Humanitarian principles and their equivalents in development and peacebuilding

The humanitarian principles are a list of key principles that must be adhered to while providing humanitarian assistance. Although there are some variations between organisation’s adherence strategies regarding the principles, the vast majority of humanitarian actors agree and adhere to the same four core principles. These principles are humanity, impartiality, independence and neutrality. There are similar principles in the development and peacebuilding worlds, with the UN’s SDGs for development and various value lists, such as those of InterPeace and CR, for peacebuilding actors. Although these parallel principles do exist within their respective sectors, neither are as universally accepted or applied as the humanitarian principles are within the humanitarian sector.

Changes within the field to humanitarian, development and peacebuilding work

Historically and theoretically, the work of the humanitarian sector has been separated from that of the development and peacebuilding actors. This has arguably simplified the application and universality of the humanitarian principles as humanitarian actors were to be working independently of development and peacebuilding actors and therefore able to adhere to the guiding humanitarian principles. However, in reality, humanitarian contexts are extremely complex, and humanitarian, development and peacebuilding actors often operate within the same environments, delivering intersecting projects and aid programming.

Afghanistan and Iraq have been key examples of this over the past decades, as humanitarian crises have been the catalyst for development and peacebuilding initiatives. We have seen this on a macro scale, with USAID offering humanitarian aid to people in Iraq, whilst simultaneously investing in economic growth, amongst other development programs in the country, as well as peacebuilding and stabilization missions. Until August 2021, USAID’s involvement in Afghanistan was similarly varied. We have seen similar approaches from NGOs, such as how Mercy Corps’s actions in Iraq include humanitarian aid, and development programs in tandem, such as with education and peacebuilding and civil society strengthening initiatives. Similarly, People in Need continue to run both emergency aid in the current crisis in Afghanistan, as well as education and practical skills programs.

The HDP Nexus

The complexity of field contexts and the development of different actors within supplementary sectors have led to one significant change, the creation of a humanitarian, development, peacebuilding (HDP) nexus. The HDP nexus was officially announced in 2016 by the then secretary-general of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon, with the linkages that it was based on having existed since the 1990s. The nexus is the connection of humanitarian, development and peacebuilding actors and the formal intention of bringing them to work together, rather than separately. This intention calls for a new way of working, that transcends the humanitarian-development-peace divide, works within pre-existing national and local systems and working towards collective outcomes over multi-year timescales. Since the agreement to the HDP Nexus in 2016, the UN, national governments and donors have all been working on its implementation. An example of the HDP Nexus in action is with the UNDP’s program in Sudan, in which an initial emergency food program over time turned in to an agricultural jobs program which hired over 24,000 people. This program was implemented under the logic that humanitarian and development challenges, such as poverty, battles for resources, food insecurity and tribal conflicts all have a damaging impact on peace, even when a settlement has been reached, so shouldn’t be addressed separately.

Can humanitarian actors maintain their principles and efficacy of action within the nexus?

In its initial response to the HDP nexus, the ICRC stated that there were concerns for the humanitarian principles. Neutrality is the first concern, with potential mergings with state actors being viewed as problematic, as they may prioritise areas loyal to the state in a conflict, they may be unable to address issues caused by the state and there may be a lack of avenues of support for people who are outside of the state’s reach. There were also concerns over humanitarian actors being able to have full access to carry out their activities, as their independent status enables access to certain groups and opportunities. This response did believe in the possibilities of the nexus, but just had concerns over certain potentials and principles of humanitarian work.

The CHA proposes flexibility on the principles to a greater extent, arguing that the principles themselves are flexible and that there is potential for a more people-centric approach within the nexus. Better integration of humanitarian programing and development can enlarge the time-scope for change, and collaboration with peacebuilding missions can provide dignity and agency support, through pathways to peace.

What are the opportunities and limitations for the rest of the nexus?

Similarly, the New Humanitarian has argued that there are various new possibilities with the HDP nexus, such as with peacebuilding, as 2/3 of humanitarian crises are related to conflict, making it logical to address the causes as well as the symptoms of the problem. In practice, WorldVision hosted 50,000 refugees in Uganda, aiming to reduce tensions over land and resources and their activities included help with agreements for equitable land agreements, peace themed music, drama and sport sessions. This was an intervention that include short and long-term activities as well as different aspects of the nexus and was successful in easing tensions. This kind of intervention reflects the UK and Germany’s support for the nexus, as they state that we need to tackle both people’s needs and the causes of crises.

However, in Mali this was seen as problematic, blurred lines emerged between aid and conflict, as armed actors who were involved in the conflict were delivering projects, clearly a breach of the neutrality principle. The UN was only able to work in government-controlled areas, which fell outside standard neutrality protocol, aid was not then accessible to all of the country.

Final thoughts

The contexts of humanitarian aid, development and peacebuilding have changed drastically over the past half-decade, and it is difficult to see clear solutions regarding the nexus dilemma. The point that will always remain the most important, regardless of context or setup, is that actors act in a principled and human-centred way in the name of providing support.

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