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 

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