Image by ECHO/H. Veit
  • Report
  • 11 December 2019

Donors at the triple nexus: Lessons from Sweden: Executive summary

Executive summary


The need to connect humanitarian, development and peace approaches has long been understood. Without these connections, the incidences and impacts of crises cannot be sustainably reduced and many people in high-risk contexts will be ‘left behind’ in extreme poverty and vulnerability. Building connections has gained renewed recognition and momentum as a policy and practice agenda in recent years and become formalised as a priority for donors in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD DAC) recommendation on the humanitarian-development-peace ‘triple nexus’ in early 2019.

Sweden is among the donors which have been actively engaged both in global discussions on developing the triple nexus and in internal initiatives to put it into practice. Like other donors, implementation remains a work in progress – it is too soon after the OECD DAC recommendation to measure progress against it, but there is a clear level of commitment and momentum shown in the change. Sweden takes both a principled and pragmatic approach to implementation, preserving impartial humanitarian assistance while building connections to it. At a programme level, it is implementing a range of context-specific approaches; at the headquarters level, it is currently looking at ways to support systematic ways of working. From experience to date, five areas of learning emerge:

Top-level policy sets solid foundations – now operational guidance needs to be built

Sweden’s current approach to the nexus comes from many years of making connections, most notably informed by its early adoption of resilience approaches. Top-level policy and strategies set a strong steer for Swedish official development assistance (ODA) to work in a concerted and connected way to reduce risk, vulnerability and crisis. Although they pre-date the DAC triple nexus recommendation, they do set the stage for realising it. They demarcate the respective roles of humanitarian, development and peace support and demand a close interplay between them but leave much latitude for application.

This latitude is largely positive, giving space to evolve context-relevant approaches, but it can also generate uncertainty and confusion: policy frameworks do not provide clear expectations on where, when and how to make connections. This is a gap that can be filled in two ways – through new guidelines and tools, and in operational plans. Sweden’s current array of guidelines and tools do not cover putting the nexus into practice – staff are currently working to fill this ‘missing middle’ of the operational toolkit. Nonetheless, many regional, country and thematic strategies and plans are increasingly reflecting analysis of acute and underlying vulnerabilities and risks incorporating priorities to address them. The challenge now is to embed this as a routine consideration in all operational strategic planning, rather than a team-dependent consideration in some.

Shared analysis is undertaken, now needs to become synchronised and default

As the OECD DAC recommendation notes, shared analysis is the necessary foundation for joined-up action. Although Sweden maintains a principled separate analysis of humanitarian and development risks and needs, there is scope within both processes to include a comprehensive analysis of situations and build a shared understanding. The annual humanitarian analysis includes sections on root causes and longer-term development needs and is the focus of joint discussions at global and country levels. Sweden’s country and regional development analyses follow a multi-dimensional poverty model, with its focus on ‘human security’. This provides a strong basis for joint analysis, although there is still room for a stronger emphasis on risk and resilience and to incorporate learning from Sweden’s experience of piloting resilience systems analysis. Frequency and synchronicity are also issues: the development analyses and strategies are usually on a four-year cycle, while the humanitarian versions are annual. This has not stood in the way of some country teams adapting their approaches as situations change, but annual opportunities could be standardised for recalibrating plans to changing risks and needs.

Practice is ahead of policy – it now needs to be shared and understood

For many donors and agencies, the nexus tends to make more sense in practice than on paper, and this certainly seems to be true for Sweden. While its guidelines are still evolving, it has developed a growing and diverse portfolio of practical experience in working at the nexus, rightly developed according to the situation and opportunities in specific contexts, rather than by a top-down blueprint. While there is a strong imperative and some examples of a transitional or sequential model which hands over from humanitarian to development, particularly in rapid-onset disasters, simultaneous approaches are more common, where humanitarian and development investments work side by side. It is an important juncture now to document and learn from these currently disparate examples. A recently formed nexus working group is seeking to more routinely track them, recognising the need to share experience and generate evidence of ‘what works’ to reduce risks, needs and vulnerabilities and help ensure that no one is left behind in crisis-affected and crisis-prone contexts.

Partners have flexible support – they now need to co-develop explicit expectations

As a donor, Sweden aims to be as flexible as possible, allowing significant scope to work at the nexus, despite the clear demarcation of humanitarian and development assistance. There are specific funds to facilitate work at the nexus but these are felt to be less essential than Sweden’s inbuilt models of flexible and decentralised funding, which have been used in many settings to direct development assistance to build resilience and address long-term impacts of crises.

Sweden is actively engaging with its multilateral and non-governmental organisation (NGO) partners at country and global levels to make connections at the nexus. So far, explicit expectations and dialogue are being led by the Humanitarian Unit with their NGO partners – other partner engagement remains more ad hoc. At present, there are no overall obligations or specific requirements for partners to consider work at the nexus, nor indeed clarity as to what partners should expect from Sweden as a donor in this regard. Making this explicit could counteract the pressures towards risk aversion in development action, as well as support accountability and shared learning. Sweden’s flexible funding, core support and new thinking around adaptive programming could provide the building blocks for developing a risk-embracing outcome-based model as part of programme partnerships.

Like many other donors, a very small proportion of Swedish ODA is channelled via the state in fragile or crisis-affected countries. While this circumvents the difficulties in working with governments to address crisis, risk and resilience in governance-constrained environments, it also reduces the scope to provide technical assistance or incentivise fundamental change. This makes working effectively with other donors and with multilateral agencies all the more important.

Leadership and investment in expertise is clear – know-how and communication also need to be mainstreamed

As a medium-sized donor, the organisational structure for governing ODA expenditure in Sweden is not overly complicated. The division of responsibilities between different headquarters’ thematic and geographic teams in the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs do not present insurmountable obstacles to a joined-up approach, but they do require efforts to be made to foster regular communication and routine co-working. The recent creation of a nexus working group within Sida should help to consolidate and develop cross-departmental thinking and action and improve inclusion of the peace leg.

The senior leadership team at Sida – all departmental directors – have communicated a clear steer that working at the nexus is an agency-wide expectation and priority. This supports the shift of the previously perceived centre of nexus gravity from the Humanitarian Unit. Strong country-level leadership remains crucial to enable effective nexus programming, and to creatively deploy the full range of ‘Team Sweden’s’ toolkit, including funding allocations, system support and political engagement.

The recent recruitment of a new cadre of nexus-focused in-country staff is an important investment in skills and capacity to lead humanitarian-development-peace programme connections. These staff members will help often overstretched teams to identify, create and develop opportunities. At the same, in parallel and in the long-term, skills, knowledge and capacity need to be mainstreamed in all teams and performance management could make it explicit that staff should be working in a connected way.