The Syrian Crisis

With every week that goes by in the Syria crisis, hundreds more lives are lost, policy options narrow and the chances of post-conflict stability grow worse. What started as a demand for internal reform has become a regional conflagration.

Inside Syria, the International Rescue Committee has talked with refugees who reported that life-threatening shortages of medicines and food and fuel shortages are a daily reality. There are allegations of truly horrific human rights abuse.

Nearly seven million Syrians are living in desperate conditions. In addition to nearly 100,000 killed inside Syria (and countless more dying for lack of medical help), close to a third of the Syrian population has been displaced within the country or beyond.

The strain on communities hosting refugees is tangible. There are refugee camps in Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, but across the region the large majority of refugees are fending for themselves in urban areas.

This humanitarian toll is now as much a part of the geopolitics as the balance of military power. The scale of killing has created sectarian reprisals, not just in Syria but in Lebanon and Iraq. Meanwhile, the extent of refugee flows is itself a source of destabilization. And under any scenario, there are many more refugees to come — not least the 250,000 to 300,000 Syrians living up against the Jordanian border.

[Excerpt of report by David Miliband, a former foreign secretary of Britain.]

The Cluster Approach to Humanitarian Relief

In the past decade the humanitarian relief system has responded to over a thousand natural disasters and complex emergencies in the world, affecting hundreds of millions of people.

Extreme weather and climate events have increased in both frequency and intensity, placing populations and assets at great risk. On top of the growing severity of natural disasters, there are increasing numbers of internally displaced persons, refugees, and asylum seekers due to war or internal conflicts.

In response to this growing need, the humanitarian system has evolved into an industry, with a plethora of organizations, all with different missions, mandates, and agendas.  With the increase of humanitarian actors, the relief system has met a series of challenges, including the need to both increase resources toward humanitarian ends and to improve operational effectiveness and efficiency.  Despite efforts to confront these challenges, much criticism has been leveled at the humanitarian system for failing to meet the basic requirements of affected populations in a timely manner, with the quality of response varying greatly from crisis to crisis.

The Cluster Approach was implemented by the United Nations to address some of these concerns and to improve the coordination of humanitarian relief and actors.  Coordinating relief efforts entails minimizing the duplication of humanitarian services, whether by filling gaps or preventing overlap, and ensuring various organizations are synchronized to work together to achieve a common objective, thereby enabling a more coherent, effective, and efficient response.

Although the need for coordination in relief efforts is not disputed, there are generally two schools of thought on how coordination is best executed in humanitarian relief.  The first group is driven by governmental and inter-governmental bodies, and places an emphasis on a centralized, unified, hierarchical structure, which is assumed to be more effective and efficient.  The second group, preferred by NGOs, is based on a loose centralized approach to coordination.  This group tends to regard the centralization as a means of control over actors and focuses on how a diversity of efforts and approaches can ensure success: if one fails, all do not fail.

With a hierarchical structure featuring accountable lead agencies and encouraging equal-footed partnerships and collaboration, the Cluster Approach can be understood as an attempt to find a ‘middle-ground’ between the two schools.  Read more