Hugh MacLeman


Hugh MacLeman, is based in UNDP’s Crisis Bureau in Geneva as a Programme Specialist, leading UNDP's 'nexus approach' and our UNDP’s policy engagement with humanitarian and peace actors for more complementary and effective actions.

Previously he worked for WFP, where he led efforts on the joint WFP, FAO and EU initiative - the Global Network Against Food Crises - to bring more joined-up systematic approaches to preventing, preparing for and addressing hunger and malnutrition. Prior to his work with WFP, he was with the OECD where he managed the secretariat for the International Network on Conflict and Fragility (INCAF) – the DAC network that brings together donors, IFIs and the UN system to improve aid effectiveness in fragile contexts. This work included substantial support for joined-up risk-informed analysis and programming at a country-level, including the development of collective outcomes in a variety of different contexts. He also led the development of the DAC Recommendation on the humanitarian-development-peace nexus.

Hugh's background with the UN and in supporting DAC donors builds on more than 20 years of experience - including work in academia, with the Humanitarian Futures Programme at King’s College, London; for government, as a Director in the Humanitarian Branch of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs; and as Head of Humanitarian Policy at the British Red Cross. Hugh holds a Masters degree from the London School of Economics and his policy expertise builds on more than a dozen years’ field-based experience in development and humanitarian contexts in Asia, the Pacific and West and Central Africa.

Where to start when everything is a priority?

Balancing peacebuilding, humanitarian assistance and development in fragile contexts: the nexus approach.
23. Februar 2022
Emergency relief efforts in Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 | IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation

Accelerating Learning, Community and Capacity for concrete actions on the ground. These are the key objectives for the newly founded “Nexus Academy”. Based on the OECD-DAC Recommendation on the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus, the Academy aims to translate the guiding principles into practical programmatic actions. On the occasion of the recent launch event, Hugh McLeman gives an overview of challenges and tasks for the nexus approach.

Implementing the humanitarian-development-peace nexus on the ground is a demanding task. While the nexus approach has proven helpful in fostering greater collaboration and complementary actions, practical challenges remain. The nexus approach requires constant communication at different levels, flexibility, and a readiness to compromise. Consequently, the implementation on the ground, in close cooperation with local actors and stakeholders, is key for the nexus approach – including the ‘peace pillar’ for conflict transformation and sustainable peacebuilding.

Addressing bottlenecks and building capacities to operationalise the nexus – the Nexus Academy

Many of the challenges in effectively operationalising a nexus approach relate to strengthening ‘trilingualism’ across the pillars of the nexus – i.e., strengthening the respective understanding of humanitarian, development and peace principles, standards and approaches between the different actors and to thereby facilitate greater complementarity and coherence of actions and better interoperability between agencies. In addition, individual agencies – whether bilateral, UN or NGOs – need to adapt their own organisational systems, processes and behaviours and ensure that they have the right capacities and people in the right place, at the right time, doing the right things.

Responding to this need, UNDP – on behalf of the DAC-UND Dialogue* has led the design, development and launch of a package of integrated training – the ‘Nexus Academy’. The initiative will be launched in February 2022 and brings together the UN system, DAC members and NGOs to facilitate a shared understanding of nexus approaches and ensure that the principles of such an approach are translated into practical and concrete actions that inform organisational processes, partnerships and programming. The Academy also aims to bridge the gap between headquarters, regional and country level staff; and to deliver a surge of trained and deployable personnel who can support and accelerate operationalisation of the nexus.

In particular, the Nexus Academy will focus on strengthening a shared understanding of vulnerability that prioritizes gender-sensitive risk informed programming, facilitates better data inter-operability between agencies, ensure that staff have the skills and tools for enhancing national and local capacities, and promote more risk-tolerant and appropriate financing mechanisms that incentivise greater collaboration coordination and adherence.

Ending need and achieving the SDGs – why business as usual is no longer an option

By 2030, 2.2 billion people, or 26% of the world’s population, are projected to live in fragile contexts. These places are home to the majority - 76.5% of the world’s extremely poor and account for 71% of all violent conflicts, and 96% of all conflict deaths. On top of this, forced displacements are on the rise and, for the first time since 1990, global human development is going backwards due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic – with the poorest and most vulnerable being hit the hardest. Furthermore, the impacts of the pandemic, along with the rise of populism, authoritarianism, climate change and other factors are exacerbating existing grievances and inequalities, eroding social cohesion, fuelling greater fragility within and between nations and placing the achievement of Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at risk.

As a result of these multidimensional and compounding risks and shocks, an estimated 274 million people need humanitarian assistance in 2022, with humanitarian funding requirements reaching an unprecedented 41 billion USD – more than a four-fold increase in 10 years. In this context, business as usual is no longer an option. If we are to save lives, end need, and deliver sustainable development and peace, in line with our shared commitments to the SDGs, then all crises will need more effective and complementary humanitarian, development and peace responses to ensure that we are addressing the root causes - often due to a lack of development and peace investment and efforts - rather than just treating the symptoms.

A humanitarian-development-peace nexus approach aims to bring together the respective expertise, operational capacity and comparative advantage of diverse actors to ensure greater coherence and complementarity of actions, based on each actor’s comparative advantage. The approach is based on the principle that we must prioritise prevention always, development wherever possible and provide humanitarian assistance when necessary to effectively meet the needs of affected people, limit the impact of shocks on hard-won development gains and prevent the escalation of crises, while also repairing broken social contracts, and promoting a resilient recovery. A nexus approach facilitates the ending of need and is crucial if we are to deliver on our commitments to Agenda 2030 and ensure that no-one is left behind in crisis and fragile situations.

Operationalising a nexus approach – remaining challenges

Despite this emerging consensus, there remain real and practical challenges in operationalising a nexus approach. While the OECD DAC’s Nexus Recommendation has been instrumental in clarifying what a nexus approach involves – including a clear set of eleven ‘principles’ to guide better coordination, programming and financing– there remains a gap in translating these principles into concrete actions that improve the effectiveness of our combined efforts ‘on the ground’ – the ‘how’ of a nexus approach. Broadly speaking, these bottlenecks can be grouped into issues related to ‘systems interoperability’; organisational capacities, skills and behaviours, and ‘unfinished business.’

Systems interoperability

The humanitarian, development and peace ‘pillars’ of the nexus all operate according to distinct principles, standards and approaches. Humanitarian action is needs-based and operates according to principles of impartiality, independence and neutrality, based upon International Humanitarian Law; whereas principles of effective development cooperation, as set out in the 2011 Busan Partnership Agreement emphasise national ownership, the achievement of sustainable results, inclusive partnerships and mutual accountability. The peace pillar is most commonly framed by the United Nations’ 2016 twin resolutions on the review of the peacebuilding architecture and seeks to ensure that countries can sustain peace and prevent the outbreak, escalation, continuation and recurrence of conflict. It is inherently a political process that encompasses national reconciliation; recovery, reconstruction, development and addressing of the root causes that can lead to conflict.

The differing foundations of each of these three pillars in turn drives disconnects in the timeframes, approaches, scope, and definitions of effectiveness across humanitarian, development and peace actions. Different actions are also framed by varying levels of risk tolerance, separate data collection and analytical processes that can drive a different understanding of vulnerability, and they are financed through distinct funding mechanisms – presenting significant challenges to strengthening the coherence and complementarity of humanitarian, development and peace programming between agencies.

Organisational capacities, skills and behaviours

In addition to a level of disconnect between humanitarian, development and peace actors, adopting a nexus approach presents challenges to the systems, processes, capacities and behaviours within organisations. For humanitarian agencies, this can include reviewing their partnership approaches to ensure that closer coordination with development and peace actors, who are inherently aligned with national priorities and whose work is inherently ‘political’, does not compromise humanitarian principles.

For development actors, operating in crisis contexts places new demands on their capacities and systems to ‘stay and deliver’ in contexts that often involve greater programmatic, organisational and contextual risk, and in developing the skills and experience in maintaining access to facilitate the continuation of longer-term programming. This is particularly acute in the growing number of contexts where development programming is needed to prevent wide-spread socio-economic collapse, such as Afghanistan and Myanmar, and where there is an absence of legitimate state authority. In these contexts, the default option remains that the programming and financing from bilateral agencies and international financial institutions (IFIs) is often suspended or placed on hold.

For peace actors, despite the commitments made in the twin resolutions on sustaining peace, investments in prevention remain insubstantial, representing only about 2% of Official Development Assistance. This also limits their capacity to maintain a credible operational presence in crisis contexts – particularly with the drawdown or closure of four of the United Nations’ peacekeeping missions in recent years, Liberia, Haiti, Sudan and DRC.

In addition, agencies across the humanitarian development peace nexus are struggling to identify staff with the skills, experience and understanding to coordinate more closely with agencies across the nexus and with the additional ‘transaction costs’ that come with increased coordination. There also remains a gap between headquarters or policy level understanding of the nexus and those who are required to operationalise the approach within country programmes and partnerships.

‘Unfinished business’

The last set of challenges related to operationalising a nexus approach, include various aspects of ‘unfinished business.’ Despite significant efforts to better define the ‘peace pillar’ of the nexus, there remains a lack of consensus as to whether the emphasis should be on building the capacity for peace within societies through, for instance, the strengthening of social cohesion; and the extent to which the focus should be on actions that support and sustain political solutions and securitised responses to violent conflict. These issues are explored in more detail in the recent paper by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee "Exploring Peace within the Humanitarian Development Peace Nexus (HDPN)", which also highlights the challenges of closer engagement with actors outside of the aid system to build greater complementarity with diplomatic efforts or the actions of security actors and others.

*The DAC-UN Dialogue on the implementation of the DAC Recommendation on the Humanitarian Development Peace Nexus was launched in late 2020 by DAC members and UN agencies that have adhered to the OECD DAC Nexus Recommendation to identify gaps, enablers and potential obstacles to more concerted engagement of bilateral and multilateral actors across the nexus.

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