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Published: June 17, 2015

Improving coordination in humanitarian aid: reflections on the cluster system

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Francesca Chiaudani is the Research and Programme Assistant at the European Interagency  Forum (EISF). She holds a BA in Diplomacy and International Relations from the University of Trieste (Italy) and a MA in International Studies from Durham University (UK). Prior to joining GISF, Francesca has completed internships with the UN Mine Action Service, the EU Delegation to the UN in New York, and a Geneva-based NGO covering UN Human Rights Council sessions. She is currently a member of  Youth Beyond Disaster’s Focal Team for the World Humanitarian Summit.


A recent research report by ALNAP, launched on June 15, explores humanitarian coordination by assessing the cluster system. This article reflects on some of the key findings of ALNAP’s report with special attention to the security coordination of aid workers.

The cluster system

In 2005, in response to the earthquake in Pakistan, the international humanitarian community developed a so-called cluster approach to better enhance coordination. In the cluster approach, humanitarian intervention is organised in clusters, namely a group of both UN and non-UN actors working on the same sector and coordinating activities. The cluster system was developed by the Inter-Agency standing Committee (IASC) secretariat, a platform that brings together UN and non-UN stakeholders and was born as an immediate consequence of a major reform of humanitarian coordination, the Humanitarian Reform Agenda.

This major reform, led by a diverse pool of stakeholders, introduced a number of new elements to enhance predictability, accountability and partnership in the delivery of humanitarian aid. Three major pillars, namely fostering partnership, supporting humanitarian financing and improving coordination, embodied the new elements introduced with the reform. The cluster system itself contributed to the formalisation of pre-existing informal or semi-formal coordination systems and it streamlined coordination mechanisms within the humanitarian community.

Key findings

ALNAP’s recent research shows that coordination mechanisms through the cluster system matter significantly in the humanitarian system. Indeed, in the vast majority of emergency situations, the most common scenario includes a multitude of actors working to provide aid in the same area. In such contexts, actors on the ground could benefit from effectively and efficiently coordinating their actions. For instance, by sharing information and lessons learnt, they could get a better understating of the situation on the ground. At the same time coordination could avoid overlaps in activities and prevent gaps in the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Looking at the issue through a security lens, coordination can arguably increase staff safety, notably through sharing security resources and security-related information. There are a several resources already in place to share different types of information at different degrees, such as the Aid Worker Security Database, INSO World Alert and the Aid Security Monthly News Brief, the latter an initiative developed by GISF and Aid In Danger. These projects foster information sharing by listing threats and incidents of violence that have affected the delivery of humanitarian assistance within a set period.

At this point, one could think that the higher degree of coordination we have, the better humanitarian response we would achieve. However, coordination does not happen automatically, and different stakeholders may or may not coordinate depending on the benefit they could gain. In this regard, ALNAP’s recent study argues that more coordination might not always represent the most effective solution. Indeed, coordination could occur at different levels of engagement.

For instance, coordination at an information sharing level requires trust among actors and relevant knowledge to share. However, at information level actors are not expected to further develop joint actions. Yet, when organisations working in the same area decide to join forces and implement an overarching strategy, coordination is likely to involve different activities, thus requiring more resources. ALNAP’s recent study argues that organisations would eventually reach a threshold after which costs outrun benefits and a coordinated activity becomes a burden on the organisation. For instance, with regard to security risk management for humanitarian agencies, cooperation has generally been limited to informal information sharing.

Thus, taking everything into account, the most effective scenario in the cluster system features different actors working independently within a common and coordinated overarching strategy. In other words, clusters have so far been proved to be more effective at coordinating information management and advocacy activities, rather than at merging programmes or planning joint activities. Arguably, moving towards a higher degree of cooperation can be hampered by several challenges. Indeed, there is no clear leadership within clusters, with actors often calling for more autonomy. At the same time, agencies and actors currently lack accountability mechanism to both the international humanitarian community and donors and States. Likewise, humanitarian operations suffer from a constant shortage of funding. Indeed, according to data collected by Development Initiative’s Global Humanitarian Assistance programme, last year over a third of estimated humanitarian needs went unmet.

What comes next

Nonetheless, the cluster system can still be considered a rather good system for coordinated humanitarian activity, which could be easily adapted and replicated. For instance, a group of UK based humanitarian civil society organisations have come together in 2010 and established the START Network, a platforms through which humanitarian actors can collaborate

Looking ahead, in view of the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit, future debates may decide how relevant the cluster system itself will be in the next years. While in the future we may witness new models of coordination mechanisms, it goes without saying that coordination should remain at the centre of humanitarian aid response.



ALNAP (2015). Exploring Coordination in humanitarian Clusters, 2015 edition. London. Available at http://www.alnap.org/resource/20360.aspx

IASC (2011). IASC Operational Guidance for Cluster Lead Agencies on Working with National Authorities. Geneva: IASC.

IASC (2012). Reference Module for Cluster Coordination at the Country Level. Geneva: IASC.

Development Initiative (2014). GHA Report 2014. Available at http://www.globalhumanitarianassistance.org/report/gha-report-2014

Changing the way we lead: how changes in attitude and behaviour in Cluster Coordinators support humanitarian reform. Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, issue 45, December 2009. Available online at Humanitarian Practice Network website.

Background Readings

ALNAP (2012). The State of the Humanitarian System, 2012 edition. London. Available at http://www.alnap.org/resource/6565

Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) (2012). About the Inter-Agency Standing Committee. Available at: https://interagencystandingcommittee.org/about-iasc

Russel, S., Tennant, V. (2014), Humanitarian Reform: from coordination to clusters, in The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, chapter 24, 2014 edition. Oxford.


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