Introduction to Clusterwise 2

Introduction to Clusterwise 2

We, the humanitarian community, have to confront the inevitable: Clusters are struggling to embrace the new humanitarian paradigm with which disaster risk is managed. The twin impacts of climate change and population growth have changed the goal posts more than humanitarian reform ever did. And events unfolding across the Arab world show us that the information age is pretty brutal on those who thought they would never have to reform or be held to account.

Those of us who manage disasters indirectly as ‘coordinators’ seem unaware of the consequences of the monumental changes unfolding around us, and continue more or less to conduct business as usual. This means we continue to confuse the ‘sharing of information’ with the ‘providing of strategic direction’. And we do this with scant attention paid to the fostering of genuine partnership.

Meanwhile, large aid organizations practicing ‘enterprise risk management’ have failed to spot the threat posed to their corporate reputations when they misunderstand, and therefore superficially apply, the Cluster Approach. Their constituents, the poor and the dispossessed, suffer as a result. The transformative potential of the collective Cluster endeavour has yet to be realised by these agencies, and therefore yet to be realised by the entire humanitarian and development enterprise. This is precisely why Clusters must now situate themselves firmly within the wider ‘disaster risk reduction’ paradigm, not shrivel into an ultimately self-defeating ‘Cluster Lite’ mentality.

Ultimately, applying the Cluster Approach all about managing the creative tension between ‘leadership’ and ‘partnership’. Experience suggests that current Cluster membership does not equate to partnership, and Cluster members are not seen as stakeholders in the outcomes. This needs to evolve, perhaps even be formalized.

We are always being reminded, too, that leadership of Clusters requires a shift in mindset from a directive to a more collaborative approach. But, Cluster partners, even the largest of International NGOs, expect an element of guidance and direction from time to time. This requires a new level of professionalism, one that perhaps requires formal accreditation.

“Performance of clusters has been 
disappointing. (DFID HERR, March 2011).

It might also be timely to resurrect the idea of ‘mentoring’. This concept foresees early mobilization of an experienced ‘coordinateur sage’ to support the actual Cluster Coordinator and his or her team. This person remains in country only for those first few hectic weeks, provides remote support thereafter, and returns to lead the Cluster through a quick and dirty peer review process two months later in order to help the Cluster re-focus.

But, come on, let’s be realistic. Humanitarian coordination has always been likened to “herding cats” for this very reason; that competing agency mandates, most of which are self-given, allow for, and even encourage, fragmented approaches in the name of diversity and the humanitarian imperative. Clusters were never going to change that.

It’s not the idealism, though. It’s not even the independent feline behaviour. It’s because humanitarian organisations, at least the larger ones, tend to behave much more like elephants than cats: Elephants lumber around, grey and massive, bumping into things. But they do it with intensity. They do it with purpose. They meander apparently without direction trying to do no harm, yet know exactly where the rhythm of annual migration will take them. They are short sighted, but have long memories. From time to time, they make a lot of noise, flap their ears theatrically, and snort mud over each other. They consume a lot, and, after much time and energy trying to digest the indigestible, dump on smaller animals from a great height. And, when confronted by something strange that threatens the natural order, they don’t hesitate to trample it underfoot.

But, just in case you think I’m being a bit melodramatic with the metaphor – and, perhaps, a bit unfair on elephants – I should point out that a friendly keeper at London Zoo once told my then very young son that elephants also have a sense of humour. And, much more important, they learn to love their handlers, their mahouts.


If you take the elephant to be an aid agency, the herd a Cluster, and the mahout a Humanitarian or Cluster Coordinator, this book is then as much about how to be a good elephant as it is about how to be a good mahout.

To continue with the zoological metaphor for a moment. Sometimes, it seems that the whole ‘Cluster Approach’ thing suffers from what a World Bank friend of mine calls, “Aquarium Syndrome”: Many species of brightly coloured fish swim around in circles supposedly forgetting what happened on their previous circuit. They float in their sealed off watery world trying to ignore each other, totally unaware that there is a world beyond the glass staring in. This world sees what the fish are doing, and are suitably impressed. But they are totally unable to influence what is going on inside the aquarium. They are disconnected, and, unless they strip off and go for a swim, always will be.

These metaphors are not meant as oblique criticisms; just a recognition that the world is not perfect, and that the original philosophy behind the establishment of ‘’ still appears to hold good on the basis that:

Too many senior managers responsible for implementing humanitarian reform, and, within it, the Cluster Approach, continue to under-appreciate what it takes to coordinate Clusters effectively in the field.

Too many Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) guidance notes on the subject are either too ambiguous, or too impractical to be of much use in the field.

“The cluster system needs to be revised” (DFID HERR, March 2011)

And that too many Global Cluster Lead Agencies (GCLAs) – and some donors, for that matter – still think that improving coordination management is a cost to be borne, and not an investment to be made in enhancing humanitarian action. The DFID ‘Humanitarian Emergency Response Review’ of March 2011 seems to recognise this, and calls for a paradigm shift in the way the humanitarian enterprise is managed.

With all this as context, the book is an attempt to shed light on what humanitarian coordination can be, or, more properly, what coordination management actually involves, and could achieve, despite these constraints.

It is much longer than the first as it deliberately sets out to inform the debate. It still focuses on those results-based and action-oriented tips that Cluster Coordinators and members of Clusters might like to consider before, during, and after the activation of their Clusters. But it is not meant to be another Handbook. Rather, a more readable discourse on the realities of being involved in ‘Clusters’ in 2011 and beyond.

The author is co-founder of ‘’, a global public good provided by an informal ‘community of practice’ of experienced Cluster Coordinators and Information Managers to provide those involved with Clusters in the field practical ‘best practice’ advice on how to manage the coordination of humanitarian action. More detail on how to actually do the tasks outlined in brief here, complete with templates, ‘best practice’ examples, and case studies can be found at our website:

The book complements ‘official’ tools and guidelines coming out of the formal IASC process, which can be found on the UN’s official ‘’ web platform.

As ever, this is an evolving draft and is meant to be a living document. Comments from anyone at any time are welcome, even encouraged, as we all need to learn from each other’s experience. Please feel free to send such feedback to me

Here’s to hoping you enjoy the read.
This is is a section from Clusterwise 2. Reproduction is encouraged. It would be nice if the author, James Shepherd-Barron, and were acknowledged when doing so.