Time to professionalise Cluster coordination

Time to professionalise Cluster coordination

Coordination costs. Poor coordination costs lives. Yet efforts to improve humanitarian performance through the humanitarian reform agenda are compromised by a widespread misperception among donors, UN agencies and NGOs of what effective coordination actually entails.

As a result, relatively junior and minimally trained coordinators continue to be mobilised with insufficient information management, technical, and secretariat support to do their jobs effectively. Systemic failures of accountability compromise the role still further. This is the inevitable consequence of a general misunderstanding of how important the coordination function is to improved humanitarian outcomes, and the failure to allocate capacity building resources appropriately. These shortcomings have been in evidence for some time – refer to almost any evaluation of the Cluster Approach since 2008 — but it has taken the Haiti earthquake response to finally expose the gravity of these failures.


Improved humanitarian outcomes will result by taking the coordination role taken more seriously as a legitimate and viable career option for senior aid agency staff. This will require the ‘professionalisation’ of coordination as a management function at the inter-sectoral, national and local levels.


It is now time to complement the capacity building achievements made during the past three years by Global Cluster Lead agencies (GCLs) in their ‘Cluster Coordinator’ trainings, and by OCHA in its HC-strengthening project by:
1. empowering the role of coordination management;
2. re-engineering CLA systems in a way that enables genuinely independent coordination; and
3. investing in people with the requisite functional competencies to coordinate large groups of agencies with divergent mandates and approaches.

A managed membership is proposed – much along the lines of UNDAC – where the only route to becoming a member of a Cluster or Inter-Cluster coordination team is to be certified as having been trained properly through a combination of on-the-job ‘mentoring’ and formally accredited academic learning, and the only way to remain on an emergency ‘surge’ roster is by attaining ‘excellent’ ratings through independent evaluation of performance in field situations.

This learning will necessarily be:
1. commensurate to each level of the job (i.e sub-national Coordinator, national Coordinator, inter-Cluster Coordinator, Humanitarian Coordinator);
2. tailored to each specific function (coordination management, information management, technical assistance); and
3. relevant to different type, scale and phase of crisis (e.g large-scale sudden onset natural disaster, complex crisis).

Each learning module will accrue academic credits towards the award of a diploma , culminating eventually in earning an MBA in Coordination Management .

There are few incentives for aspiring middle-managers in UN agencies and NGOs to want to be Cluster Coordinators. The reputational risk of ‘getting it wrong’ are high, and the professional rewards for getting it right virtually nil. To make matters worse, systemic failures in the areas of ‘accountability’ and ‘responsibility’ within Cluster Lead Agencies (CLAs) ensure that perverse incentives continue to compromise the independence of the role. Based on these operational realities, this article proposes that ‘coordination’ be ‘professionalised’ across all working levels – from local, to national, to inter-Cluster, to the Humanitarian Coordinator – and that the role be taken more seriously by senior humanitarian agency staff as a legitimate and viable career option. Such ‘professionalisation’ will, over time, ensure that predictable high quality coordination results in improved humanitarian action each and every time it is needed.

‘Coordination’ is a management function. It has come under the spotlight during the earthquake response in Haiti because long-standing ‘systemic failures’ of the humanitarian reform enterprise have been exposed by the inability of Global Cluster Leads (GCL’s) to properly live up to their commitments for predictable and accountable emergency response . The opportunity now exists to understand these shortcomings and ‘mainstream’ coordination management as central to the humanitarian reform process and improved humanitarian outcomes.

Lacklustre performance by the humanitarian system in Haiti was brought into sharp focus by the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC), John Holmes, on 13th February 2010. In critiquing Global Cluster Lead Agencies for failing to put in place the appropriate resources for coordination, his letter was a clear indictment of the humanitarian reform process that has been underway for the past four years. This could mark a ‘watershed’ moment for the humanitarian system the like of which has not been seen since the Rwanda performance assessment of 1995 and the Humanitarian Sector review of 2004.

The ERC’s letter did not point out the systemic failings that, taken together, culminated in the need to write it in the first place, and the authors do not judge what was or was not happening in Haiti where the scale of need and appalling operating environment were unprecedented. But these systemic failures have been widely perceived by stakeholders and those who have coordinated Clusters or acted as Inter-Cluster Coordinators for some time and were not peculiar to the Haiti situation. These failures include:

1. Most Resident and/or Humanitarian Coordinators (RC-HC’s) are ill-prepared for the job .
2. OCHA finds it difficult to field Humanitarian Affairs Officers with adequate experience of large sudden-onset crises who can act as inter-Cluster coordinators.
3. The role of the inter-Cluster coordinator and his or her accountability to the HC and/or the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) has never been formalised. Clustercoordination.org defines twenty functional competencies for this critical role.
4. Cluster Coordinators do not have appropriate levels of authority and responsibility delegated to them by their Cluster Lead Agency (CLA) heads of office. They cannot act as genuinely independent ‘honest brokers’ or ‘neutral facilitators’ on behalf of the Clusters they represent as a result.
5. The agreed to, and essential, separation of, coordination and programme functions within CLA’s is the exception rather than the rule for all bar IFRC.
6. There is a lack of awareness about, or commitment to, the level of human, financial, and material resources required to actually establish and sustain coordination mechanisms at national and sub-national levels.
7. CLAs reward people who raise funds by promoting agency profile, not those of a sector or Cluster.

To compound these ‘systemic failures’, CLA representatives at country level face two important ‘perverse incentives’ that constrain their ‘accountability’ to the HC as demanded by the IASC’s guidance note of November 2006 and as reiterated in a joint letter from their heads of agency in November 2009. How can a CLA Representative based at the national level:
1. be accountable for Cluster activities – including being the ‘provider of last resort’ – carried out by Cluster partners over whom (s)he has no control?
2. delegate responsibility and authority to a Cluster Coordinator whose core competencies, skills and experience are unpredictable, variable, and often not up to the task?

In the meantime, a number of operational challenges remain:
1. CLAs continue to place their most competent and senior staff in agency programme roles, leaving more junior staff to coordinate Clusters. This weakens the ability of the Cluster Coordinator to be the main interlocutor with the government on behalf of the Cluster.
2. Programme and coordination responsibilities continue to be combined for the majority of Cluster Coordinators.This makes the workload unmanageable and compromises the ability of a coordinator to facilitate properly or act as an impartial ’honest broker’.
3. Very few CLAs adequately resource Cluster support teams, which would necessarily include sufficiently experienced IM managers, technical advisors and secretariat support functions. The lack of a complete package of services inevitably means that adequate strategic development of Cluster response is compromised.
4. Further, one size does not fit all, nor is each Cluster homogeneous in needs. In large emergencies, Clusters will require significantly more resources and multiple positions within each support function. CLAs appear to have little understanding of how to assess these coordination needs or deduce when ‘diminishing returns’ apply.

The costs of coordination in terms of time and money might seem high when the benefits are so difficult to quantify . However, the increase in overall transaction costs is only marginal compared with other ‘indirect’ costs associated with the humanitarian enterprise. And it must be remembered that the cost of failing to coordinate properly is measured in unnecessary death and suffering.

It is evident that some key stakeholders in the humanitarian reform process continue to think that, “coordination is a part-time, bolt-on job that any junior manager should be capable of handling as it requires little more than managing meetings and writing minutes” . The ERC’s Haiti letter explodes that myth. Recent conversations with one CLA stated that, “this was one of the hardest positions to fill in an emergency response as the role requires extremely high level skills, negotiation and facilitation powers”.

There is a lack of awareness as to the level of human, financial, and material resources required to actually establish and maintain coordination mechanisms at the national level, let alone at field ‘hubs’ located closer to the affected populations. This has fostered a mentality of “Cluster Lite” where one or two people, often while still doing their programme ‘day job’, are expected to act as coordinators and information managers for a limited period of time.

Those who coordinate Clusters and those who are coordinated within Clusters, know that coordination is a blend of art and science, and that success all too frequently relies on the personality and leadership skills of the person, or team of people, doing the coordinating. Experience suggests, however, that ‘personality’, ‘experience’, and ‘technical’ knowledge of the sector alone is not enough. There are many more ‘technical’ aspects of their jobs that members of coordination teams find themselves doing, but for which they have either never been taught or taught only superficially. Examples include needs assessment, survey design, coverage monitoring, impact assessment, logical framework analysis, allocating pooled funds, gap analysis, integration of inter-sectoral and cross-cutting issues, and many many more . These are not skills which are normally part of the development of a programme manager in a Cluster Lead organisation.

There is a marked absence of experienced field practitioners from the working groups who design and implement the tools of humanitarian reform established by GCL’s. It’s not their fault, but insufficent numbers of people currently engaged in designing or conducting Cluster Coordinator trainings have actually done the job, and, even when they have, for limited periods only. Experienced field practitioners who are present as resource persons can only impart a fraction of the ‘reality checks’ required to redress this imbalance.

Efforts by GCL’s to enhance the coordination management and, especially in the case of the WASH Cluster, sector-specific technical skills required of coordinators and information managers since the advent of the ‘cluster approach’ in 2006, have been laudable. Yet, with all this time, money and effort, coordination team members have only had basic skills imparted to them and have not been able to study the required disciplines to the depth of understanding required. According to ‘clustercoordination.org’, nearly 85% of topics are either not covered or not covered in sufficient detail to create the required level of skill demanded for coordination .

Weakly formulated selection criteria for training has allowed people with inadequate experience, inappropriate leadership personalities, and insufficient technical competence to be rostered and deployed as coordinators. That the WASH Cluster deems 84% of all training participants to be deployable as Cluster Coordinators at one level or another seriously underestimates the difficulty of the task. This myth has also now been debunked by the Haiti experience. Attending a five-day ‘Cluster training’ that can be little more than an orientation is not in itself sufficient to create a coordinator.

To compound the challenge, human resource departments who manage rosters of ‘trained’ coordinators often fail to distinguish between the different levels of skill-sets required (although attention is paid by the WASH and Shelter GCL’s to streaming various levels of coordination i.e sub-national vs national and small-scale vs large scale). This means that all those who have attended a training are not only deemed to be ‘coordinators’ but can be, and are, deployed into wholly unsuitable situations for which, by their own admission, they are ill-prepared.

Cluster trainings are, furthermore, decentralised, fragmented, duplicated. Training modules have been developed by Global Cluster Leads in isolation of one another resulting in different people learning different approaches to achieve the same end. This has led to confused interpretations of how to apply the Cluster Approach in the field and sub-optimal performance has been the result. This situation has been exacerbated by the fact that there are no agreed minimum standards or methodologies.

Perhaps most pernicious of all is the fact that the role of ‘Inter-Cluster Coordinator’ has never been formally recognised despite its proven value from the outset in the Pakistan earthquake response of 2005 and elsewhere since. This capacity gap stems from an ignorance of how the Cluster system actually works in the field. If the HC cannot – or, in many cases, will not – take on this important role, then it has to be delegated to an OCHA de facto ‘Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator’


• Redesign the Humanitarian Action (HAT) trainings of 2009 aimed at making CLA representatives in the field aware of their responsibilities and accountabilities under the Cluster Approach. ERC to obtain support of Executive Directors to ensure attendance by their country based representatives once IASC has ratified the contents of the course.
• Establish a working group to draw up minimum performance standards and core functional competencies for Cluster Coordinators and Inter-Cluster Coordinators.
• Work with the IASC, GCLs, and the academic sector to design a modular, competency based training for advanced coordinators (who will, if successful, go on to become Inter-Cluster coordinators)
• Work with the IASC to formalise the role of Inter-Cluster Coordinator / Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator

For the IASC:
• Re-articulate the functional responsibilities of the Humanitarian Coordinator and accountability to the ERC.
• Refine the roles and responsibilities of Inter-Cluster and Cluster Coordinators, and define the core competencies and level of experience required to carry out the role.

For Donors:
• Commission a cost-benefit study of the Cluster Approach once all aspects of what coordination management in the field actually entails has been established to the satisfaction of all stakeholders. Terms of Reference for such a study should include the ‘opportunity’ costs of failing to coordinate properly.
• Work with GCLs to understand the level of sustained capacity required for coordination teams on the ground. This must, of necessity, include costs for Cluster coordination teams at national and sub-national level, and include costs associated with ‘mentoring’ (either where a junior coordinator acts as deputy to the Cluster Coordinator as was trialled by UNICEF in Bangladesh during the Cyclone Sidr response, and/or where a senior coordinator acts as remote support).
• Ensure that funds are made available for sustained coordination, and that agencies are not penalised for mainstreaming these costs in non-emergency budget lines.
• Ensure that decision-makers attend GCL-Donor meetings rather than the liaison officers from Geneva’s diplomatic missions who, in their understandable ignorance of what is at stake, tend to over-effuse and thereby give the impression to OCHA and others that all is well.

For Global Cluster Leads:
• Agree with the ERC and then incorporate explicit standards of coordination management and Cluster accountability into the job descriptions of their country representatives.
• Devise a joint two-tier, inter-agency and cross-sectoral capacity building strategy which orients national counterparts to the implications for them of the Cluster Approach on the one hand, and deepens the skill-sets of their best Cluster Coordinators on the other.
• Ensure that qualified personnel are released on request despite the impact on existing programmes.
• Conduct a full cost-benefit study on the WASH Cluster ‘Rapid Response Teams’ concept.

For the Academic sector:
• Work with ‘clustercoordination.org’ to devise coordination management modules up to and including MSc status, with formal modular accreditation leading to recognised certification.

The ideas proposed in this paper seek to capitalise on investments made thus far in enhanced coordination management, and to do this through the good offices of OCHA. The recommendations do not suggest a disproportionate increase in budgets for the ‘overhead’ that is coordination, rather an appropriate re-allocation of already existing resources.

The ‘professionalisation’ of coordination as a legitimate and respected management discipline can be mainstreamed at no additional cost to Global Cluster Lead agencies over and above that which is already allocated. It is just a question of realising what it takes to coordinate well, define standards to which the role can be held to account, and raise the bar. The ERC challenged the humanitarian community to do just that in the wake of the first phase response to the earthquake in Haiti. And it is now up to would-be coordinators to rise to that challenge.

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