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.
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.
The Cluster Approach is intended to strengthen the overall capacity, effectiveness, and management of humanitarian response in four key ways:
There are 11 global clusters, each with clearly designated lead 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.
|The 11 Global Clusters and Their Lead Agencies|
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.
Whilst Clusters aim to provide more coherence in the coordination of sectoral responses, inter-cluster coordination seeks to ensure greater coordination across a multi-sectoral response. At an operational level, inter-cluster coordination strives to ensure a clearly-articulated cross-sectoral humanitarian response plan, that resources are appropriately prioritised across clusters, that cross-cutting issues (such as gender and the environment) and multi-sectoral thematic areas are appropriately and consistently addressed, and that gaps and duplications are avoided.
Furthermore, effective inter-cluster coordination is critical in ensuring that cross-sectoral activities (such as needs assessments) are well coordinated, that resource mobilisation and advocacy strategies are consistent across all clusters, and that coherent and comprehensive transition as well as exit strategies for Clusters are commonly agreed.
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.
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.
The Cluster Approach operates at two levels. At the global level, the aim is to strengthen system-wide preparedness and technical capacity to respond to humanitarian emergencies by designating global Cluster Leads and ensuring that there is predictable leadership and accountability in all the main sectors or areas of activity. At the country level, the aim is to ensure a more coherent and effective response by mobilising groups of agencies, organisations, and NGOs to respond in a strategic manner across all key sectors or areas of activity, each sector having a clearly designated lead, as agreed by the HC and the HCT. The HC – with the support of OCHA – retains responsibility for ensuring the adequacy, coherence, and effectiveness of the overall humanitarian response and is accountable to the ERC.
Cluster Leads in-country are accountable to the HC for facilitating a process at the sectoral level aimed at ensuring the following:
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 criteria for cluster activation are met when:
The procedure for activating a Cluster or Clusters is as follows:
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.
The Cluster Lead, in addition to its responsibilities as provider of last resort, supports the Cluster six core functions.