Humanitarian Coordination

A vital component of humanitarian action is the coordination among all actors involved in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Depending on the nature of the crisis, whether conflict or natural disaster, the number of humanitarian actors responding has increased over the past forty years. During the Biafran War in the late 1960s, a relatively small number of humanitarian actors were present most notably the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Oxfam. By contrast, during the Balkan and Kosovo crises in the 1990s, over 400 humanitarian actors were present delivering aid to the affected population. In addition, there has been an increase in non-traditional actors taking part in the aid efforts in recent years including military forces as well as private sector companies. This trend was observed particularly during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti where national governments from the US, UK, Canada, Brazil, Cuba and the Dominican Republic sent over 1,000 military and disaster relief personnel. In addition to military personnel, some estimates indicate that there were over 10,000 NGOs in Haiti around the time of the quake. As crises become more complicated and communication brings more people together, the challenge of coordination increases.

Humanitarian coordination seeks to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian response by ensuring greater predictability, accountability and partnership. The cluster system is a critical component to delivery of aid in a coordinated manner. This approach was developed after the 2005 Humanitarian Response Review, commissioned by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) and the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC), highlighted significant gaps in humanitarian response. The cluster system was officially adopted in the same year with the aim of improving efficiency and effectiveness of humanitarian response in crises; strengthen partnerships in international responses to humanitarian emergencies; clarifying the division of labor among organizations; ensure gaps in response are addressed; and to further define roles and responsibilities of key sectors of the response.

The cluster system was rolled-out in March 2009 with the formation of nine clusters reflecting the global humanitarian structure and lead by both non-governmental organizations as well as UN agencies. These nine included:

  • Logistics (WFP)
  • Emergency telecommunications (OCHA-Process owner, UNICEF Common Data Services, WFP – Common Security Telecommunications Services)
  • Camp coordination and management (UNHCR for conflict-generated IDPs and IOM for natural disaster-generated IDPs)
  • Emergency shelter (IFRC)
  • Health (WHO)
  • Nutrition (UNICEF)
  • Water, sanitation, and hygiene (UNICEF)
  • Early recovery (UNDP)
  • Protection (UNHCR for conflict-generated IDPs, UNHCR, UNICEF, and OHCHR for natural disaster generated IDPs.

The original nine were expanded to include education, led by UNICEF, and agriculture, led by FAO. Despite a troubled rollout of the cluster system including confusion and ill-will from partners a 2007 review, conducted at the request of ISAC, found evidence of improved systematic coordination in humanitarian response. Although progress was uneven among the rollout countries, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Somalia and Uganda as well as desk research on the sudden-onset emergencies, some of the clusters had performed well. Overall, the review concluded that the benefits for sector-wide programming exceeded costs and drawbacks of the new cluster approach.

The ERC is responsible for the oversight of all emergencies requiring United Nations humanitarian assistance. The cluster system is usually used in countries where a Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) has been appointed and should be used in any country faced with a sudden major new emergency requiring a multi-sectoral response with the participation of a wide range of international humanitarian actors.

Decisions on the clusters required at country level are made by the HC in consultation with IASC agencies and national authorities. As per UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182 (December 1991), humanitarian assistance must be provided in accordance with the principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality. Adherence to these principles reflects a measure of accountability of the humanitarian community.

  • Humanity: Human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found, with particular attention to the most vulnerable in the population, such as children, women and the elderly. The dignity and rights of all victims must be respected and protected.
  • Neutrality: Humanitarian assistance must be provided without engaging in hostilities or taking sides in controversies of a political, religious or ideological nature.
  • Impartiality: Humanitarian assistance must be provided without discriminating as to ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political opinions, race or religion. Relief of the suffering must be guided solely by needs and priority must be given to the most urgent cases of distress.
  • Cluster lead agencies are designated taking account of the capacities of the different agencies in country to fulfill the required functions and may coincide with cluster leadership at the global level.

    Coordination and funding mechanisms to support the cluster system include the Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) and Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF.)

    The CAP brings aid organizations together to jointly plan, coordinate, implement and monitor response to complex emergencies and natural disaster and allows for cohesive appeals for funding from the international community thus ensuring support delivered in a timely, predictable and accountable manner. The CAP comprises a common humanitarian action plan and concrete projects necessary to implement that plan. It serves as an ongoing frame of reference and detailed work plan for large-scale, sustained humanitarian action; efficient and effective life saving; and protection and promotion of livelihoods.

    Established in 2006 by the UN General Assembly, the CERF enables timely and reliable humanitarian assistance through funding contributed from governments, the private sector, foundations and individuals. The CERF’s objectives are to: promote early action and response to reduce loss of life; enhance response to time-critical requirements; strengthen core elements of humanitarian response in underfunded crises. CERF aims to complement existing humanitarian funding mechanisms such as the CAP. CERF provides seed funds to jump-start critical operations and fund life-saving programs not yet covered by other donors.

    The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) leads the international community’s efforts to develop a more efficient framework to deliver humanitarian aid to affected populations. OCHA plays a pivotal role in operational coordination in crisis situations through needs assessments, common priorities, common strategies to address issues that affect the humanitarian actors in the crisis, consistent public messages, and monitored aid delivery.

    Humanitarian coordination involves systematic utilization of policy instruments to deliver humanitarian assistance in a cohesive and effective manner. Coordination is approached in three distinct ways, (1) coordination by command, (2) coordination through consensus and (3) coordination by default, each of which offers both benefits and challenges. Effective coordination requires multi-sectoral and multifaceted perspectives, as well as a dual approach in which the importance of both operational and strategic coordination are recognized.

    Actors who seek access to beneficiary populations often share the same objectives in regard to addressing human need and allaying suffering, but there exists a wide variance in organizational structure, technical and/or geographic expertise, mission, mandate, and political interest that may hinder or prevent natural coordination on the field. Humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and operational independence are necessary for effective coordination and are central to establishing and maintain access to affected population. Despite the challenges to implementation, the advantages are significant. Creating an effective coordination mechanism improves humanitarian operations through streamlined tactics and ultimately more effective delivery to the beneficiary population.

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