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Introduced in 2005 as part of the broad Humanitarian Reform and further elaborated under the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Transformative Agenda, the Cluster Approach aims to make humanitarian response more predictable through better sectoral coordination amongst humanitarian actors. The objective is to facilitate more predictable leadership and cooperation, strengthen partnerships, improve planning and prioritisation, and enhance accountability.

  • The Cluster Approach in brief
  • Global Cluster Leads
  • Cluster Activation
  • Cluster Functions
  • References

Overview of The Cluster Approach


There are 11 global clusters, each with clearly designated lead agencies (cf. graph below) and agencies and specific Terms of Reference agreed by the IASC that outline roles and responsibilities. The Cluster Approach is flexible and is not imposed at country-level in a “one size fits all” as its coordination aims to be field and needs-driven.

Sector or area of activity Global Cluster Lead 
The 11 Global Clusters 

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Source: OCHA

In any humanitarian response, the Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) – or the UN Resident Coordinator (RC), if no HC has been appointed – , in consultation with the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT), agrees on the priority sectoral needs and related coordination structures (i.e. Clusters) that are appropriate to the response. The HC/RC and HCT also agree on which humanitarian actors are best placed to take on a Cluster leadership responsibility in the specific country context. The decision is based on organisational presence, capacity and willingness, and the global cluster leads structure agreed by the IASC. Due to capacity and resources, a UN agency usually functions as Cluster Lead but, increasingly, civil society organisations play a leadership or co-leadership role. Subsequently, the HC shares the agreement regarding country-level coordination and leadership mechanisms with the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC). This must then be approved by the IASC at global level.


A Cluster Lead is the organisation that has been given the mandate by the IASC to take the lead in the Cluster approach implementation with regard to a humanitarian action specific dimension (e.g. Health, Shelter, Logistics). It is accountable globally to the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) and in-country to the HC. Furthermore, for any IASC-defined Cluster, the designated Cluster Lead is the provider of last resort. This means that, where necessary – and depending on access, security, and availability of funding – , the Cluster Lead must be ready to ensure the provision of services required to fulfil crucial gaps identified by the Cluster and reflected in the Humanitarian Response Plan. It represents a commitment of Cluster Leads to do their utmost to ensure an adequate and appropriate response.


  • Inclusion of key humanitarian partners.
  • Establishment and maintenance of appropriate humanitarian coordination mechanisms.
  • Coordination with national/local authorities, State institutions, local civil society and other relevant actors.
  • Participatory and community-based approaches.
  • Attention to priority cross-cutting issues.
  • Needs assessment and analysis.
  • Emergency preparedness.
  • Planning and strategy development.
  • Application of standards.
  • Monitoring and reporting.
  • Advocacy and resource mobilisation.
  • Training and capacity building.
  • Provision of assistance or services as a last resort.

Cluster Activation

Under the Transformative Agenda, IASC Principals agreed that activation of Clusters must be more strategic, less automatic, and time limited than what was previously observed. HCs should only recommend their activation when there is an identified gap in the enabling environment warranting their activation. It should be noted that 1) formal activation of Clusters may be difficult in circumstances where the government capacity is constrained; 2) to ensure that clusters continue to operate only whilst they are strictly needed, plans to deactivate and transition Clusters should be prepared as soon as possible after activation; building the capacity of local partners and government should be an objective from the outset.