Kanni Wignaraja is United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, UN Development Programme (UNDP). Prior to that she served as Special Adviser to the UNDP Administrator and as Director of the UN Development Operations Coordination Office. In total, Wignaraja brings over 25 years of experience in the sustainable development agenda, having worked in various field positions in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, as well as UNDP’s headquarters in New York.
Approaching ‘the nexus’ in unsettled times
These are uniquely unsettling times, with one of the most devastating consequences of the current moment being the erosion of hard-won development gains. The compounded crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, food and fuel insecurity, fiscal collapse, political upheaval, climate shocks and the war in Ukraine have stalled or reversed decades of progress. In such circumstances, the United Nations development system should not be subject to a stop–go edict that further contributes to this erosion while at the same time swelling the humanitarian caseload and costs.
A new way of working – the humanitarian–development nexus – has arisen out of the imperative that ‘the volume, cost and length of humanitarian assistance over the past 10 years has grown dramatically’, with ‘inter-agency humanitarian appeals lasting an average of seven years’ and the size of appeals increasing ‘nearly 400% in the last decade’.1 Here, it should be noted that the term ‘nexus’ is defined as a connection or series of connections, and speaks to the centrality of continuous combined action. It does not imply a staggered or discontinuous sequence of actions.
Threading the needle in crisis contexts
Afghanistan, Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – four countries in the Asia-Pacific region in the grips of very different crises – exemplify the stakes for vulnerable populations in countries that, until recently, had enjoyed an upward development trajectory. Afghanistan has experienced a freeze on choice and opportunities for women and girls, and on local institutions providing basic services. This includes its vast network of health centres, which has been brought to a near standstill. The Afghan economy is in freefall, pushing the country’s 40 million population to near-universal poverty. Meanwhile, Myanmar’s political transition has threatened to upend decades of progress and has brought the country’s civil and public services to its knees, with about half the population now living in extreme poverty; Sri Lanka’s debt catastrophe has put its population at risk of severe shortages of essential foods, medicines and energy; and Pakistan’s rupee is sinking as uncertainty looms. An International Monetary Fund intervention is urgently needed to help stabilise its currency.
The scale and speed of the protracted crises that have arisen across the world has been staggering, directly impacting over 100 million people in the above- mentioned countries alone, albeit unequally. The international community is awake to the urgency but, in the cases of Afghanistan and Myanmar, is working with one hand tied behind its back – for even when the sanctions regimes do not inhibit development assistance to vulnerable populations, development resources are being frozen or redirected. It is essential that a zero-sum game involving humanitarian and development interventions competing for funding is avoided. Both are necessary to save lives under emergency circumstances and for graduating from a situation of aid dependency to sustainable development progress.
Over a billion people are currently living in countries affected by long-term humanitarian crises.2 Around 274 million people are expected to require humanitarian assistance in 2022, an increase of 14% compared to the previous year.3 In such dire situations, there is a need to respond rapidly and provide food, shelter and medicines at scale. Humanitarian aid does this, and as a term is broadly understood to refer to acute crisis responses – a stopgap that serves immediate needs and averts human disaster while paving the way for conditions conducive to development being restored. These pathways to development are, however, all-too-often stymied or delayed. Instead, a political response leads to development support being paused or severely downscaled, resulting
in relief operations having to persist, as seen in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, Jordan, Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan. The resource requests ultimately involve billions of dollars being expended in order to continue these costly high-volume relief measures, some of which are over a decade old. Protracted crises beget protracted ‘short- term’ funding. And so the cycle begins again.
By 2030, up to two-thirds of the global extreme poor will be living in fragility and conflict situations. This scenario only seems destined to get worse – on average, poverty rates are stuck at 40% and above in countries with economies facing chronic fragility and conflict.4 All indications are that, in a world unsettled by successive disruptions, crisis will be our new normal for the foreseeable future. Various calamities appear stacked one atop the other: droughts and floods accompanied by economic collapse and military takeovers, compounded by inflation and increasingly unaffordable essential commodities, leading to a global cost-of-living crisis. An increasing number of countries are now in the grips of multi-fold tragedies, making it harder to predict and plan for the future.
Supporting development through emergencies
Against this backdrop, the bifurcation between ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’ support may represent not only a reductive error, but a significant drift away from the core concepts underpinning both agendas, as acutely demonstrated by the recovery and reconstruction that took place in the wake of the Second World War. Securing development gains and returning to a locally-determined recovery supported through global partnerships is a fundamental premise of supporting development through emergencies. Early stabilisation of local economies and investment in the recovery of community capabilities, services and institutions are key to unlocking a faster, less costly and durable return to resilience.
Fundamental to the development agenda is the notion that people – their priorities, agency, dignity and empowerment – drive progress. Whatever the prevailing conditions or entry points of the UN’s work, all efforts must lead to supporting people’s ability to choose their futures, and to safeguarding the systems and institutions that preserve their capacity to exercise choice. This is particularly the case for women and girls, who bear the brunt of conflict and in contexts such as Afghanistan have had their basic rights and freedoms curtailed, or, as in parts of Myanmar, fear to leave their homes.5 There is no human development progress without a woman’s right to learn and to earn. A citizen under the authority of a government that is unrecognised is no less deserving of electricity and a means to support herself. A formal cooperation agreement, drawn up years ago in an office thousands of kilometres away, does her no good. Nor does it serve her simply to wait, hoping her turn to participate in the humanitarian–development– peace continuum will come. Why should she not benefit from a temporary basic income, credit for her business, or local mini-grids that can keep her school, clinic and home functioning with heat and light? Should we not work with whatever viable local systems and peoples’ institutions are to hand and find creative ways to support her?
In responding to these questions, we must acknowledge that, like human life itself, development assistance works best without stoppages or suspensions. When ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’ activities are driven apart and the latter put on hold due to political expediency, it leads to a million tiny cuts, each representing an individual made more vulnerable. Moreover, it exacerbates and prolongs crises.
There can be no funds provided through states or to individuals who are sanctioned and not recognised by the UN General Assembly. Even so, development cannot be equated with the formalistic conception of ‘development cooperation’. Where situations permit longer-term development cooperation frameworks aligned to national goals and plans led by governments recognised by their people, these can provide a guide, a collaborative platform and discipline to international assistance. As seen during our unsettled times, however, country circumstances differ greatly and the international community must be willing to adopt a more flexible approach, directly supporting people in situations where such development cooperation frameworks are not feasible. Not only has this been shown to work, the UN development system has the instruments needed to proceed in this direction. This is how the UN Development Programme (UNDP) is working in these contexts, with access and capability to directly deliver.
Delivering on the imperative to ‘leave no one behind’ means pushing the boundaries to effect positive change in the lives of the most forgotten and bruised. Today, in cases where policy instruments cannot serve, a ‘stay and deliver’ ground presence and technology can offer a path forward. Digitalisation makes it possible to serve a wider swath of society than ever before through banking services, mobile communication, virtual learning and e-health services. Such capacities and innovations can also connect to local service infrastructure and facilitate financing, markets, jobs and basic services. Moreover, they can contribute to updating the social contract between people and their governing entities at both a local and national level.
Smart adjustments in delivery mechanisms can also make a difference. There is evidence, for example, that applying anticipatory approaches – ie crisis development responses taken in advance – can leave people better off. A 2021 study showed that households in Bangladesh receiving anticipatory cash transfers prior to forecasted extreme flooding had been 36% less likely to go a day without eating during the subsequent flood.6 On top of this, three months after the flood, these households reported considerably higher food consumption and wellbeing than households that had not received the anticipatory transfers. The results of livelihood schemes, which have a multiplier effect in creating jobs and expanding household income, are convincing.
More broadly, preserving the systems and institutions that empower people to fend for themselves should be made a priority. In Afghanistan, UNDP has joined up with 15 UN agencies and 65 non-governmental and civil society organisation partners in order to support job creation and cash-for-work; reinforce the local banking and finance sector so people can access credit to run their small farms and businesses; stand up renewable energy supply; ensure teachers and medical workers continue to be paid; and see that health and irrigation systems begin to work again. Such development activities not only have an immediate impact in saving lives and livelihoods, in the medium- to-longer term they will go on to save many more.
Humanitarian principles are not stretched or threatened by engaging in development during emergencies. On the contrary, it is these principles that ensure impartiality, access and protection for life-saving interventions irrespective of national authority affiliation. They are embodied in the Geneva Conventions as a powerful underpinning for the work the entire UN system and its partners engage in during times of acute emergency.
A return to development
A return to development is not defined or measured by development cooperation frameworks or the extent of development coordination. It is defined and measured through progress on development results. Today, this means getting back on track with the Sustainable Development Goals, no matter how hard this may be. Delaying development is counter-productive and expensive. Halting development progress – and with it, people’s ability to safeguard their lives and dignities – only adds to the costs of relief interventions.
In an operating context defined by the COVID-19 pandemic, war, global warming and a looming debt crisis, support for people’s opportunities and choice needs to be smarter and more adaptive than ever. The primary ingredients for peace and progress – personal agency and trust in institutions – must be continually supported, notwithstanding the many disruptions that, for the foreseeable future, constitute our reality.
UN Development Programme (UNDP) and UN Women, ‘Regressing Gender Equality in Myanmar:Women Living Under the Pandemic and Military Rule’, 2022, www.undp.org/publications/regressing-gender-equality- myanmar-women-living-under-pandemic-and-military-rule.