Image by Ingebjørg Kårstad/Norwegian Refugee Council
  • Report
  • 1 April 2021

Development actors at the nexus: Lessons from crises in Bangladesh, Cameroon and Somalia: Chapter 6

Organisational issues

Our previous research demonstrated that decentralised organisational and decision-making structures can enable donors to respond flexibly to changing crisis contexts; that in-country staffing models with overlapping priorities of HDP staff help to strengthen collaboration and breakdown silos; and that the strategy underpinning development actors’ engagement in crises should be driven primarily by the context, with support and guidance from the centre.[1] The country case studies explored the extent to which organisational decision-making structures, staffing models and operational guidance support development actors to work effectively in fast-changing crisis contexts and address the longer term recovery of crisis-affected people. This section summarises the key findings and considerations to emerge from the case studies on effective organisational support in crises.

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Key findings

What operational structures and guidance is in place, and how does this support the engagement of development actors in crises?

Systems and protocols to enhance joining up across donor governments or within agencies need to be developed, but addressing siloes also requires organisational change. The responsibility for humanitarian and development actions usually rests with different ministries or teams within donor governments and implementing agencies, and humanitarian and development budgets are often separate. At a minimum, systems, protocols and tools to enhance joined-up assessment, planning, information sharing and coordinated delivery need to be developed and communicated to staff. But a fundamental shift towards coherent, context-driven responses may require organisational restructuring and new approaches to planning and budgeting that take the context, rather than the lenses of particular sectors or channels of assistance, as the starting point. For example, the UK government organises its management, strategic planning and budgeting around country or geographic areas, rather than having separate humanitarian and development teams in a country.[2] Re-organising or establishing management structures, strategic planning and high-level allocation decisions around geographic priorities has great potential to strengthen the overall coherence of donor support, and a humanitarian budget can be ring-fenced within this where necessary to safeguard humanitarian principles.

There is a similar need for policy and programmatic guidance and formal partnership frameworks to strengthen join-up between agencies, as the UN and World Bank have done with their partnership framework for crisis-affected situations. The case studies point to a lot of willingness at the country and field level to adopt a nexus approach, however lack of clarity on what this means at a practical level. The ‘nexus’ is being communicated as a high-level political and policy agenda, and now needs to be translated into practical, technical policy and guidance for field actors. For example, there has already been considerable progress in establishing a collective agenda and common policy framework on durable solutions to forced displacement crises, especially with respect to refugee situations.[3] Key actors, such as the World Bank, EU and UNHCR, have clearly defined their comparative advantage and approach and have established partnerships on the ground. The same is now needed in other programmatic areas.

For development actors, delivering on the nexus also implies deepening engagement in crisis contexts. However, for many, and as the OECD DAC notes in relation to its members, their management structures, operational policies and systems, and approaches to risk are not always well suited to fragile and insecure contexts.[4] For example, analysis of the European Commission’s approach to aid found that delivering on the triple nexus requires adapting institutional cultures, ways of working and financing systems, and implementing more localised approaches.[5] The case studies highlighted positive examples of development actors adapting their operational systems, such as the World Bank, which has made great progress in this area. To support its increasing focus in fragile settings it has developed safeguarding policies, operational risk management tools, remote monitoring tools and other operational approaches to working in insecure environments, among many other areas. The regional development banks have also committed to scale up work in fragile contexts and have begun developing systems and policies to support this. Documenting and sharing learnings from these experiences will be important to systematise approaches.

What decision-making structures are in place, and how do they affect the ability of development actors to respond to the needs of crisis-affected populations?

The case studies illustrated that the decision-making structures for development agencies and donors are often centralised with key decisions on programming priorities and funding made at HQ-level. This is especially the case in contexts where international presence in-country is limited either because the country is not a priority for ODA, such as with Cameroon, or there are high levels of insecurity, such as in Somalia. In contrast, Bangladesh is a recipient of large quantities of ODA, and most donors have a well-established in-country presence and longstanding cooperation with the government. However, strengthening presence and engagement at the subnational level is more of an issue as development partners are primarily based in Dhaka, while coordination of the refugee response is led at the district level in Cox’s Bazar. Having a physical presence at the district level and coordinating between Dhaka and the district is important to engage effectively in policy dialogue and oversee programming that is adapted to the context. Multilateral partners, particularly the UN Secretariat, UNHCR and World Bank, are moving in the direction of decentralised decision-making and management from global to the regional or country levels. New delegations of authority created in the UN Secretariat management reform have reportedly enabled faster decision-making in response to changing operational requirements.[6] The UK is a bilateral donor that has gone far in implementing a decentralised model, with full financial delegation accorded to country directors and no budget separation between development and humanitarian spend; this is decided at the country level.[7] This is seen as a core strength, and in Somalia was an important factor in enabling implementing partners to quickly adapt existing development programming in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, for many OECD DAC donor governments decision-making (notably on partnerships, assessments, and budget (re)allocation above agreed thresholds) is centralised at headquarter level. In Somalia and Cameroon, lack of decision-making authority in country was felt to have held back timely responses, particularly when it came to adapting existing programming to changes in context. Nevertheless, the Covid-19 pandemic in all three countries demonstrated that decisions on reallocating budgets were able to be taken centrally significantly faster than usual, offering learnings to inform standard decision-making models in all types of crisis. Even where greater decentralisation is not possible, there is ample scope to improve the timeliness, responsiveness and relevance of decision-making within current institutional arrangements.[8]

What staffing models and skills are in place, and how do they affect the ability of development actors to respond to needs in crisis-affected populations?

Humanitarian, development and peace disciplines each have their own language, and actors within each sector sometimes fail to understand how other entities operate. There is a need to break down knowledge barriers between HDP actors and invest in multi-disciplinary expertise. Sharing knowledge, information and expertise across HDP actors – both between and within agencies − with a focus on particular contexts, sectors and financing modalities, was identified as an important starting point. For example, this could be encouraged with the secondment of experts across UN humanitarian and development agencies or by appointing staff with multi-disciplinary expertise and specific responsibilities (e.g. as UNHCR has done, or the EU in Cameroon). Bringing together actors from different disciplines to develop common assessment tools and models for joint programming will also help address knowledge gaps.

Furthermore, the right capacity is not always present in the right place. Most expertise on crisis, humanitarian action, preparedness, resilience, risk, recovery and peace within development agencies is held in the centre, with technical support provided to county staff where capacity allows. Furthermore, in northern Cameroon, as in other challenging contexts, high staff turnover can seriously hinder programme effectiveness.[9] To see progress from crisis through stabilisation to recovery, six-month or one-year contracts drawn from the limited pool of highly skilled individuals are insufficient. Where possible, development actors should invest in in-house expertise at the country level, offering longer term contracts for highly skilled staff in protracted crises. But where resource constraints make this challenging, shared analysis (as in the World Bank–UN partnership) and data systems, and knowledge sharing between entities is especially important, and greater use could be made of rosters of external expertise to be called on and deployed on an ad-hoc basis to reduce the overheads of full-time staffing.

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Key questions and considerations for development actors

  • Development actors have adapted their organisational processes to fragile and crisis contexts over the years, yet too often quick, locally-led decision-making is hampered by bureaucratic, centralised processes. How can development actors accelerate and deepen their efforts to build local presence and engagement and embed risk and crisis-sensitive/responsive approaches into processes and procedures?
  • Decision-making and management needs to be informed by up-to-date, detailed information on the local context, and ideally be located as close to operations as possible for greater flexibility and effectiveness. Where full decentralisation to staff based in country or in subnational coordination hubs is not possible, how can existing systems be streamlined to ensure timely and efficient decision-making and communication between the field, country and global levels? Learning from the Covid-19 pandemic may help to address obstacles to quick and context-specific decision-making, as would additional investment in local staff and partners to strengthen context-specific knowledge and understanding of crisis dynamics.
  • Evidence shows that organising management structures, strategic planning, and high-level financial allocation decisions around country or geographic priorities can strengthen the overall coherence of donor support (rather than the current humanitarian−development segmentation). Where a total reorganisation is not possible, how can development donors put processes and systems in place to ensure that as a minimum, the coherence of country and geographic decision-making between development and humanitarian departments is enhanced? A ‘one budget’ approach may not be possible for all donors, but where this is adopted ringfencing a humanitarian budget where necessary to would help to safeguard humanitarian principles.
  • How can development, humanitarian and peace actors break down knowledge barriers between their respective sectors and invest in multi-disciplinary expertise at the country level? Changing ways of working requires investments to ensure organisations have the necessary in-house expertise, including on resilience, peacebuilding, capacity building, political and risk analysis, financing instruments and other expertise relevant to the nexus. More could be done to pool talent and skills across the development system; for example, within the UN system much greater use could be made of staff secondments or sharing of expertise between agencies. In the context of institutional resource constraints, shared analysis and data systems and knowledge sharing platforms between entities becomes especially important.


  • 3
    This is reflected in the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework and the adoption of the Global Compact for Refugees in 2018.
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  • 4
    Building on efforts by many OECD DAC donors to review their approaches to engaging and programming in fragile, at-risk and crisis-affected settings, the OECD has identified a number of institutional changes required to bring about more effective donorship in these contexts and make organisational processes better able to support field operations. See OECD, 2016. Good development support in fragile, at-risk and crisis affected contexts, OECD Development Policy Papers, No. 4. Available at:; and OECD, 2020. Fit for fragility: Practice to policy. Available at:
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