigeria and Cameroon during 2015–2017). These could provide interesting evidence for research on this issue.

What factors drive decisions for different actors? 

  • Where development programming reduced in the first five years of a crisis, what factors underpinned this decision? Challenges in continuing partnerships in an altered context could include: inflexibility of financing mechanisms and programmes to adapt to a changing context, limited access to contingency funds, security concerns and risks, and inflexible results frameworks. Answering this is key to understanding what changes are needed in development financing and programming frameworks to adapt to crisis contexts.
  • Where development programming was sustained during the first five years of a crisis, what factors underpinned this decision? Identifying the types of development programming and financing approaches, channels of assistance and partnerships that enabled development actors to sustain engagement during a crisis will provide lessons on successes and challenges, ways of working collaboratively with humanitarian actors, and help with assessing the potential for scaling these approaches up within countries, or expanding them to other countries.
  • Were decisions to downscale or sustain development programming driven locally/nationally, and made in a consultative way? A better understanding of decision-making responsibilities within development assistance will flag how these could adapt to crisis contexts and enable greater flexibility of response (in consultation with humanitarian and peace actors and led by local and national actors).

What concrete approaches we should consider?

What aspects of development programming and financing frameworks should shift to enable development actors to sustain engagement in crisis contexts at scale? This would involve assessing existing approaches and identifying new ones that support development actors to sustain engagement during a crisis. For example, these might be: how contextual assessments are undertaken; how development programmes are designed, delivered, financed and assessed; and options for strengthening complementarity with humanitarian and peacebuilding responses and financing approaches.

Further approaches might include embedding adaptive programming, crisis modifiers and contingency financing within development responses; utilising existing relationships between development actors and partner governments to strengthen national capacities to respond to crisis; and ensuring that development actors have the right skills to adapt their approach during times of crisis.

To provide feedback or information that could feed in to our research, please get in touch: [email protected]

For further updates, resources and discussion around this webinar series, which focuses on the humanitarian–development–peace nexus, follow #DITripleNexus

Photo: Mohammad Al-Arief/The World Bank


[i] These were selected on the basis of having had a Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) for any five consecutive years during 2008–2017.