What is the Cluster Approach?

What is the Cluster Approach?
In humanitarian circles, the dreadful word ‘cluster’ is now synonymous with ‘humanitarian reform’ and has come to embody notions of predictability, responsibility, accountability and partnership in all areas of humanitarian action.

But why was reform needed in the first place? This is what the then Secretary of State for International Development in the UK said at the time:

“We have called for far-reaching reforms to the UN humanitarian system. At this time there is not enough money for emergencies, for example, the UN appeal for Chechnya in 2003 was almost fully funded at £23 a person, but in Mozambique only 15% of what was needed was provided, at 23 pence a person. How can these disparities be justified?

Too often different UN and other agencies overlap and duplicate their efforts, causing confusion and wasting resources. Bureaucracy can slow things down. Not enough money is spent preventing emergencies, as well as responding to them. And we are not good enough at meeting the needs of people dispossessed inside their own country – why should we differentiate between refugees fleeing a country and those fleeing persecution or famine at home?

Imagine if here at home, every time there was a fire, we had to hold a meeting of local and central government officials, politicians and community leaders. First they would have to go and look at the fire because they don’t trust the alarm system, then decide with the landlord what to do. Then they need to raise the money needed to buy the fuel for the fire engine. After that they’d decide who should do the firefighting and then begin ringing round to see who might provide some semi-trained volunteer crew members. Then equip them with the cheapest kit available, only to send them into harms way without the required delegation of authority to act. It sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? But that is how things are working now in the international humanitarian system”.


  • Long-standing gaps
  • Erratic coordination
  • Insufficient accountability
  • Inconsistent donor policies
  • Proliferation of actors
  • Government demands
  • Changing role of UN
  • Poor predictability
  • Lack of transparency
While the word “cluster” itself means no more than a group of organizations coalescing around a common area of work, it is actually the word ‘approach’ that drives the idea of improved humanitarian action forward as it implies working together in a spirit of inclusivity and partnership where all stakeholders are transparently and mutually accountable for what they do.

The basic premise is that what humanitarians were doing back in 2004 was not working very well, and that business could not carry on as usual. The far-reaching implications of this requirement for ‘change’ remain the case today, and, put more formally, are about:

  • achieving more strategic responses
  • improving effectiveness of humanitarian action
  • allocating resources more efficiently
  • knowing what to expect from each stakeholder, especially designated Cluster Lead Agencies
  • holding those responsible for humanitarian action to account
  • providing predictability in terms of who is responsible for what
  • improving transparency
  • to the extent possible, making sure that all needs are met (provider of last resort).

Ultimately, the legitimacy of the approach is derived through its breadth of participation. In other words, the wider the Cluster membership, the more representative it becomes. The more representative it becomes, the more legitimate its advocacy. And the more legitimate its advocacy, the more difficult it is for decision-makers to ignore what the Cluster is recommending. This virtuous cycle ends up generating increased resources for all. At least, that’s the theory. But managing this process can be frustrating at times.


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.

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