Image by Denis Onyodi/Climate Centre
  • Report
  • 5 December 2019

Donors at the triple nexus: lessons from the United Kingdom: Chapter 4

Organisational structures and systems


Lessons: DFID’s decentralised structure provides a strong foundation for working practically on the nexus. To realise the potential this offers, it will be important to build coherence between the centre and country offices on peace and resilience, developing strategies and structures for stronger regional engagement and expanding, formalising and mandating directly from leadership internal networks for providing country offices with technical support on all aspects of the nexus. Efforts to cross-pollinate expertise areas in policy/advisory staffing structures is supporting greater collaboration, coherence and complementarity, and could be expanded and systematised. Expanding the rule that Advisers can use a proportion of their time on other projects could be rolled out to cover joint and cross-cadre working for the whole staff.

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Organisational structure

It could be argued that working at the nexus requires an overhaul of organisational structures, dismantling thematic and multi-disciplinary teams. However, this is not practical for DFID, and there are opportunities to strengthen work on the nexus within the current structure. DFID has the primary responsibility for UK aid, within the overall budget and framework agreed by Parliament. The 2015 Aid Strategy extended responsibility for the delivery of ODA to other government departments, and this primarily takes shape as ODA spend on stability, security and peacebuilding. DFID is the primary agency responsible for humanitarian spend. In 2018, DFID was responsible for 75% of total UK ODA spend, with the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) responsible for the second-largest share (5.8%), followed by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (4.4%) and the CSSF (4.2%).

Within DFID, various teams cover areas of work of relevance to the nexus. Country offices play a vital role in delivering the nexus given the decentralised structure. At the central level, the Conflict, Humanitarian and Security Department (CHASE) is responsible for policy on humanitarian response, security and peacebuilding, policy on nexus through establishment of the Humanitarian and Protracted Crises Policy (HPCP) team, coordination of humanitarian response across DFID and management of the Crisis Reserve. The Policy Division oversees the direction of organisational policy on issues of central importance to the nexus (e.g. social protection, education, nutrition, and health), and the Economic Department (Private Sector and Growth and Resilience Departments) covers the role of the private sector in linking humanitarian assistance with longer-term recovery. The Global Partnerships, UN and Commonwealth teams as well as the International Financial Institutions Department (IFID) also play a role, given their potential to shape joined-up approaches to partnerships. The cross-government Stabilisation Unit and NSC are also central stakeholders, given their coordination of issues relevant to the peace aspect of the nexus.

Collaboration between country offices and the centre on the nexus

Despite many benefits of the decentralised model, a key challenge is finding consistency in the approach of country offices and the centre (e.g. policy teams) in delivering on policy objectives, which in turn affects institutional impact across all policy areas. As one interviewee noted, “DFID has a very decentralised model but overlaid with corporate priorities and objectives which waxes and wanes a little”. The 2014 OECD DAC peer review of the UK found that DFID’s country offices are not systematically consulted about central programmes (and vice versa), which makes it difficult for them to have a comprehensive view of the department’s overall actions in country.[1]

Guidance produced through the Smart Rules in 2016[2] helps to build consistency between country offices and central programmes and formalise expectations. However, it is not a requirement to follow the guidance and so coherence varies. Interviewees provided anecdotal examples of where resilience programmes had been developed at country level without consulting the central Climate and Resilience department, and of where central programmes had been designed without consulting country offices. In contrast to this, and sometimes in the very same country, there are examples of strong coherence in engaging with multilateral partners (e.g. in Ethiopia).

Internal networks for providing technical support from the centre to country offices on nexus-related issues in protracted crises play an important role. An informal community of practice (CoP) has been established to enable advisers in CHASE and the Policy Division to provide technical advice to country offices across a range of expertise areas (e.g. humanitarian, nutrition, social protection, health, education, conflict and security, climate and resilience). As noted, technical advice has been provided through this structure to country offices, e.g. South Sudan on strengthening coherence on health and nutrition (Section 3.2). Formalising this CoP and ensuring that it is mandated by DFID leadership will be crucial in determining its reach and influence. Existing CoPs on resilience and shock-responsive approaches also play key roles, as does the Resilience Board set up after ICAI’s review of DFID’s approach to resilience.[3]

While regional departments are in place, the limitations they face and the absence of alternative regional mechanisms (e.g. sub-regional bodies) for addressing the scale of regional vulnerabilities emerged as a challenge of DFID’s decentralised structure, undermining communication between country offices addressing similar regional issues and between country offices and the centre. Given that many of the issues prioritised by the UK government have a regional dimension (e.g. conflict, climate change and climate-induced migration, disasters and fragility), a regional approach to addressing such issues is important.

Collaboration within DFID’s central humanitarian, development and peacebuilding departments

Emerging changes to staffing structures in policy/advisory teams are helping to support greater collaboration across humanitarian and development departments. For example, the placing of a Conflict Adviser within IFID is helping to build synergies and strengthen DFID’s work on the private sector in fragile and crisis contexts outside mainstream development. As another example, a Humanitarian Adviser has been placed within the Social Protection Team, Inclusive Societies Department, in the Policy Division, which is helping to forge stronger links between humanitarian response and longer-term development programming.

There are examples of opportunities being missed to build expertise and learning across different aspects of the nexus. For example, Advisers have the option of using 10% of their time to work on other projects for their own learning. There is no specific guidance attached to this, nor incentives to use this time to support coherence, collaboration and complementarity with regard to delivering on the nexus. The Heads of Profession structure is regarded positively and perceived to play a key role in promoting coherence and collaboration across relevant departments – by providing oversight of all engagement in the profession, supporting joint learning and bringing people together.

Suggestions for the UK government as a donor

  • DFID could roll out the approach of cross-pollinating expertise areas in staffing structures more systematically to other departments, including embedding development staff into humanitarian departments, and vice versa.
  • DFID could expand the rule enabling Advisers to use 10% of their time on other projects to all staff members, between cadres, and in engaging with joint activities such as annual reviews.
  • DFID could consider establishing regional hubs to assist SROs at central and country levels to coordinate and achieve a joined-up approach to addressing regional issues. The delivery of the draft Africa Strategy provides an opportunity to test this approach.
  • DFID could formalise and ensure CoPs relevant to the nexus and the provision of technical support in protracted crisis countries are mandated by DFID’s senior management to strengthen uptake and buy-in.
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Leadership, ownership and staff incentives

Lessons: Clear leadership is vital to progress on the nexus. The attitudes and behaviours of staff members are as important as systems and structures. Incentivising personnel to work flexibly in crisis contexts as a central approach to the nexus requires the establishment of a reward system in performance management, flexibility for engaging risks and, most fundamentally, a steer from leadership.

Fundamentally, effective working on the nexus requires strong leadership at headquarters and country levels, as well as through technical support and internal networks. Staff members are unlikely to work to deliver on an agenda that has not been communicated as such by directors. To date, there has been no formal steer from senior leadership on this issue. Incentivising staff to think collaboratively and work in innovative ways to deliver on the nexus requires the ability to work more flexibly and take risks, although this is not well matched to DFID’s culture of compliance and risk-avoidance. One interviewee commented, “people are encouraged to take risks but there are massive restrictions – pressure to show results, and protect DFID from any safeguarding, operational or reputational risks”. As a result, the risk is passed to downstream partners. An ongoing conundrum for DFID management is working within these external constraints while encouraging innovation and flexibility.

The drive for delivering on the nexus sits within CHASE and specifically among humanitarian colleagues, reflecting where the push sits internationally. However, there is also engagement from conflict colleagues in the Building Stability team within CHASE, who are working on the development–peace nexus and collaboratively on the CSSF on peace and stability. To deliver fully on the nexus, improving on previous attempts,[4] the responsibility and accountability for this agenda must include development colleagues and partners. It calls for real change and a cultural shift in the perceptions of personnel across DFID and the whole UK government but also internationally. To enable such a cultural shift, staff incentives are critical. As one interviewee stated, “it is not the structures but the people that drive this [the nexus] – and incentives matter” (Section 3.2).

There is no official reward system in place for members of staff to recognise their efforts to enhance collaboration, coherence and complementarity. Where this is being promoted and achieved by individuals or teams, it is a result of volunteer time. This is corroborated in the Operational Model Review which found that informal incentives are strong. Examples include the efforts being taken with CHASE and the Policy Team to develop a CoP to provide country teams with technical advice on a range of issues in protracted crises (Section 4.1), as well strong working relationships between CHASE and policy teams on health, education, nutrition, climate and resilience and social protection. The inclusion of deliverables relating to the nexus in job descriptions and performance indicators is a key aspect of incentivising staff to deliver on this agenda.

Suggestions for the UK government as a donor

  • A steer from leadership at both headquarters and country levels through formal communication will be critical.
  • DFID could consider embedding the nexus into job descriptions, line management and performance indicators, and establishing a reward system such as an annual ‘peace and resilience’ staff award.
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Staff skills and capacity

Lessons: DFID is increasingly using a multi-disciplinary team model in crisis contexts to ensure the right mix of expertise the right place, although this is not yet standard practice. For humanitarian responses to transition into longer-term programming, it is vital that the right mix of expertise is assembled from the outset, not only in active crisis contexts but also pre- and post-crisis. Guidance on the formation of effective multi-disciplinary teams in different types of crises will be important, as will training for personnel working across HDP programmes to strengthen knowledge on risk, resilience, anticipatory and preventive approaches, and peacebuilding. More expertise at headquarters and country-level on fragility, resilience, peace and protracted crises would support broader uptake of nexus approaches at all levels.

For responding to rapid onset emergencies, DFID has developed strong systems and invested in appropriate skills development. As set out in the Smart Humanitarian Emergency Funding Guide, options for rapid response include surge Humanitarian Advisers, standby surge DFID Advisers to UN field capacity and OCHA rapid response mechanisms, provision of medical expertise (jointly with the NHS), search and rescue capabilities (jointly with the UK Fire and Rescue services) and technical expertise drawing on the cross-government Humanitarian Emergency Experts Group of Scientific Advisers.[5] The UK’s use of staff flexibility in its successful response to the Ebola outbreak is an example of this.[6] Establishing the right skills for working across the nexus in protracted crises, and enabling staff to flex in response to changes in the context, is even more complex.

The Operating Model review found that DFID has limited flexibility in responding to emerging priorities and making the most of skills. Key challenges include ‘grade creep’, with more people in senior positions, and that staff members have limited time for thought leadership and learning.[7] To strengthen staff skills for greater adaptability to support the delivery of the nexus, and balance the need for expertise with flexibility, it is crucial that development and peacebuilding personnel understand and are trained in humanitarian response, risk financing, conflict sensitivity and engaging in crisis contexts. Equally, humanitarian staff could be trained in working with and through governments, in types of development and peacebuilding programming relevant in protracted crisis contexts (e.g. social protection and nutrition) and transitioning to recovery and peacebuilding. DFID currently largely relies on the existing expertise of advisory staff and does not systematically provide training, which is a limiting factor on the nexus where there is a limited pool of existing expertise. Appointing people with dedicated skills on fragility, resilience and the nexus at headquarters and country level is critical for operationalising the nexus in all aspects of planning and programming.[8]

The OECD DAC peer review of the UK (2014)[9] found that DFID has a forward-looking human resources strategy and makes every effort to ensure that it has the right people in the right places by, for example, increasing front-line staffing levels, developing new capabilities in critical areas and posting personnel in fragile contexts. However, more recent analysis demonstrated that staffing is low in proportion to aid spend, and the administration budget has not kept pace with increases in ODA. A report produced by the International Development Committee in 2017 stated that the headcount at DFID appears to have “fallen below what is required” to manage the UK aid budget.[10]

DFID has moved towards a model of using multi-disciplinary teams at the outset of crisis contexts to ensure that the right expertise is in place, which is critical to delivering on the nexus and ensuring a joined-up approach. Some country offices have set up programme boards where SROs can talk through and identify additional resources needed for coherence and complementarity.

There are several examples of this:

  • In response to the Nepal earthquake, the humanitarian experts deployed were fully integrated into the country office, working closely with governance and development advisers.
  • In Syria, a cross-cadre/technical advisory group was established, covering eight multi-disciplinary specialities.
  • In Nigeria, multi-disciplinary teams have been established and the Education in Emergencies programme is led by development experts, enabling emergency response to connect with longer-term development priorities.
  • In Yemen, Economic Advisers have been embedded into multi-disciplinary teams, ensuring that planning around the response considers the impact of the crisis on macroeconomic and trade dimensions. For example, Economic Advisers have supported joint analysis and donor engagement to support salary payments for municipal workers in the north as a preventive measure against cholera outbreaks.

While the use of multi-disciplinary teams is clearly beneficial, it is not systematised as standard practice, leading to diverse approaches by country offices. There has been a tendency for a more systematic approach when a rapid-onset crisis occurs, but not in pre-crisis risk and resilience contexts or in acute conflict contexts where the humanitarian response has been led primarily by humanitarian advisers (e.g. in South Sudan) and governance, private sector and development advisers have played a more peripheral role. To shift towards a staffing model that enables shorter-term humanitarian responses to transition into longer-term programming, it is vital that foundations for continuity are established by assembling the right mix of expertise from the outset, including humanitarian, development, peace/conflict, governance, climate/environment, financing and private sector expertise, in all contexts.

Suggestions for the UK government as a donor

  • DFID could consider rolling out training for personnel working on humanitarian, development and peace programmes at central and country levels to strengthen their ability to flex in response to changes in contexts and foster joined-up working. Ensuring that applications for internal positions are not limited to specific cadres will also be important.
  • DFID could consider expanding Smart Rules to include specific guidance on the formation of multi-disciplinary teams with skill sets spanning the nexus to ensure that country office staffing plans include capability on multi-sector crisis teams.
  • DFID could consider appointing a team of advisers at headquarters level with expertise on fragility, resilience, peace and protracted crises to focus explicitly on providing support to country offices in operationalising the nexus. Embedding personnel with similar skills at country levels where contextually relevant will be equally important.


  • 2
    DFID, 2016. Best practice in programming coherently across DFID. The guidance provides direction for SROs managing central programmes on engaging with country offices in design of regional, global, multi-annual programmes and for SROs at country level (country heads) to engage with central teams (e.g. policy division) when designing programmes or in response to central requests for country consultations. It covers issues from suppliers and programme design to monitoring and evaluation.
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  • 4
    Focus on this issue has risen and fallen over last few decades, e.g. transitional financing in 2010.
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  • 5
    DFID, 2016. Smart Rules guide: humanitarian emergency funding guide. Internal document.
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