The triple nexus

by Nyambura Githaiga

Conflict causes hunger. In 2019, of the 135 million acutely food-insecure people, over half lived in countries where conflict was the major driver of hunger. The first response is to save lives. In the case of food security, emergency food assistance meets immediate needs for sustenance and nourishment. Beyond this, we consider how to support sustainable food security in the long-term. But what if the violent conflict still rages? What if the conflict-affected population cannot access their farms to plant, or dare not keep livestock for fear of attacks? How can we accompany them to sustainably meet their food security needs? These questions are at the heart of the complexity in responding to humanitarian crises in conflict settings.  

An interreligious approach to providing humanitarian assistance helps build cohesion in the Qalamoun Valley. Names are not used for security reasons. Photo courtesy of FDCD (2013)

The international humanitarian, development, and peace sectors largely operate as independent units when responding to immediate and long-term needs. This is partly due to funding mechanisms that are separate for each sector, leading to distinct organisations within the UN and elsewhere, that deal with food security, humanitarian affairs, development or peacebuilding.  Working independently, as silos, has not been effective in ensuring that peace and development gains are sustained. This prompted the decades-long dialogue between the humanitarian and development sectors on how to create links to ensure lives are saved, immediate needs are addressed and there is long-term support to create an environment where those who have survived, can thrive.

Protracted conflict has revived the dialogue of effectiveness in working beyond siloes. Dubbed the triple nexus, this dialogue has brought an additional sector to the table. Peace. The humanitarian, development and peace sectors are now in dialogue to see how they can work together in conflict-affected contexts to respond in ways that are lifesaving but also transformative towards sustainable peace and development. 

From an international humanitarian perspective, the triple nexus dialogue has been contentious. The root of contention is the fear that a triple nexus approach may compromise humanitarian principles. The four principles of humanitarian action are humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence. A study of nexus programming in Mali found that security actors who were party to the conflict, took over responsibilities to assess humanitarian needs, and protect humanitarian actors, in ways that politicised the relief efforts. In this case, the humanitarian response failed to live up to the operational principles of neutrality and independence. Does this Mali case spell doom for the triple nexus approach?

I would argue that the Mali case study highlights what is lacking in the triple nexus debate – a clear articulation of the concept of peace. Peace is a word that everyone is familiar with, but it means different things to different people in different contexts. According to the 1992 UN Agenda for Peace, the activities of the international peace sector include peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding. In triple nexus discussions, people use peace more often to refer to the more visible peacemaking and peacekeeping, rather than to longer term peacebuilding.

As displaced people streamed into Deir Attieh from other parts of Syria and needed food and support, MCC and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank partnered with Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD) to respond through local volunteers and organizations. Here, Rahaf Abdo of FDCD talks with children in Deir Atteih. Photo courtesy of FDCD (2016)

Peace may include the process to a peace agreement, UN peacekeeping to protect populations and monitor the peace in a post-conflict zone, or national processes of truth and reconciliation. Peacebuilding is an ongoing long-term activity to transform root causes of conflict for peace. This could include efforts towards social cohesion, reconciliation or civic engagement and advocacy for policies that promote a just peace.  The scope of peace in a triple nexus approach will determine the risks.

The Mali case study found that the international response prioritized security at the expense of more long-term peacebuilding. In the Mali context, peace defined as security at a state-level undermined humanitarian action. The triple nexus approach is not about humanitarians doing peace or development or vice versa, but the three sectors working together in ways that contribute to greater collective good. The challenge of the triple nexus from the Mali case, is how to work better together while remaining distinct and faithful to respective mandates.

One way to do this, is to think of the triple nexus as a lens – a new way of thinking. In a discussion paper for the Centre for Humanitarian Action, Marc Dubois proposes nexus-thinking as a future state where humanitarian, development and peace actors will  share ideas to the extent that the sectoral differences will be technical, not normative or hierarchical.  Shifting the focus away from operational and structural change, Dubois argues that the idea of nexus thinking opens up space for the different sectors to learn from each other and strategize for transformational change that addresses both immediate and long-term needs for humanitarian, development and peace interventions.

This rebuilt church in Deir Attieh, Syria, was protected from militants by members of the local Muslim community, including volunteers and participants in an MCC-supported Canadian Foodgrains Bank project. MCC photo/Doug Enns (2017)

Humanitarian programming is adjusting to protracted conflict contexts by considering conflict-sensitivity as part of the ‘do no harm’ goal of humanitarian work. This is a great start to new thinking. It begins with a better understanding of the conflict to make sure that a humanitarian response will not fuel existing or new conflicts. This has implications for who we partner with at a local level. For example, MCC in Syria has successfully partnered with a local interfaith network to respond to the humanitarian crises – an inclusive approach that fostered trust and solidarity. In this case, the Muslim community helped to protect fleeing non-Muslims and prevented the destruction of a local Orthodox church.

Triple nexus as a new way of thinking for all the sectors, will not just improve their respective outcomes, but more importantly, it will benefit those who need it most – those caught in protracted humanitarian crises.

Nyambura Githaiga is a Senior Policy Advisor with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.


To learn more about peacebuilding, read more of our blogs here.

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