Why don’t all agencies coordinate?

Why don’t all agencies coordinate?

Humanitarian agencies are instinctively averse to coordination because coordination is hard. Actual coordination is neither easy nor intuitive. Coordination also implies a certain ‘accountability’ to people other than your own immediate agency, its programme, or the beneficiaries it serves. In Haiti, one large NGO told me to my face that they “wouldn’t attend coordination meetings because they didn’t want to be held to account for anything that went wrong.” Others preferred to ‘plough their own furrow’ arguing that this was the only way to preserve their independence of action. Yet more said they would have coordinated if they had known how.

How exactly do you coordinate a disaster response? Do you split up by sector – one group does health, another does water and sanitation, yet another Education? Does that mean that environmental sanitation engineers can’t conduct health programmes? Does it imply that a medical doctor, trained to save the life of an individual patient no matter what the cost, is the best person to conduct a public health campaign? How about coordination by geographic region? One NGO could handle an entire neighbourhood or region, but that assumes they have the capacity and broad spread of skills required to work in schools and in health centres while running camps and sorting out problems connected with under-nutrition, unsafe water or managing the disposal of shit. Most relief agencies, big and small, are specialised and don’t have this broad range of skills.

As a result, coordination ends up being a messy combination of sectoral, thematic and geographical cooperation, where even something as apparently straightforward as procuring and distributing anti-mosquito bednets becomes just as much art as science. It’s hard to fit small NGOs into this structure – they may not be able to handle an entire sector or an entire geographic region. At the same time, dividing assistance into too many sectors leads to fragmentation, which makes it hard to plan for such cross-cutting issues as the environment, for example.

The global funding system for aid doesn’t support coordination. Every major donor has different priorities, reporting systems, and types of projects they like to support. They also provide funding in different cycles. That makes it very difficult to standardize projects in a way that makes coordination functional.

Partners within the Cluster structure should no longer decide when, how, and with whom they will share their information; it is their humanitarian obligation.

Coordination also takes time. Every moment spent planning means delaying your emergency response operations while you find out who’s doing what and where around you. And then real coordination implies a certain collaboration which might well require you to adapt your programme to fit in with others you don’t know. The change might be such that an amendment is needed to the original funding proposal. Coordination also takes meetings, and for the meetings to be effective, senior people with decision-making responsibility need to attend them. These are the same people who are managing immediate disaster response activities. They don’t have a lot of time to spare.

When you call for better coordination, you are saying that you want a committee to handle your response. There is a reason this makes people nervous as they really don’t want to be racing together to the bottom of the barrel just to satisfy the priorities of others.

Relief organisations avoid coordination because it’s a bureaucracy-ridden, painful hassle the benefits of which can be hard to see, at least initially, and the perverse incentives all too obvious.

Despite all this, many agencies appear to have forgotten that the overriding goal of the Cluster Approach, or any systemic improvement measure for that matter, is not to strengthen coordination for its own sake, but rather to improve outcomes for affected individuals and communities. It is not always evident to these individual organizations that the sharing of their information may be helping the collective effort to improve outcomes overall, often in ways that are not immediately apparent. This myopia must be addressed by the Global Humanitarian Platform, the IASC, and Donors, who should insist that funding is conditional on engagement with at least the processes of coordination.

Updated 6 October 2011

The following table outlines the principal barriers to effective coordination and gives examples of possible solutions to the resultant challenges.





1 Cluster Lead is not perceived as an independent ‘honest broker’ Providing advisory services to Government, and competing for funds is seen as compromising impartiality, independence, and neutrality in times of humanitarian crisis Provide real-time ‘best’ technical advice (from RO, HQ, or Collaborating Centre); Ensure the Cluster Coordinator facilitates (and does not take over) the peer review process; split coordination and programme functions
2 Agency autonomy is threatened Individuals and organisations fear that coordination will reduce their freedom to make decisions and run their own programmes Demonstrate that collective problem-solving leads to consensual decision-making, while still allowing freedom of action within programmes
3 Knowledge is assumed Not all agencies will have the same or requisite knowledge on which to base their decisions; technical language may differ Provide technical input from respected third party sources (see point 1) ;
4 Understanding of language is assumed The UN language is not the mother tongue of all participants Remind all participants that there will always be linguistic mis-understanding; introduce simultaneous translation services; translate documents and websites; do meeting notes on PowerPoint in the UN language in real time
5 Domain Consensus is challenged Organisations differ over: 

  • the right of a particular organisation to be involved
  • geographic areas of responsibility
  • sub-sectoral responsibilities
  • beneficiary groups to be served
  • prioritisation of needs
  • programme approaches
Having agreed the overall policy framework within the SOF, compromise can be reached on most ‘domain’ issues; from then on, downstream products and projects should be agreed and tracked by relevant sub-committees
6 All organizations are not equal That certain organisations dominate both the agenda and the ensuing decision-making process Rotate the chair; ensure that the ‘usual suspects’ aren’t allowed to dominate
7 Multiple organizations Too many UN agencies and NGOs Establish a small ‘Strategic Advisory Group’ (SAG) made up of all stakeholder groups
8 Donors take unilateral action By acting unilaterally, by linking (politically), and by earmarking (vertical projects), donors undermine the collective effort Mainstream the ‘Good Donorship Initiative’, including (trust) fund pooling and joint reporting
9 Decision-makers do not attend meetings Agencies constantly refer to headquarters before committing resources Delegate authority as much as possible; allow remote decision-makers and influencers to ‘attend’ meetings virtually
10 Organizations hesitate to share results of assessments Smaller Cluster members are concerned that their methodologies are not sufficiently rigorous, and will not stand up to public scrutiny Re-assure Cluster members that all submissions are anonymous unless stated otherwise
11 Credit for success is diffused Acknowledgment of individuals and agencies gets lost through the collective approach SAG endorsement is arguably a more powerful ‘product’ when it comes to external relations
12 Resources are slow to mobilize and/or are insufficient Inadequate leadership skills, knowledge, or experience; high staff turn-over; cost-benefit of coordination is not evident; IM resources are inadequate Investment in IT, data management personnel, and full-time information & communication personnel is always cost-effective.
13 Lack of Trust Participating agencies may have a history of poor relations Field operations are usually more to do with personality than agency. Good ‘leadership’ and ‘team-building’ can finesse this aspect
14 Dilution of Visibility Participating agencies see each other as competitors Mainstream SWAp equivalents into short-term donor funding methodologies
15 Absence of Sanction Agencies and Individuals do not do what they say they are going to do and are ‘economical with the truth’ about pipeline supplies Monitor agency actions to identify delivery failures. If persistent, name and shame; ensure that only supplies confirmed as in the country or in the pipeline are included in commodity tracking matrices
16 Lack of Commitment Risk aversion in public, capacity, policy, funds, sensitivity, need to clarify with HQ Time limit decision; negotiate before or after meeting; often opts-out but does not veto
17 Sensitivity Will not say what they really feel in public meetings Identify donors (and media): remind all of ‘Chatham House’ rules

This is is a section from Clusterwise 2. Reproduction is encouraged. It would be nice if the author, James Shepherd-Barron, and clustercoordination.org were acknowledged when doing so.

Submit a Comment