Navigating Transitions: Bridging humanitarian and development action

By Jonas Heirman and Felipe Dunsch

WFP Evaluation
7 min readMar 19, 2021

Could impact evaluations provide the evidence to support people as they transition from humanitarian crises to resilient development pathways?

There is growing recognition that humanitarian and development assistance must be better connected to address and prevent crises.

Terms used to describe this include the ‘humanitarian-peace-development nexus’, ‘transitional assistance’, ‘resilience’, and ‘self-reliance’, which all point to the simple idea that short-term assistance should support people in building their own capacities for longer-term development (which is also key element of the UN’s ‘New Way of Working’).

In 2016, the UN General Assembly called upon the UN system to provide ‘evidence-based and, where appropriate, integrated policy advice to support countries in the implementation of, follow-up to and reporting on internationally agreed development goals and development-related frameworks…’, and that in ‘countries facing humanitarian emergencies there is a need to work collaboratively to move beyond short-term assistance towards contributing to longer-term development gains…’

Disconnected dots: can humanitarian and develop action achieve collective outcomes?

Bana Maiwassa is a WFP beneficiary living in Doumana Ara village in the Maradi region of Niger. Photo: WFP/Simon Pierre Diouf

In a world that long ago separated ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’ funding and interventions, a key question is how to move beyond words and operationalise this simple idea in practice?

Humanitarian agencies including OCHA, UNHCR, and ICRC depend on short-term funding to cover a few months of already identified urgent needs. In contrast, development agencies, including FAO, UNDP, and the World Bank are still largely focusing their efforts on more stable contexts that allow for longer-term programming. Each side has developed specialised expertise, systems, and processes that are well-suited to their side of the nexus and complement the other. For example, the World Bank supports government investments when other financial institutions would struggle, such as COVID-19 responses.

Despite differences in terms of imperative and principles, humanitarian and development actors share similar goals and often use the same types of interventions to achieve these. Variations of cash transfers or integrated livelihood projects, for example, can be implemented to support people overcoming humanitarian crises as well as to embark on a path of sustainable development.

Despite this overlap in intervention methods, humanitarian and development assistance systems are often disconnected, and knowledge is not shared between them. This lack of shared understanding on how humanitarian and development agencies can work together to achieve ‘collective outcomes’ over time can lead to avoidable inefficiencies and repeated mistakes.

Bridging the humanitarian and development divide

Under the Resilience and Climate Change Programme in El Salvador, WFP provides agricultural training in the Calavera community, building the resilience of the 163 households involved. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud

The World Food Programme (WFP) is well-placed to help bridge the divide between humanitarian and development knowledge and actions because it operates in both worlds. WFP’s humanitarian work was awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize. However, WFP’s mandate also extends to supporting development interventions that promote food security and nutrition. WFP’s dual-mandate and global presence can therefore be used to help bridge the evidence and resource gaps that divide humanitarian and development actions.

First, actors want to better understand how they can support people by smoothing the consumption of beneficiaries, investing in their livelihoods, and supporting the development of social structures (for example, markets, institutions, and public services) that are more resilient to shocks and enable transformations.

What works best is usually context-specific, changes over time, and operates at different scales. The best solution today can be the worst solution tomorrow and vice versa, for example the debate on food aid and conflict.

Impact evaluations (IEs) use a standardised set of tools, avoiding the often ‘incompatible assessment methodologies’ which plague the ‘divide’. IEs can indicate whether communities are benefitting from short-term humanitarian support, longer-term development interventions, or combinations of both. Because interventions are often similar (for example, cash-based transfers), knowledge gained through IEs can inform learning within and across contexts to better predict what combinations of interventions can be most effective for specific populations and outcomes, under specific conditions.

From the onset of the Syrian crisis in 2011, WFP is implementing activities that aim to promote and restore livelihoods and food security with a long-term resilience-building goal. Photo: WFP/Ghaith Fadel

Second, resources must align with the support people need as they move from humanitarian situations to development pathways. The UN Secretary General states that financing needs to be ‘predictable, long-term and evidence-based’ and that ‘strengthening the evidence base will be important for financing the humanitarian, development and peacebuilding interventions known to prevent conflicts, reduce people’s vulnerability and contribute to peaceful and inclusive societies.’

Donors are increasingly aware of the need to better align humanitarian and development financing. For example, the newly established USAID Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA) ‘takes a holistic look at humanitarian aid’ which involves ‘linking humanitarian assistance to long-term development and the journey to self-reliance.’

The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) uses ‘transitional development assistance’ to ‘strengthen the resilience of people who are particularly hard hit and of local structures in a sustainable way so that they will be able to deal with existing crises themselves and reduce the risk of new crises.’ In practice, ensuring resources reach the right people, at the right times, and in the right ways requires evidence-based, adaptive funding mechanisms. Embedding impact evaluations into phases of support can empower actors to understand whether the resources provided are sufficient, and adapt accordingly. WFP is one of the few UN agencies with a mandate to continue working with people on the ground as they transition from humanitarian to economic development support — a clear opportunity for generating evidence to bridge this divide.

WFP as a producer of cohesive evidence to bridge the divide

A recent report by New York University’s Center on International Cooperation assesses: ‘while important progress has been made when it comes to analysis, the overall analytical landscape remains a disjointed one in many countries.’

Realising WFP’s potential as a producer of cohesive impact evaluation evidence, that is accepted and used globally by both humanitarian and development actors, requires significant investment in WFP’s capacity and partnerships. However, the current humanitarian funding model makes it difficult to invest in evidence generation, leading the CGD to call for the separation of ‘funding for delivery’ from ‘funding for assessment, targeting, monitoring and evaluation.’

Boubacar Maiga, a beneficiary of the fodder and cuttings production project in Timbuktu, Mali where WFP works with partners to build local capacity and resilience of farmers. Photo: WFP/Simon Pierre Diouf

To fill the role as a producer of cohesive evidence, WFP is taking steps towards increasing the production of rigorous impact evaluations.

In November 2019, WFP published its first Impact Evaluation Strategy (2019–2026) and created a dedicated impact evaluation team within its Office of Evaluation (OEV). Given the significant resources and time required to generate impact evaluations, WFP uses coordinated portfolios to generate evidence that aligns with priorities identified for programmatic areas.

WFP is delivering its new impact evaluation strategy in partnership with world-leading researchers with proven impact evaluation expertise such as the World Bank’s Development Impact Evaluation (DIME) department.

Partners provide crucial expertise and hands-on experience that is allowing the tackling of a impact evaluation portfolio in a relatively short timeframe. Partnerships also bring together actors on both sides of the humanitarian and development divide, increasing the likelihood that the evidence generated is used to navigate transitions.

Impact evaluations are clustered into thematic “windows” — each window lasts three to five years, and supports at least six impact evaluations. The goal is to create more knowledge about what works in different contexts so that WFP programming can be most effective.

The first two ‘windows’ focus on:

  • Cash-Based Transfers and Gender, and
  • Climate Change and Resilience

After identifying priority evidence needs, WFP programme teams can volunteer to participate in a window and receive technical support from OEV and DIME.

The Cash-Based Transfers and Gender Window tests whether varying the modalities and recipients of conditional cash transfers can have an impact on women’s social and economic empowerment. For example, varying whether the payment is made to the man or the woman in the household, or testing whether mandating that women participate in public works programs has an impact on empowerment.

The Climate Change and Resilience Window is focused on understanding how cash transfers, asset creation, and other interventions can be combined and sequenced in ways that support individuals to absorb, respond, adapt, and transform their livelihoods in the face of shocks and stressors.

In addition to the work through these windows, WFP started a collaboration with USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA) to conduct impact evaluations in humanitarian and fragile settings.

Looking ahead

There is a clear need for improving how international communities support people as they transition from humanitarian crises to resilient development pathways. Navigating these transitions requires a common understanding and evidence base that all actors involved trust and rely on for making programme and funding decisions. WFP is well-placed to support the generation of rigorous impact evaluation evidence that meets these needs, but doing so requires new resources, building new capacities, and forming new partnerships.



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