The challenges for the triple nexus approach to humanitarian assistance: A case study analysis

Syrian refugee children learn skills on the rooftop at Mardin Circus school next to brightly colored walls

Humanitarian and development organizations have searched for decades for the best approach to move from life-saving emergency relief to longer-term, sustainable development. Most approaches are phased and advance iteratively from relief to recovery to development. However, with the increasing number of protracted emergencies facing enduring conflict and massive population displacements, the humanitarian community recognizes that we must now simultaneously provide life-saving interventions while implementing development-based solutions to address the drivers of conflict. If we don’t, the development-divide will only widen for those two billion people living in fragile, conflict and violence-affected settings around the world.

The approach to providing life-saving interventions and development solutions simultaneously is called the humanitarian-development-peacebuilding nexus (HDPN), or triple nexus. I recently conducted a policy analysis* using mixed methods that explores the barriers faced by organizations implementing the triple nexus and offers recommendations for overcoming those challenges. I describe the methods and briefly discuss the key themes from my paper in this post.

The approach to providing life-saving interventions and development solutions simultaneously is called the humanitarian-development-peacebuilding nexus, or triple nexus.


I used a mixed methodology approach that included key informant interviews, an analysis of funding trends and a review of case studies published by humanitarian and development organizations.

I developed search criteria to identify case studies that could inform me of the types of challenges and barriers organizations face when implementing the triple nexus. After a review of options, I chose to search for case studies on ReliefWeb as it is the common clearinghouse for grey-literature publications in the humanitarian community. I limited my results to publications from 2016 or later because 2016 was the year of the World Humanitarian Summit and the coining of the phrase triple nexus. A Boolean search of “case study” AND “nexus” produced one hundred results. I read and screened titles and abstracts against my screening criteria.

I screened for publications that 1) were published either by or about one or more organizations, 2) included simultaneous elements of humanitarian, development and peacebuilding projects in the same geographic location, and 3) included a lessons learned section. I identified six case studies.

After identifying the case studies, I developed a literature review framework that broke the challenges and barriers into pillars aligned with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) triple nexus framework, which are joint analysis, joint planning and joint operations. However, after reading the six case studies and noting the themes of the challenges mentioned, I developed a new literature review framework based on the common themes of funding, definition, coordination and mission. I used an Excel spreadsheet to systematically record information from the studies. Since there were only six case studies, I also reviewed the results for their qualitative similarities.


Here I describe the key challenges around the four common themes – funding, definition, coordination and mission.

Inflexible funding and project modification rules

Implementing organizations are slow to pivot from development work to full-scale humanitarian response.
When a localized crisis occurs, implementing organizations are slow to pivot from development work to full-scale humanitarian response. This is because donor-funded projects within development organizations do not have the flexibility to reallocate funding to address acute crises, and humanitarian organizations are primarily confined to funding mechanisms that prevent the longer-term engagement needed to reduce vulnerability.

Additionally, the project and log frame approaches required by many donors – and internally by many implementing organizations – generally do not allow enough flexibility to modify projects in response to the needs of people or to the emergencies that may occur. While feedback from a community may indicate that specific changes are warranted, frequently, the systems to rapidly make those changes are not in place – either internally within an organization or with a donor.

No common definitions

There is no universal definition of the humanitarian-development nexus or the triple nexus of humanitarian-development-peacebuilding. Trying to agree on a definition may not necessarily be a fruitful exercise, but greater clarity could be helpful in moving ahead. As one case study noted, “The nexus is not intended to expand the work of all actors, but more coordination: Development actors should be coming in and filling gaps.” This coordination approach could, in theory, also free up some humanitarian resources to focus even more on the most critical needs, knowing that other actors are addressing other obligations.

Absence of coordination

Triple nexus actors need to be brought together to understand what other actors are doing to ensure the complementarity required of the approach. On the humanitarian side, the Humanitarian Country Team – composed of representatives from the United Nations, international nongovernmental organizations, and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement – brings these actors together for coordination. However, there is no similar coordination body for development or peacebuilding that can unite a wide range of actors, including the government, together. This lack of coordinating structure makes implementing the triple nexus approach challenging.

Compromising mission principles

Bringing together humanitarian, development and peacebuilding actors requires time and coordination.
Bringing together humanitarian, development and peacebuilding actors requires time and coordination. Each sector has its own objectives, approaches and language. Each engages with affected people, local authorities, government, donors and other actors in different ways. Humanitarian actors, for example, are less likely to work in partnership with the government to act in line with the humanitarian principles. At the same time, development actors are more likely to focus on strengthening the actions of local authorities and governments. Additionally, development actors may view humanitarian actors as moving too quickly while humanitarian actors may see peacebuilding and development actors as moving too slowly. The case studies noted that there are not enough individuals who have worked across the different program areas, especially in leadership or management positions.

What have been your experiences in the nexus?

Implementation challenges in the triple nexus approach can also bring opportunities for organizational innovation. What have been your experiences in the nexus? How have you overcome these or other challenges? Let me know in the comments below.

*OBrien, Michael. FHI 360’s Comparative Advantage to Implement in the Humanitarian-Development Nexus Space in Fragile, Conflict, and Violent Affected Settings. Unpublished manuscript. 2020.

Photo caption: Syrian refugee children learn skills at Mardin Circus school
Photo credit: Chris McGrath/Getty

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