3.2. UN Cluster mechanism

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The U.N. Cluster Mechanism has changed the way in which humanitarian assistance is coordinated and delivered. Assistance is now organized around nine clusters. Each Cluster is led or co-led by a UN agency, according to its respective areas of expertise. Each Cluster (the Cluster mechanism is described later in this chapter) is responsible for all post-disaster activities related to the topic, regardless of who is implementing – whether the government, an NGO or a UN agency. The Clusters encompass the following issues:

UN Cluster mechanism

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
Camp Coordination/Management
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Early Recovery
UN Development Program (UNDP)
UNICEF, Save the Children
Emergency Shelter
Emergency Telecommunications
Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), World Food Program WFP)
World Health Organization (in the Americas, Pan American Health Organization)
Water, Sanitation, Hygiene

The cluster approach itself is not new. In Colombia, for example, for some time “thematic groups” have been responsible for the coordination of issues related to the displacement of more than two million Colombians. What is new, however, is the leadership concept and, more importantly, the formal operational accountability that the lead agencies must assume. Lead agencies are “accountable for ensuring, to the extent possible, the establishment of adequate coordination mechanisms… as well as adequate strategic planning and operational response.”

As cluster leads, agencies work with relevant humanitarian actors that have expertise and capacity in a specific area. In a country facing an emergency situation or a disaster, the clusters provide support to the Humanitarian Coordinator. They do not necessarily carry out all of the activities themselves, but are responsible for ensuring that they are implemented. In this sense, if all else fails, the lead agency must step in to do the job itself. The concept of ‘provider of last resort’ is the bottom line in accountability. However, the financial implications of this responsibility for cluster lead agencies require further examination and clarification. Read more about the concept of provider of last resort and how the Cluster approach is used to strengthen humanitarian response.

The Global Health Cluster, under the leadership of the World Health Organization, is made up of more than 30 international humanitarian health organizations that have been working together to build partnerships and mutual understanding and to develop common approaches to humanitarian health action. The Global Health Cluster is charged with the following:

  • Producing widely endorsed products and services that will streamline emergency response and increase its predictability.
  • Achieving greater coherence in health action among the many and varied stakeholders by building partnership and common understanding.
  • Well managed health information, integrated into an overall information management system that will serve all stakeholders to ensure an evidence-based health response.
  • Coordinating a system to rapidly deploy health cluster coordinators, other experts and medical supplies for a more effective and timely response.
  • Ensuring a greater focus on building national level capacity to strengthen the preparedness, response and resilience of affected countries.

Review the Global Health Cluster’s strategic framework for 2009-2011.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, PAHO/WHO is the recognized leader for the health Cluster. The success of the cluster approach will depend on several factors, including: accountability, reducing conflicts of interest and promoting inclusiveness of all major actors.

  • Clear accountability to national authorities. Most everyone would agree that accountability to the victims of disasters is a top priority. The disagreement, however, lies in who represents the affected population. If the cluster approach is to genuinely serve and strengthen national institutions, the accountability of the lead agency cannot be exclusively or primarily to the UN humanitarian coordinator, but rather must include the corresponding national agency, as is the case in the Americas, where PAHO/WHO is accountable to the Ministries of Health.
  • Avoiding conflicts of interest on the part of the lead agencies. Agencies that act as cluster leads must be prepared to serve all actors in the cluster impartially. As a practical way of minimizing potential conflicts of interest, cluster lead agencies should consider assigning one representative to exclusively perform the cluster coordinating functions and designate another person to handle the agency’s own operational functions. How agencies determine who will carry out which role provides an indication as to where their priorities lie.
  • Inclusiveness of the cluster approach. The cluster approach is often perceived as heavily dominated by the UN, and indeed, this perception is understandable, as all cluster leads are UN or intergovernmental agencies. However, the success of the cluster leadership approach will depend on the value added it offers all partners. Does it make the work of NGOs and other non-UN agencies easier to carry out? Is the work of all actors in the cluster supported, both technically and operationally? Is the lead agency’s influence leveraged to acquire resources for all actors or only for its own projects?

Read more considerations for countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.