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  • Report
  • 11 December 2019

Donors at the triple nexus: Lessons from Sweden: Chapter 2

Policy, strategy and nexus engagement

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Policy and strategy framework

Lessons: Top-level policy and strategies set a strong steer for Swedish official development assistance (ODA) to work in a concerted and connected way in order to reduce risk, vulnerability and crisis and ensure no one is left behind. Although they pre-date the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Development Assistance Committee (OECD DAC) ‘triple nexus’ recommendation, they clearly set the stage for realising it: they all call for greater coherence and connections between humanitarian, development, peacebuilding and political dialogue in crisis contexts. They demarcate the respective roles of humanitarian, development and peace support and demand a close interplay between them. As a broad set of directions and requirements, they leave much latitude for application.

Overarching frameworks

The Swedish government’s vision and strategy for its ODA is summarised in its Policy Framework. This provides the top-level guiding principles and parameters for regional, country and thematic strategies and operational plans, including for peace and humanitarian assistance (Appendix 5).

The current Policy Framework[1] was updated from 2013’s iteration to reflect Agenda 2030 and the Paris Agreement and to explicitly link poverty reduction to economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. It states the aim of Swedish development cooperation as creating “preconditions for better living conditions for people living in poverty and under oppression”.

Although the Framework pre-dates recent global commitments to the nexus, it is clearly in line with these and sets strong foundations to support their implementation. It explicitly recognises the interplay between multiple risks and causes of vulnerability, noting the role of development in “increasing the resilience of societies and opportunities of people, and thus reducing the risk of humanitarian crises and preventing protracted crises”. It also provides a clear call for long-term solutions to recurring and protracted crises and an increase in “development actors working to strengthen the resilience of individuals and societies and operating in humanitarian contexts”. It commits to “putting more effort into conflict resolution, disaster risk reduction, education, sustainable use of natural resources, environmental and climate work and long-term development […] to ensure that crises do not arise and are not protracted or recurrent”. It also demands increased development presence in fragile and crisis-affected contexts and improvements in joint analysis, planning and goal formulation by humanitarian and development actors, working in parallel rather than just in sequence and guided by a clear division of labour that respects humanitarian principles.

Peaceful and inclusive societies are explicitly recognised as a pre-requisite for sustainable development and conflict as a threat to poverty reduction: there can be “no peace without sustainable development and no sustainable development without peace, and neither without respect for human rights”.[2] So, in line with – but ahead of – the triple nexus of the OECD DAC recommendation, conflict was given a new prominence in this latest version of the Policy Framework. It has been elevated alongside gender and environment as a dimension which must be considered in all Swedish development programming.[3][4]

The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) has recently finalised an overarching three-year Operational Plan (2019–2021),[5] which articulates the vision and mission for the agency, connecting the steer in the Policy Framework to a set of operational objectives and a common action plan for the agency. Taking the principle of ‘leaving no one behind’ as its starting point, it clearly restates the case for effective coordination at the nexus, setting out a clear objective for the period: for Sida to have “developed methods, ways of working and routines that enable an effective interplay between humanitarian assistance and long-term development, including peacebuilding contributions”.

Humanitarian strategy

Sweden’s latest four-year humanitarian strategy (2017–2020)[6] is one of a set of ‘thematic strategies’ that add detail to the Policy Framework. Reiterating the rationale for an integrated approach to reduce and address the risk and impacts of crises, it reflects the Policy Framework’s commitment to closer interaction and a holistic approach to development cooperation, while continuing to clearly respect humanitarian principles. This demands clearly demarcated work and approaches that ensure that Sweden’s humanitarian assistance is allocated and prioritised according to severity of needs – but it also necessitates joint thinking and dialogue to develop the best solutions.

It commits to strengthening cooperation with development actors to “improve the conditions for resilience and risk reduction” and – on condition of respect for humanitarian principles – support increased synergies between humanitarian response plans and UN and national governments’ development plans. Conflict sensitivity is also built into the humanitarian approach, both as a basic ‘do no harm’ consideration in analysis and in planning and programming, and also, where appropriate, in humanitarian activities which prevent conflict and promote peace. It notes that, wherever possible, resilience should also be mainstreamed in humanitarian approaches, to strengthen the capacities of people and societies to deal with crises and to support sustainable solutions.

Peace strategy

Sweden’s current five-year Strategy for Sustainable Peace[7] runs from 2017–2022, and covers both funding channelled through Sida and the Folke Bernadotte Academy.[8] It is a short, top-line statement of intent to guide the annual allocation of the peace budget.[9] It sets out the overarching objectives: contributing to preventing armed conflict; conflict resolution; sustainable peacebuilding and state-building; increasing human security in fragile and conflict-affected states and empowering excluded groups in these situations. It seeks to support capacity to do this at the global level and at the national and local levels. Its focus on forgotten and protracted conflicts includes strengthened opportunities for peace dividends.[10] An accompanying explanatory tool clarifies the difference between working in conflict (involving risk awareness and conflict sensitivity) and working on conflict (involving active engagement to promote peace and security).[11]

In accordance with the Policy Framework, the peace strategy also sets a clear intent to work at the nexus. It acknowledges the need for a “close interplay between humanitarian assistance, long-term development cooperation, political dialogue and mediation, as well as coordinated and complementary measures at national, regional and global level” and states that “activities shall contribute to increased collaboration between actors in the humanitarian system and long-term development cooperation with a focus on joint analysis, planning and goal formulation”, calling for an adaptive and iterative approach to implementation.

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Policy progress and engagement on the nexus

Lessons: Sweden’s current approach to the nexus comes from many years of making connections, most notably its early adoption of resilience approaches. There has been recent and ongoing momentum in internal reflection and external engagement on policies and practice. The challenge now is drawing these sometimes-disparate initiatives from specific teams into a commonly owned and understood set of positions and learning.

The language and commitments in the framing policies and strategies are grounded in many years of thought and action. Sweden has long made the connections between humanitarian and longer-term development assistance, and between addressing the root causes, acute symptoms and long-term consequences of crises. Like many other donors and agencies, this has taken different forms and approaches. Overall, the picture that emerges is of a donor which has actively and thoughtfully committed to promoting and holding itself to account on these connections, but which is continuing to learn how to do so systematically and comprehensively. Evidently, as with many donors and agencies, conceptualisation of the nexus has very much focused on connections between humanitarian action and development assistance – the double nexus. The so-called triple nexus – bringing peace into the equation – appears to be at a much earlier conceptual stage, although there are some longstanding examples of putting it into practice in programming.[12]

Sweden was an early and active adopter of resilience[13] approaches in countries where humanitarian needs, conflict and chronic poverty go hand-in-hand – and these have informed and provided a departure point for much of its current ‘nexus’ thinking. As far back as 2012, resilience was an explicit objective in Sida’s Operational Plan. It was the subject of a specific evaluation[14] which among its recommendations called for more explicit risk and resilience emphasis in theories of change and results frameworks and encouraging wider ownership beyond humanitarian. By 2015, resilience and the complementarity between humanitarian and development approaches had become a key priority[15] when Sida began a two-year project with the OECD DAC to develop and pilot its resilience systems analysis approach in seven countries.[16]

Now, as Sida develops its nexus approach, there is a recognised need to ensure that lessons from the successes and challenges of applying a resilience approach are fully learned. Sida also has to clarify and support a common understanding among staff of the overlap and differences between the two terms: both ‘resilience’ and ‘nexus’ are rather broad and abstract terms, and while some staff members are clear on what they mean, others tend to use the terms interchangeably. This is not exclusive to Sweden – the same is true in many donors and agencies – but it matters if they are to make the most of resilience learning to date and to avoid the nexus being dismissed as just a repackaging.

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Box 2

Sweden’s definition of resilience

Resilience is a concept which runs through Sweden’s official development assistance policies and strategies. It is seen as a “unifying concept where all aspects of development cooperation (including environment and climate and peace and state-building) meet and where humanitarian assistance and long-term development cooperation serve a common purpose.”[17]

The working definition is closely aligned with the OECD DAC definition (Chapter 1, Box 1). It defines resilience as the “ability of people and communities to cope with, recover, adapt and change when exposed to crises and/or disasters” and therefore sees resilience as three types of “capacity that Sida/Sweden and others can contribute to strengthen”: absorptive capacity, adaptive capacity and transformative capacity.[18]

Resilience analysis also provides a useful typology of risks, shocks and stresses:[19]

  • Covariate shocks: which affect a wide group of people
  • Idiosyncratic shocks: which specifically affect individuals or households
  • Seasonal or recurring shocks: which periodically affect people
  • Stresses: long-term trends which deplete coping capacity and increase vulnerability.

Beyond resilience, a series of evaluations have charted progress on wider humanitarian-development connections. In 2016, an evaluation of Sida’s humanitarian assistance found that it had been actively promoting synergies, despite a lack of formal incentives to do so, or of structures for collaboration. This was a result of a growing recognition of importance of joint analysis, of flexible funding, of resilience approaches, and of staff identifying and seizing opportunities.[20]

In 2017, Sida undertook an internal evaluation on the “interaction between humanitarian assistance and development cooperation”[21] as a midpoint review of progress to operationalise its vision for a “functional interaction” between its humanitarian assistance and development cooperation. This broadly found that staff were clear on and supportive of this as a priority concept, but that they were less confident about what this meant in practice (the ‘who, what, where and how’) and, to some extent, what the rationale was (the ‘why’).

This was followed by a 2019 evaluation by Sweden’s National Audit Office, published in 2019,[22] which also scrutinised the relationship between Sida’s humanitarian assistance and long-term development cooperation. For the period between 2015 and 2017, it examined whether the government had created an enabling environment for collaboration and whether Sida had designed the right working methods. Like the internal evaluation, it revealed a mixed picture of progress. It also included the clear reminder that the nexus is not a goal in itself but a means to achieving the overall goals of Swedish ODA.

Alongside this internal reflection, externally, Sweden was actively engaged with the OECD DAC discussions that led to the November 2018 recommendation on the nexus and continues to engage in long-term dialogue with the DAC team. Sweden has used the DAC process as a springboard for internal discussions within and between its departments, and externally with its partners.

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Translation of policy into operational strategy

Lessons: Overarching framework commitments on the nexus are translated into operational strategies at the level of country-specific strategies and humanitarian plans. Their content and processes are increasingly reflecting and incorporating the nexus, though inconsistencies remain. To support translating top-line concepts into concrete strategy, Sweden also has a range of guidance documents, tools and notes, but these do not yet provide clear guidance on how to put the nexus into practice – staff are currently considering how to fill this ‘missing middle’ of operational guidance on the nexus.

Country and regional strategies

Country strategies set the operational plans for Sweden’s ODA allocations in a specific country or regional programme. As of 2019, there were 25 country strategies and six multi-country or regional strategies. These are usually revised every four years, prepared by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MFA) on the basis of analysis from Sida. They are based on a series of inputs, including a multidimensional poverty analysis (Section 3.1) and drawn up in collaboration between staff based in the geographic departments in Stockholm and those in-country in the embassies. The ‘new generation’ of country strategies are addressing the nexus more prominently and joint working to develop them is proving important to connect staff, as well as programmes, strengthening interdepartmental relationships and establishing programmatic connections. This is a work in progress: as the recent peer review by the OECD DAC noted, it is not yet systematised in the strategies for all the countries which have been in long-term receipt of humanitarian assistance, primarily because these are at different stages in their four-year cycles (Appendix 6), but also partly because it had been contingent on country leadership and staff capacity.[23]

In the countries where the connections are being made, they are formulated in a way that strengthens coherence and complementarity with humanitarian assistance and they have a stronger focus on resilience that brings peace-building, development as well as humanitarian together. Several strategies – including those of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mali, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan – also include peace (articulated as ‘building peace’, ‘peaceful societies’, ‘durable peace’ or ‘human security’) as a specific strategy area or objective. As explored in the next section, strategies based on good multidimensional analysis create possibilities for interconnected, multisectoral strategic programming: for example, under the Sudan strategy, natural resource management programmes integrate peacebuilding, as do food and agriculture programmes in the DRC strategy.

The fixed four-year cycle for the country strategies is both an opportunity to set out a medium-to-long term approach to risks and vulnerabilities and a challenge to adapting to volatile situations in fragile and crisis-affected contexts. This challenge could be addressed by a systematically risk-informed analysis at the outset, combined with current opportunities to recalibrate, including at the midpoint review. This would exploit flexibility in development plans and maintain the room to adapt to serious changes throughout the strategy period. In Somalia, for example, analysis of the internally displaced persons crisis ultimately informed the process of developing the new country development strategy for 2018–2022, which now highlights internally displaced persons under each sectoral results area, providing both the clear direction and necessary flexibility to address their development needs.

There are several points in the process that could be better used for this recalibration. The annual humanitarian country analysis process includes consultation with the country teams – routine consideration of its findings against the development strategy could ensure that opportunities are taken to make connections between poverty reduction, peacebuilding and crisis prevention and response. Each country team also develops annual implementation plans for their strategies, offering important opportunities for recalibration to external events and making closer connections with the annual humanitarian country analysis.

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Box 3

Adapting development strategies in the face of new crises

The Bangladesh country strategy shows how, in extreme cases, country strategies can adapt to respond to new crises. Agreed in 2014, the original strategy could not foresee the Rohingya refugee crisis. As the situation escalated in 2017, the Country Director first used his delegated authority to recalibrate the focus of existing projects and then, in 2018, with the injection of US$30 million additional development funding, added a new objective to the country strategy: to build resilience for the refugees and host communities in Cox’s Bazar.

Elsewhere, at a slower adaptation pace, regional strategies have been developed to respond to recurrent and chronic crises. In 2018, a new regional resilience initiative was developed, aimed at preventing recurrent humanitarian crises in the Horn of Africa.

Humanitarian plans

Humanitarian plans are deliberately shorter-term and separate from the country strategies. Building on a distinct analysis methodology, the humanitarian ‘strategies’ for each country – in the form of ‘humanitarian crisis analyses’– are drawn up annually to reflect and adapt to changing needs. These involve a separate process to ensure that they respect humanitarian principles: that they are guided by an assessment of where the greatest needs are and ensure independence from the political considerations that are an inevitable part of development cooperation.

In 2019, five out of the 15 countries targeted for large-scale Swedish humanitarian assistance at the start of the year did not have a country strategy for development assistance. This can be a major challenge to making connections between humanitarian and development work, but as seen in Chapter 3, Box 6, not an insurmountable one: in the case of Yemen, making the connections with supporting peace dividends programming was still possible. Regional strategies also play an important role where there are no country development strategies to connect with: increased investment in a regional strategy for the Sahel has enabled connections to be made to improve human security in Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria (Box 4).

While humanitarian plans are clearly not driven by, integrated into or yet routinely considered in development strategies, they do actively seek complementarity and engage development staff in their processes. For the past two years, each ‘humanitarian crisis analysis’ has explicitly included a chapter on humanitarian development work, which is the basis for joint work. The humanitarian planning cycle is also used as an opportunity for a joint discussion on risk and response: every year, ahead of the global humanitarian allocation in December, humanitarian, development and peace colleagues for a given country come together to identify humanitarian and development needs and discuss options for parallel, joint or sequential response.

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Box 4

Regional strategies enabling joined-up approaches in crisis-affected states

In 2018, the Swedish government added US$46 million to its development budget for sub-Saharan Africa, to fund a new three-year (2019–2021) Sahel Regional Strategy.[24] It responded to the need to address the chronic and multidimensional challenges in a region in which Sweden had little in-country embassy presence and few bilateral development strategies. The regional strategy seeks to respond to both the impacts and root causes of extensive poverty, recurrent humanitarian crises,[25] fragile institutions, deteriorating security and climate change. Its approach includes support to existing multilateral regional initiatives for humanitarian, development and peacebuilding, including the Liptako-Gourma Authority (covering the border region between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger), the G5 Sahel and the UN Integrated Strategy for the Sahel.

Operational guidance

At the latest count, according to the recent DAC peer review, Sweden had a total of 63 strategies: six regional, 25 country, 12 thematic and 19 on multilateral cooperation. These all clearly align to the priorities set out in the overarching 2016 Policy Framework, but the peer review suggests that staff might often get lost in this “forest of strategies”,[26] unclear on the common priorities and how to implement them. The peer review therefore calls for a “consolidation of strategies” to ensure clarity, allow time and build skills for implementation.

There is potentially a sliding scale for this consolidation: at an extreme end, moving towards a common strategy, which – in accordance with the idea of ‘collective outcomes’ – would articulate a common set of goals at the regional or country levels. This was proposed by the Swedish National Audit Office’s evaluation, which suggested that a barrier to cooperation was the fact that although there is a common high-level strategic focus on the importance of the nexus, there is no articulation of common goals at an operationally strategic level. This idea has not yet generated widespread support, primarily because of the principled separation of humanitarian assistance, though it may also reflect the fact that outside Sweden, the experience of articulating collective outcomes in the New Way of Working is proving so problematic.[27] This does not, however, have to rule out articulating common goals or long-term results for Swedish ODA, to which humanitarian, development and peace interventions can contribute. The centrality of the concepts of resilience[28] and leaving no one behind provide a useful frame for these.

At the other end of the scale, staff and evaluations agreed that there was a need to make better practical sense of what is already there. While there is strong policy steer on the nexus from the top, and many examples of good practice on the ground, there appears to be a ‘missing middle’ of clear practical guidelines. The absence of such a description of what working at the nexus entails evidently creates confusion and devaluation. This is far from unique to Sweden – it is at the heart of many challenges to nexus work.

This is actively recognised and at the time of writing, it was on the radar of the newly formed Sida nexus working group. The MFA had recently developed an internal note and staff there recognise that there is now a need for a clear steer from the government on how to operationalise the nexus: they are drafting a guiding document and looking into what government guidance would be required to support this and to help overcome any tensions between the three parts of the nexus. As they and the new Sida nexus working group develop their briefing notes, it will be important to ensure that these are written and communicated in a way that clearly helps staff to navigate the ‘forest’, rather than adding more trees.

A suite of operational guidance, internal briefings and toolboxes already exists on a range of topics, from a Toolbox on Peace to briefings on multidimensional poverty and resilience, and a compendium of humanitarian operational guidelines. These could be consolidated to support practical application and learning, helping staff to know when and how to apply the many different approaches to which Sida is committed and how these fit together. They could give substance to the menu of options for collaboration, complementarity and coherence implicit in the DAC recommendation and the types of approaches that might be considered in different crisis types, stages and political contexts.

Building common understanding is part of clarifying guidance. Working at the nexus demands a common language – a shared understanding of terms that are either not commonly used by all or are understood differently – including ‘risk’, ‘vulnerability’, ‘resilience’ and ‘most left behind’. Sida’s experience of piloting resilience systems analysis showed the problems that confusion over basic terms can create.[29] Overcoming this takes more than defining vocabulary – it involves dialogue regarding the fundamental concepts of the function of Sweden’s ODA.[30] The points of departure of the three parts of the nexus are necessarily different. ‘Humanitarian’ can broadly be characterised as saving lives; ‘peace’ as stability and security; and ‘development’ as opportunities for people living in poverty. These clear differences bring the benefits of clear mandates and divisions of labour,[31] but they can also bring quite different mindsets and working assumptions about the purpose of ODA, which need to be openly discussed from the outset. The Sida nexus working group will be an important test ground for these. Some of these fundamental mindset questions are around reconciling an economic growth model of development with a risk-informed model that focuses on those most affected by poverty and those most vulnerable, and others around the parameters of how ODA can contribute to peacebuilding.

Suggestions for Sweden as a donor

To fill the ‘missing middle’ of practical guidance, Sweden now needs to:

  • Translate top-line commitments into a clear, practical and well-communicated communiqué which explains – for both internal and external audiences – Sweden’s role in and vision and avenues for implementing the triple nexus.
  • Work collaboratively between ministries and departments to clarify basic terms and definitions of what the nexus means for Sweden. The process and the final outputs would support a common understanding among staff of the overlap with and distinguishing features of resilience and articulate Sweden’s position on aspects including collective outcomes.
  • Consolidate and develop a suite of operational guidance on putting the nexus into practice, including tools and briefing modules to support country and thematic teams at each stage of the strategy and programme cycle. This should build on and consolidate existing tools and guidance on resilience and on each of the three ‘legs’ of the triple nexus.


  • 3
    This stems from a 2015 government directive in which an integrated conflict perspective was introduced along with gender, environment/climate, poverty and democracy/human rights as factors that should be integrated and used as the departure point for all of Sida’s work.
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