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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.

Overview of The Cluster Approach

As defined by the IASC Guidance Note, Clusters are made up of humanitarian organisations – including UN agencies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and other civil society organisations – as well as, in some cases, other stakeholders – including government representatives. These organisations work together to address needs identified in a specific sector (e.g. logistics, camp coordination, health, protection). Clusters provide a framework for actors engaged in a sectoral response to: Respond jointly to needs that have been commonly identified; Develop appropriate strategic response plans with shared objectives; and Coordinate effectively – both amongst themselves and with the national authorities leading the response.


An operational level inter-cluster coordination forum is usually established, chaired by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Head of Office or his/her designate. It brings together the Cluster Coordinators as representatives of their respective Clusters and focal points for cross-cutting issues. The forum takes guidance on strategic and policy issues from the HCT and feeds back broad operational priorities and concerns to the HCT. At all times, inter-cluster coordination should be guided by and should promote the humanitarian and partnership principles.

Global Cluster Leads

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.


The IASC Transformative Agenda states that Clusters will be professionally managed by dedicated, trained, and experienced Cluster Coordinators, that information management will be prioritised, and that resources will be pooled in order to enhance the collection and analysis of data on the progress and impact of Cluster activities.

Cluster Functions

  1. To support service delivery by:
    • Providing a platform that ensures service delivery is driven by the Humanitarian Response Plan and strategic priorities.
    • Developing mechanisms to eliminate duplication of service delivery.
  2. To inform the HC/HCT’s strategic decision-making by:
    • Preparing needs assessments and analysis of gaps (across and within Clusters, using information management tools as needed) to inform the setting of priorities.
    • Identifying and finding solutions for (emerging) gaps, obstacles, duplication, and cross-cutting issues.
    • Formulating priorities on the basis of analysis.
  3. To plan and implement Cluster strategies by:
    • Developing sectoral plans, objectives and indicators that directly support realisation of the overall response’s strategic objectives.
    • Applying and adhering to common standards and guidelines.
    • Clarifying funding requirements, helping to set priorities, and agreeing Cluster contributions to the HC’s overall humanitarian funding proposals.
  4. To monitor and evaluate performance by:
    • Monitoring and reporting on activities and needs.
    • Measuring progress against the Cluster strategy and agreed results.
    • Recommending corrective action where necessary.
  5. To build national capacity in preparedness and contingency planning.
  6. To support robust advocacy by:
    • Identifying concerns and contributing key information and messages to HC and HCT messaging and action.
    • Undertaking advocacy on behalf of the Cluster, its members, and affected people.

The Cluster Lead, in addition to its responsibilities as provider of last resort, supports the Cluster six core functions.

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