The Humanitarian and Development Nexus

In the context of fragile states, disasters, conflict, and other acute vulnerabilities, meaningful and sustainable impact requires complementary action by humanitarian and development actors. There are important, systemic changes that can be made in international assistance efforts to meet and lessen the need for aid while also complementing local development efforts. As reflected by a broad consensus of humanitarian and development professionals and reiterated in the U.S.-endorsed Grand Bargain on humanitarian financing, more flexible funding mechanisms and programmatic approaches are needed. It is also important to recognize that efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goals have an inherent weakness: progress towards these goals can be lost in an instant due to natural disasters or completely reversed for decades by man-made crises.

Today’s reality is that development and humanitarian assistance are often required concurrently, especially in complex and protracted crises. And while they need to be complementary, humanitarian and development efforts should not be confused with one other. When states are explicitly excluding portions of their population, or are responsible for the harm befalling them, principled humanitarian action must be supported. Yet where possible, development actors must also engage early and in a sustained way with humanitarian actors to bridge the humanitarian and development nexus so that crises are more likely to end sooner and are less likely to repeat themselves.

InterAction Recognizes

The goal of international development is to improve the social and economic circumstances of the world's poorest, most vulnerable people in a sustainable manner. The primary objective of humanitarian action is to save lives, alleviate suffering, and maintain human dignity with programming that adheres to the guiding principles of humanitarian action: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence.

  • NGOs play a key role in responding to evolutions in humanitarian and development needs. In support of the aspirational framing of the United Nations’ Secretary-General’s Agenda for Humanity, InterAction and 63 of its member nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have made concrete commitments in their pursuit of effective humanitarian action that strives to leave no one behind. The NGOs have committed to promoting the participation and decision-making of affected populations, transparency in funding, and improving the connectivity between humanitarian and development programs.

  • Protracted conflicts and migrations have expanded the demands on humanitarian relief and negatively impacted countries’ development gains. Meeting the needs of the more than 65 million refugees and internally displaced persons around the world requires an expansion of humanitarian funding. Notably, the World Bank has committed to engaging earlier and more robustly in fragile states and humanitarian settings. The U.S. also provides significant funding—over $5 billion annually through the International Disaster Assistance Account, Migration and Refugees Account, and other budget lines—to address the needs of refugees and internally displaced persons globally.

  • Because institutional sustainability is a goal for most development programs, there are practical challenges to integrating development work in humanitarian settings. Most development programs build goals and work plans on the idea that local institutional actors will play a role in carrying results into the future. However, when actors are either prosecuting a conflict or abusing the rights of citizens, certain core assumptions in development are no longer a valid basis for program planning. Integrating development approaches in humanitarian settings is more complicated than co-locating programs. 

Upcoming Opportunities

  • Ensure progress before the one-year anniversary of the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) and the Grand Bargain [May 2017]: Anniversaries can provide a deadline by which to move an agenda forward, and the ability of the United States to shape humanitarian response to all types of global crises relies at least in part on the extent to which commitments are upheld. Many NGOs engaged in humanitarian action have themselves committed to greater transparency, and are calling for global leadership to end crises and uphold the norms that safeguard humanity. There are several U.S. government executive branch commitments already in motion following on U.S. commitments made at the WHS (see below). However, for the WHS and the Grand Bargain to bear fruit, donors and implementers must be more transparent and seek efficiencies in funding and effort. U.S. executive branch and legislative offices with relevant jurisdiction should: press for greater clarity from implementing agencies on their operational partnerships; seek efficiencies and connectivity in approach through greater flexibility and nimbleness in financing and reporting; and explore the traceability of U.S. government funding throughout the transaction chain. Additionally, the U.S. government should ensure internal coordination on humanitarian and development approaches so as to further its success in speaking with a unified voice as it did during the Grand Bargain process.

  • Recognize and support financing tools and structures that calibrate assistance for fragile states [Ongoing]: Whether looking at direct bilateral assistance or examining multilateral tools to support a more sustainable response to urgent human need in fragile states, there are key financing characteristics that both the 115th Congress and the new administration can and should advance. To the extent that investments in fragile states are expected to go beyond immediate relief and enable sustained provision of human services, peacebuilding, or economic outcomes, those investments will require an up-front capital commitment of some scale, a multiyear timeline, and clarity about which countries are considered “fragile”. They will also require mechanisms that allow for innovative programming that bridge gaps, providing multiyear and flexible programs that blend humanitarian and development approaches. Several high-level reports have called for compacts with fragile states that would support such investments.

  • Formalize and expand safeguards for humanitarian aid and economic or institutional development work [2017]: Mandates by the U.S. government for partner vetting and reporting put implementing organizations and their staff at risk, particularly in areas of conflict or political violence. Such mandates create an impression that implementing partners are U.S. government agents—a stigma that can hamper assistance efforts when domestic buy-in is an essential component of live-saving or sustained impact, impede NGO access, and put NGO staff in jeopardy. Although Congress has included appropriations language requiring alternate vetting procedures, clearly defined exemptions that cover both humanitarian actors and development actors working to promote democracy are necessary to protect local partners and NGO workers.

  • Explore opportunities to redraft the State Department and Foreign Assistance Authorization to include support for fragile states and eliminate restrictions that impede flexible responses in complex crises [115th Congress]: Longer-term humanitarian funding and more flexible development funding have been identified by practitioners in the field as some of the most effective ways to bridge the humanitarian and development nexus. Congress should work with the next administration to identify what authorities empower or limit the ability of agencies to respond to complex crises.

Additional Materials

  • Assessing The Humanitarian Response To Chronic Crisis in North Kivu, 2014,

  • NGO Aid Map, Humanitarian Aid Projects,

  • Residual Risk Acceptance: An Advocacy Guidance Note, 2016,

  • The Grand Bargain – A Shared Commitment to Better Serve People in Need, 2016,

  • U.S. NGO Commitments for the World Humanitarian Summit, 2016,

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