Saving Lives or Saving Livelihoods? Reflections on the United Nations’ Role for Development in War

Mourad Wahba
January 10, 2022

The United Nations was created seventy-six years ago “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” and since then has attempted to do just that by developing tools ranging from preventive diplomacy to peace-making and peacekeeping operations. In more recent interventions, humanitarian and development actors have gone beyond the strict interpretation of peace and security to play a prominent role bringing relief, hope and development opportunities to the civilian victims of conflict. Wars have become longer and more complex. And efforts to promote sustainable development cannot always wait until peace is secured. But what is the role of development in war? What are its limits and key challenges?

The prevailing doctrine for many years, was that saving people from the scourge of war included providing food, shelter, emergency health services, and protection for the most vulnerable. Development operations would only come later, as the United Nations itself had conceived of them following the end of the World War II, as reconstruction support.

But with the extension of conflict to civil wars, exacting their toll on civilian populations and local economies, a re-examination of the “continuum” between relief and development became necessary. The United Nations and the international community that funds its constituent parts has moved from a sequential approach to the need for simultaneous work on all fronts: supporting communities, especially at the local level, rebuild their homes and thus gain some employment, engaging in joint development projects to complement work of relief agencies, for example through support to women entrepreneurs, restoration of markets and community dialogue aimed at fostering a common understanding of resilience programmes such as the maintenance of vital local level infrastructure.

While this simultaneity of aims––that is often described as the humanitarian-development-peace nexus––is generally accepted, recent experience in conflicts ranging from Syria over Yemen to Afghanistan demonstrate the need for a much more coherent approach. For example, peace operations include community development officers, who work with the NGO community, and with development-focused agencies, such as UNDP. Multidisciplinary peace operations now include female protection officers, while UN Women and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) are present in conflict and war zones, all three parts of the UN with the same aim, leading one to fear a possible duplication of effort.

At the World Humanitarian Summit held in 2016, an “Agenda for Humanity” endorsed the new way of working, to include early development interventions in support of humanitarian relief. Since then, UN and other international actors have sought to operationalize this approach, through improved coordination, but there is some way to go until the “new way of working” ambitions are met.

Recent reforms within the UN Resident Coordinator system, and earlier the development of the “cluster approach” in the humanitarian field, have done much to support this coordination. For example, this is exhibited through the joint functions of the Resident Coordinator normally serving concomitantly as Humanitarian Coordinator, and Humanitarian Response Plans and UN Sustainable Development Frameworks including bridges between humanitarian and development work at the country level.

The concept of integrated missions has attempted to deal with the coordination problems in conflict areas. The enhanced role of a Deputy Special Representative/Resident Coordinator/Humanitarian Coordinator is important. Having served in this capacity, however, I can attest to the fact that much of what can be done relies on a blend of moral suasion and authority. Humanitarian actors, for example, are more reluctant to receive the support of uniformed personnel of the United Nations engaged in police operations, as this would risk running contrary to humanitarian principles. Practitioners in multidisciplinary missions in another example are familiar with the need, only partially met, for political parts of the mission and the development agencies to agree on the direction and pace of judicial reform, or the need to engage with a particular group outside the remit of central authorities. Perhaps where this nexus has worked best is in the context of the winding down of peace operations, with the introduction of peacebuilding funds and approaches.

Coordination issues are solved by various mechanisms between UN entities in the ‘theatre of operations,’ as the conflict zones are referred to. But interagency cooperation would be greatly facilitated by different incentives from UN funders. Donors’ separate budgets for peace operations, humanitarian relief, and development support create considerable barriers for truly integrated responses.

At times, political imperatives may themselves encourage the UN to work in one area, say humanitarian relief, without the implicit support to central authorities that development cooperation might be seen to entail. In cases for example where it becomes difficult to work with central authorities, humanitarian and development actors have focused their action on the community level, or in particular regions. The example of Syria comes most readily to mind, where cooperation with the central authorities in Damascus is necessary to maintain an authorizing environment, but the reluctance of some parts of the international community to fund these authorities leads to a differentiation of humanitarian and development work.  Humanitarian relief reaching target communities in Syria through Turkey or Jordan, while development agencies support local communities by rebuilding markets and schools, and providing vocational training mainly through Damascus. Of course, some humanitarian relief is provided “cross line” through Damascus, and some development operations occur cross border, for instance in Northwest Syria. Aligned support for saving lives and saving livelihoods is thus vulnerable to political strictures.

Humanitarian and development workers in Yemen tend to focus on the communities with the greatest need, which are precisely those communities outside the remit of the recognized authorities. In such cases, the provision of humanitarian aid or development support is often labeled by the recognized government as providing succor to “the enemy.” Consequently, humanitarian and development agencies must rely on the steadfastness of their “peace operations” colleagues or, as we have just seen in the case of the Ethiopia/Tigray conflict, on headquarters support.

The consequences of a lack of alignment within the triple nexus then are confusion in the field, competition for resources, and uneven relations with central and local authorities. In the case of a security crisis, when a ceiling is placed on UN presence, all three parts of the system––the political, the humanitarian and the developmental––tend to justify the importance of their presence, as security dictates a reduction in the United Nations footprint in theatre.

Starting with the Secretary-General, United Nations staff have argued for a better way, from the development of multidisciplinary peace operations in the 1990s and the publication of an Agenda for Peace, to the Brahimi Report, to the High-level Panel on Peace Operations Report, and to the recent call by UN Secretary-General António Guterres for a review of peace operations in his recent report: Our Common Agenda. The calls for more integrated, more efficient, and more “joined up” peace operations, must define, in the words of the High-level Panel, not what the United Nations does, but what the United Nations is.

In Afghanistan, Darfur, Mali, Yemen, and Syria to name a few theatres, improved coordination is advancing our understanding of this new agenda, but issues remain: Saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war beyond peace and security operations requires changes in the way such operations are approached by the international community and the United Nations, and the Secretary-General’s call offers an important way forward.


About the author

Mourad Wahba retired from the United Nations as acting Associate Administrator of UNDP. He served in the Office of the Secretary-General, as Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator and as deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Haiti.

The views and opinions expressed in this think-piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIPA or Columbia University.