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date: 21 April 2019

Collaboration and Cross-Sector Coordination for Humanitarian Assistance in a Disaster Recovery Setting

Summary and Keywords

While known to be important and essential for improved effectiveness and efficiency, cross-sector coordination and collaboration among different actors engaged in postdisaster recovery is fraught with complications. Among the challenges are (a) who leads, and how; (b) the capacity and roles of the host government; (c) governance structures within organizations (which may differ a great deal); (d) assumptions of power; (e) the trade-off between valuing relationships and “getting the job done”; and (f) the varying constraints (and opportunities) of accountability. Recognizing the need to improve joint actions for a better response, the Humanitarian Reform Agenda (HRA), begun in 2005, led to the remolding of collective models of disaster response and the adoption of the global cluster system, which is essentially organized around the delivery of goods and services (sectors) by traditional aid actors such as the United Nations (UN), nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. While the cluster system has largely been acknowledged as an improvement in collaboration among actors, a perennial challenge of cross-sector coordination remains. One of the opportunities for improvement lies in better and more predictable leadership, one of the key areas identified by the HRA. Another opportunity lies in changing the focus from a supply-driven approach of prioritizing what aid providers deliver to a demand-driven understanding, such as that offered by area-based approaches, wherein sectors are more closely aligned.

A common form of collaboration within aid is partnership between various actors (e.g., the United Nations or NGOs). Partnerships assume more than a constructing relationship: Effective partnerships emphasize the need for transparency and equity, along with being results-oriented and competent. Recognizing this, the Grand Bargain, resulting from the World Humanitarian Summit, noted that aid providers should engage with local and national responders in a spirit of partnership and aim to reinforce rather than replace local and national capacities.

Partnerships, however, fall short all too often, especially when one partner has power over the other, which is often the case. The report Time to Let Go, by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), notes, for instance, that “the relationships between donor and implementer, aid provider and recipient, remain controlling and asymmetrical, and partnerships and interactions remain transactional and competitive, rather than reciprocal and collective.” The challenge remains to achieve the task at hand, while at the same time engaging in effective collaborative mechanisms that value the nature of the relationship. If this is not achieved, effective postdisaster recovery can be jeopardized.

Keywords: disaster, coordination, humanitarian, aid, recovery, clusters, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), emergencies, collaboration, cross-sector


Humanitarian Assistance in a Disaster Recovery Setting

The world is entering a time of increased susceptibility to disasters, triggered by natural phenomena and demographic change. Climate change is leading to increased wind speeds and sea level rises, while endangering the existence of a number of low-lying islands in Oceania. The year 2015 was the hottest one in recorded history, and the ninth-hottest since 1998 (NASA, 2015). Global population growth is set to increase: in 1950, 30% of the world’s population was urban, and by 2050, a century later, 66% of the world’s population is projected to be urban (UN, 2014).

Of the additional 2.5 new urban dwellers to be added between 2014 and 2050, 90% of them will be in fast-growing towns and cities in Asia and Africa (UN, 2014). This means that greatly increased numbers of people may well find themselves living in more vulnerable areas; on steep slopes where landslides may occur, in poorly constructed buildings that may collapse due to earthquakes, and along coastal areas and rivers where flooding is set to increase.

The term disaster recovery refers to the period after a rapid-onset disaster, such as an earthquake or flood, and for the purposes of this article, it also includes relief, when many of the decisions made about collaboration and cross-sector coordination are made and set. Time periods for recovery vary according to the nature and scale of the disaster, but often according to the condition of the society itself before the disaster as well, based on quality of governance and levels of income. For instance, richer societies almost always fare better than poorer ones, are less affected, and recover more quickly. Recovery periods, therefore, may range from weeks and months to years. However, for many humanitarian organizations, recovery periods are artificially short, the result of donor requirements and the operational mandates of implementing agencies, especially those who are intended only for humanitarian responses.

Given these circumstances, the requirements of humanitarian assistance are changing, and with increasing demands, the humanitarian “system” is struggling to keep up: the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, convened in May 2016 (discussed in more detail later in this article) acknowledged that “woefully under-resourced humanitarian response” has to “do much more far better” (UN, 2016, p. 2). The issues, therefore, are not only ones of increasing need, but also of complexity of operating environments, a proliferation of actors, and demands by donors, many of whom are weary of repeated funding of disaster recovery, and a complex new urban operating environment where many of the assumptions and approaches of traditional aid approaches are questioned.

This article explores the nature of how different humanitarian organizations work together after a disaster. The discussion is in three parts. “Key Actors and Their Relationships” outlines the scale and complexity of the current humanitarian ecosystem and the various forms of collaborations, and reviews the nature and functioning of partnerships, a common form of collaboration. “Sectors and Cross-Sector Coordination” describes sectors and cross-sector collaborations, and particularly the advent of the cluster system, developed as a result of the 2005 Humanitarian Reform Review. “Developments and Opportunities” identifies a number of recent developments and opportunities, through which it is hoped that disaster recovery will become more efficient and effective. The article ends with concluding comments that summarize the current situation of postdisaster recovery.

Key Actors and Their Relationships

Figure 1 identifies three broad and overlapping groupings of the core actors involved in disaster recovery. At the center are recipients; those who are adversely affected by disaster include affected populations and national governments, who also have the concurrent role of implementers [for example, in relation to National Disaster Management Authorities (NDMAs), discussed in the next section of this article]. Engaged immediately with the affected people are implementers, which are those who undertake immediate relief and recovery activities. Implementers, as well as national governments, include such entities as emergency services, search and rescue teams, local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. A third grouping is providers, which essentially offer external resources. These include foundations and donors, United Nations (UN) organizations, and international NGOs (INGOs).

Collaboration and Cross-Sector Coordination for Humanitarian Assistance in a Disaster Recovery SettingClick to view larger

Figure 1. Core actors in the humanitarian ecosystem (ALNAP, 2012).

To muddy the waters, these roles are not always clear-cut; recipients, for example, are also providers. Immediately following an earthquake, it may be your neighbors who pull you from the rubble. Affected communities, therefore, are crucial actors in recovery, and effective aid efforts consider them as such (this topic is discussed later in this article). Recognizing this point, these three groupings are illustrated as concentric circles, a design that seeks to emphasize that different actors can play more than one role; for example, an INGO may well have a longstanding local presence, and implementers may include affected people.

The diagram also features other key actors, which include the private sector, remittances (i.e., the transmittal of funds to an affected country by diaspora groups), and the military. For the purposes of this article, the core humanitarian system is limited to those within the concentric circles. This does not mean that the other groupings are unimportant (indeed, in some instances remittances are thought to total more than aid itself); but currently, humanitarianism is usually defined in terms of the three groupings of recipients, implementers, and providers.

Collaborations Among Actors

In this discussion, the term collaboration is taken to mean different groups working together to achieve a more effective and efficient disaster recovery. To achieve this, unsurprisingly, the forms and types of relationships among such a wide range of actors are complex and varied. Using the terminology from the previously described model, relations between implementers and recipients (here meaning affected populations) after a disaster need to be efficient and timely, and in addition, the implementers must listen to the recipients. Following a disaster, immediate life-saving actions are almost always necessary, at which point the efficient provision of relief is paramount. Beyond immediate actions such as search and rescue and life-saving medical procedures, high-quality assessments need to be undertaken as quickly as possible to create appropriate responses. However, when assessments are poorly carried out, recovery is less efficient, leading to wasteful interventions. Unfortunately, a perennial problem in humanitarian response has been lack of adequate assessments, where the implementers may assume that they know what the recipients want rather than asking them (Anderson et al., 2012).

A further, common problem within recipient-implementer relationships is when implementers think that affected people need to be “saved” long after they do not. Life-saving actions are often needed immediately after a rapid-onset disaster, of course; people trapped in buildings need to be rescued, and emergency, life-saving surgery needs to be performed. And, there are special interest groups, who may well need additional support. However, if this mentality persists after this initial period, especially in the minds of implementers, the affected people can become trapped in their roles as “helpless victims,” infantilized by an assumption that they can do little for themselves. Collaboration here does not exist; rather, a form of dependency takes over where affected populations can be held back from moving on from disaster. As the saying goes, “relief is the enemy of recovery.”

Unfortunately, this is not an unusual condition; there are a large number of examples. A large study, called “Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid” (Anderson et al., 2012), interviewed over 6,000 people affected by disasters across the world and asked them about their experiences with humanitarian responses. While grateful for the efforts and acknowledging the great levels of good and life-saving that was undertaken, almost all those interviewed felt that the relationship between implementers and affected people was wrong. The researchers concluded, “Very few people call for more aid; virtually everyone says they want ‘smarter’ aid. Many feel that ‘too much’ is given ‘too fast.’ A majority criticize the ‘waste’ of money and other resources through programs they perceive as misguided or through the failure of aid providers to be sufficiently engaged” (Anderson et al., 2012, p. 2).

Listening is important, therefore, not only for preserving dignity, but also for making operations more effective. As the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) notes, “Engagement with local stakeholders is key to [ensuring] more relevant, efficient, and effective humanitarian responses, leveraging on local knowledge and capacity, supporting resilience and further enhancing [the] capacity of local actors to meet the humanitarian challenges of a crisis” (IASC, 2016, p. 3).

A similar situation, in which there is an imbalance among the actors, which can reduce collaboration, can also be seen in relations between implementers (especially international agencies) and host governments, in particularly at the local level. The risk is that a perceived need to act quickly in the implementers can lead to local governments being bypassed and agencies go directly to the community level. The host governments may be perceived as being bureaucratic, slow, or not responsive to the needs of local people. One study of the response of 13 INGOs following Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, which caused widespread damage across the Philippines, found that across the track of the typhoon, local government units (LGUs) were largely bypassed by aid agencies, who worked directly at the community level (Sanderson & Delica Willisen, 2014, p. 15).

Such approaches, therefore, do little in the long run to strengthen local governance (and indeed may act to weaken it). Good aid approaches, then, seek to link with government structures, often acknowledging how difficult that can be; after all, they are the structures of society that are intended to meet community needs. Good examples exist. Following the 2015 Nepal earthquakes, for instance, a review of the recovery actions of a number of INGOs found that “local government structures provided a strong lead (in the early relief stages) of several of the affected Districts in coordinating the response efforts of local and international NGOs, through regular meetings with senior government officials, as well at local level with Village Development Committees (VDCs) and Ward Citizen’s Forums” (Sanderson, Rodericks, Shrestha, & Ramaligam, 2015).

Such approaches, therefore, are necessary for effective recovery. Research conducted by the think tank ALNAP into humanitarian coordination concluded that if long-term recovery is to be sustained, then working with government structures is a necessity, not a choice: “[I]n many situations there are possibilities to work closely with line ministries or other parts of government, even where the government is engaged in internal conflicts. Where even this is not possible, coordination models should be designed to align with government structures to the degree possible, to allow for government ownership at a later date” (Knox Clarke & Campbell, 2016, p. 7).


An aspect of the culture of the humanitarian ecosystem is that relationships among donors, operational agencies and governments should be more than contractual alone. To these ends, the concept of partnerships is a commonly used basis for many relationships among different actors. There are a number of definitions of the term partnership, and the concept has been controversial for many (as discussed later in this article). The Humanitarian Accountability Partnership (HAP) defines partnership as “a relationship of mutual respect between autonomous organizations that is founded upon a common purpose with defined expectations and responsibilities” (HAP, 2010). The Partnering Initiative, a not-for-profit organization “dedicated to unleashing the power of partnership,” defines the term as a “collaboration in which organizations work together in a transparent, equitable, and mutually beneficial way towards a sustainable development goal and where those defined as partners agree to commit resources and share the risks as well as the benefits associated with the partnership” (FHI, 2011). Notable in these definitions are mutual respect, transparent, and equitable, which reinforces the understanding that, within humanitarianism, partnerships are intended to go beyond merely a contractual relationship between entities.

The need for effective partnerships was reinforced by the influential Humanitarian Reform Agenda, which came into being following a review commissioned in 2005 by the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator on how to improve humanitarian action, particularly following failures in response to the crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region. The Humanitarian Reform Agenda identified four “pillars”:

  1. 1. Strengthened Coordination and Predictable Leadership: The Cluster Approach (discussed in “Sectors and Cross-Sector Coordination” later in this article)

  2. 2. Strengthening the Humanitarian Coordinators System: Preparing the Emergency Managers of the Future

  3. 3. Adequate, Flexible, and Predictable Humanitarian Financing

  4. 4. Building Partnerships

The rationale given for the need for partnerships is that “no single humanitarian agency can cover all humanitarian needs, collaboration is not an option, it is a necessity” (OCHA, 2005). Also, “[t]his final pillar of the reform agenda aims, quite simply, to get the right people around the table when taking decisions critical to humanitarian response. The traditional way of doing business is now over, NGOs, the Red Cross Movement, and the UN must work hand in hand, with mutual respect, for there to be a sustainable difference in the lives of those in need” (OCHA, 2005, p. 3).

The Global Humanitarian Platform, initiated in 2006 as the successor to the Humanitarian Reform Agenda, describes five Principles of Partnership (PoPs):

  • Equality—requiring mutual respect between members of the partnership with regard to their mandates, obligations, and independence and recognizing each other’s constraints and commitments

  • Transparency—which is achieved through dialogue with an emphasis on early consultations and information sharing

  • Result-oriented approach—which must be reality-based and action-oriented, requiring result-oriented coordination based on effect capabilities and concrete operational capacities

  • Responsibility—humanitarian organizations have an ethical obligation to work responsibly, with integrity and in a relevant and appropriate way

  • Complementarity—valuing the diversity of the humanitarian community and striving to work with local capacity to enhance and complement contributions from partnering organizations

Partnerships in Practice

When partnerships work well, the synergies, strengths, and complementary skills of implementing organizations are realized. As the Communicating with Disaster-Affected Communities (CDAC) Network states, “When organisations work successfully together, change can occur at a faster pace and be more effective as trust is generated, expertise and resources are pooled, learning is fostered, common issues are tackled collectively, and duplication is more easily avoided. This takes time and commitment” (CDAC, 2011, p. 2).

Organizations such as the INGO Christian Aid place long-term partnerships between themselves and partner NGOs at the heart of their work, and as such, these partnerships can last for decades, leading to mutually strengthened organizations. And, where partnerships work well, they are based for the most part on mutual understanding, trust, and respect (HPN, 2011). For example, the Red Cross’s Pacific Disaster Management Partnership aims to build capacity for disaster response within small islands, strengthen community resilience, improve coordination, and increase awareness across all stakeholders for improved disaster response. A review of the program found that “there were numerous instances where improved timeliness of response in disasters was reported, with cases of assessments being carried out on the same day, and swiftly followed up with assistance” (Australian Red Cross, 2011, p. 2).

However, partnership has often been sharply criticized. The 2016 IFRC World Disasters Report asks whether partnership is an “abused word” in humanitarian action (Sanderson & Sharma, 2016, p. 169). A report from the authoritative think tank the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), based in the United Kingdom, identifies problems in partnerships, wherein “the relationships between donor and implementer, aid provider and recipient remain controlling and asymmetrical, and partnerships and interactions remain transactional and competitive, rather than reciprocal and collective” (Bennett, 2016, p. 5).

The findings of the “Time to Listen” publication, referred to previously, is critical of partnerships in practice. They found that trust and respect can be negatively affected during disaster recovery, and “at times, local organizations feel used by international NGOs when they are included in proposals in order to comply with donor requirements that local partners be involved. In some cases, local organizations have seen international NGOs effectively take over local initiatives” (Brown, 2011). They also found that “local organizations often feel that there is a lack of respect and appreciation for their knowledge and contributions, and that their partnerships are limited since they are rarely involved in decision-making processes with their partners” (Brown, 2011). Other issues identified included a “paternalistic” attitude from international agencies to local partners, that communities notice these poor relations playing out, and that “donors and international aid agencies are often concerned with delivering aid and spending money quickly, and in this haste they often do not spend enough time identifying good local partners and maintaining effective relationships with them” (Brown, 2011).

An example of a paternalistic attitude can be found in the recovery efforts following the 2015 Nepal earthquakes. INGOs are not allowed to operate directly in Nepal, but, conversely, local NGOs are reliant on their international partners for funds. A review of the efforts of 13 INGOs engaged in recovery operations found that a sense of inequality was keenly felt by many local NGOs, mostly due to the mode of funding. Relief and recovery proposals were not always developed equally and jointly between international and local partners (Sanderson et al., 2015).

Trust, attitudes, and perceptions are important factors for effective partnerships, and when in short supply, this leads to less-than-ideal relationships among partners. Regarding partnerships between external agencies and host governments, a report on strengthening dialogue after disasters concluded, “Too often, there is a fundamental deficit in trust between government authorities and international aid actors … It has also been argued that the organisational culture of international aid agencies needs to shift to be more respectful of government concerns around sovereignty. Whether this is fair, if humanitarian action is to be perceived as truly universal, action is needed to tackle these perceptions and build greater trust” (Harvey & Harmer, 2011, p. 16).

The IASC also found substantial partnership challenges between international and national organizations: “[I]n most crises, international humanitarian stakeholders successfully coordinate aid delivery among them—through the cluster system—but the engagement of relevant local stakeholders in aid planning and delivery remains limited. Identifying and understanding local dynamics and response capacity is a key step to ensure international actors leverage on local response mechanisms and capacities, leading to an integrated leadership of all key responders —international, national, and local—in times of crisis” (IASC, 2016, p. 2).


These critiques have been a longstanding problem in recovery operations between implementing organizations. To address these issues, and to make overall improvements in implementation, many humanitarian organizations have sought since the late 1990s to develop standards on accountability; that is, improving the services provided by operational agencies by, in essence, listening better to what affected populations need and being more accountable to them. In this regard, accountability to affected populations (in contrast to accountability to donors for aid expenditures) is understood as an essential element for effective aid. This concept is illustrated through the language of the Humanitarian Charter, for example (discussed later in this article), which refers to the rights of affected populations. Through these actions, therefore, better accountability ultimately improves partnerships between organizations by fostering improved synergies and better operational practices. According to HAP (2010), “[t]he definition of ‘accountability’ in a general sense is the responsible use of power, while ‘accountability in humanitarian situations’ ensures that the power to help in situations of conflict and disaster is exercised responsibly. When implemented, it means that survivors of war or disaster are able to influence decisions about the help they receive and can give feedback and complain if they feel the ‘helping power’ was not exercised well.”

Probably the best-known accountability mechanism to date has been the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response, otherwise known as the Sphere Standards. The Sphere Standards are the main product of the Sphere Project, which was established in 1997 and is governed by a board of 18 organizations comprising NGOs and donors. The standards are an attempt to provide global advice about the minimum requirements of affected populations during postdisaster recovery concerning water (e.g., a minimum distance to water points), sanitation, and shelter (e.g., minimum space requirements).

Another is HAP, which was established in 2003 as a self-regulatory body aimed at improving accountability. It provided both a set of Standard Principles and certification of organizations who wanted to become members. HAP’s Standard Principles were Humanity, Neutrality, Independence, Participation and Informed Consent, Duty of Care, Witness, Offer Redress, Transparency, and Complementarity (Lutheran World Federation, 2014).

In 2015, HAP and another organization called People in Aid (which focused on improving human resources management in humanitarian organizations) formed the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) Alliance. The CHS Alliance (2016) aims to improve “the effectiveness and impact of assistance to crisis-affected and vulnerable people, by working with humanitarian and development actors on quality, accountability, and people management initiatives.” The main product of the CHS is the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability, which comprises nine commitments to improving humanitarian action:

  1. 1. The humanitarian response is appropriate and relevant.

  2. 2. The humanitarian response is effective and timely.

  3. 3. The humanitarian response strengthens local capacities and avoids negative effects.

  4. 4. The humanitarian response is based on communication, participation, and feedback.

  5. 5. Complaints are welcomed and addressed.

  6. 6. The humanitarian response is coordinated and complementary.

  7. 7. The humanitarian actors continuously learn and improve.

  8. 8. The humanitarian staff are supported to do their job effectively, and everyone is treated fairly.

  9. 9. Resources are managed and used responsibly for their intended purpose.

The following observations on these commitments can be made. Commitments 1 and 2 relate to the commonly used evaluation criteria of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for evaluating development projects (OECD, 2016). In addition to appropriateness, relevance effectiveness, and timeliness, the criteria include efficiency, impact, and sustainability. Commitment 3, referring to avoiding negative effects, relates to the concept of do no harm, wherein operational agencies should first and foremost aim not to adversely affect a population affected by disaster (Anderson, 1999).

Commitment 5, concerning complaints, is a cornerstone of many approaches to improving accountability. Common approaches to solicit complaints in recent years have included the provision of complaint boxes, often located in postdisaster settlements, and also the setting up of complaint hotlines, where affected populations can call to complain on any aspect of recovery efforts. In one example in Pakistan’s Mingora City following the floods of 2010, 2011, and 2012, the INGO Church World Service partnered with the Human Rights Commission for Pakistan (HRCP) to set up and manage an Information and Complaints Handling Centre. Some 800 complaints were received, of which about 350 were resolved. Complaints were related to the nonreceipt of Watan (debit) cards that had been distributed by the government, water supply, and gas heating installments (Morgan, Naz, & Sanderson, 2013).

In recent years, the advent of social media and the proliferation of mobile phones have allowed for new opportunities in improved accountability. This in particular means the growth of “two-way accountability,” where it is far easier for communities to communicate directly with affected populations, and vice versa (CDAC, 2011).

Sectors and Cross-sector Coordination

“The main humanitarian coordination problem is that the humanitarian system is very fragmented.”

– Former Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs (ALNAP, 2015, p. 106)

As illustrated by this quote, an ongoing challenge with humanitarian action, particularly recovery operations, concerns coordination across and among sectors involving so-called traditional humanitarian actors (namely, governments, donors, UN agencies, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, and NGOs and INGOs). This is, to a degree, not at all surprising. Following a disaster, established communications may break down and key personnel, functions, and organizations may be out of commission; there is widespread damage and usually loss of life. Chaos, therefore, may ensue. In such instances, it is important to remember that effective coordination at every level can pose considerable challenges, both among the different organizations (of which many types exist, often with their own operational practices, values, and missions), and very often within the organizations themselves. This, however, is the operating environment of such operations, and so it goes with the terrain.

Recognizing the critical importance of the need for better coordination, the 2005 Humanitarian Reform Agenda (outlined previously) identified as the first of its four pillars the strengthening of coordination and predictable leadership. The common name for this is the Cluster Approach. The term Cluster implies that organizations engaged in respective sectors “cluster together” to provide a better-coordinated response. This idea recognizes that humanitarian aid provision is mostly organized into sectors according to the kinds of goods and services provided. Common types, or sectors, include water, sanitation, and hygiene (commonly known as WASH), health, nutrition, and logistics.

Collaboration and Cross-Sector Coordination for Humanitarian Assistance in a Disaster Recovery SettingClick to view larger

Figure 2. The cluster system.

Source: OCHA.

Figure 2 summarizes the originally envisaged clusters. At the center is the Humanitarian and Relief Coordinator, who is tasked with managing the Cluster Approach and providing information to its members. In-country teams are known as Humanitarian Cluster Teams (HCTs). Each cluster is led by two international agencies, almost all of whom are with the United Nations. Clusters are also intended to be coled by host governments who are facing the disaster, and it is intended that these governments will take on full leadership sometime after a disaster, when recovery efforts are well underway. The figure shows the many stages of the “cycle of disaster” around the clusters, ranging from preparedness measures through to the disaster itself, recovery, and eventual reconstruction (arranged from left to right along the bottom).

Following a disaster, the Cluster Approach seeks to ensure better coordination among the operational actors, both within and between the Clusters, which is known as intercluster coordination (ICC) and is discussed later in the article). Several evaluations of clusters have been undertaken to determine whether the effort has led to better recovery efforts thus far. A metaevaluation of 18 evaluations and agency reports, titled “Improving Humanitarian Coordination: Common Challenges and Lessons Learned from the Cluster Approach” (Humphries, 2013), found that “overall, the Cluster Approach has increased the effectiveness of humanitarian action, suggesting that it is a worthwhile mechanism to pursue” (Humphries, 2013, Introduction). Research by ALNAP also finds, “The great majority of evaluations that address the performance of Clusters suggest they are an effective mechanism for information-sharing, for disseminating good practice and for preventing duplication of effort in operations” (Knox Clarke & Campbell, 2016, p. 12). Steet and colleagues’ cluster performance evaluation, which reviewed case studies in six countries, found that “clusters do play an important role in reducing duplications, which improves efficiency and allows greater coverage with the same resources. Most humanitarian actors interviewed in the case study countries can point to examples where clusters have helped to identify and subsequently avoid instances of duplication” (Steet et al., 2010, p. 52).

For example, the 2015 State of the Humanitarian System report provided a case study of Clusters in action following Typhoon Haiyan: “An enabling environment for the humanitarian response was created in part by the rapid deployment of support and coordination systems. Interviewees noted that the logistics and emergency telecommunications clusters, led by the World Food Programme, performed well, backed by additional corporate resources. The emergency telecommunications cluster moved quickly to bring in satellite phones and generators, enabling voice and data services. Initial bottlenecks at the airport were quickly resolved … and the government worked with the logistics cluster to set up a one-stop shop for quick customs clearances, making sure bureaucracy did not impede the smooth delivery of supplies” (ALNAP, 2015, p. 56). The review of INGOs’ recovery operations by Sanderson and colleagues following the 2015 Nepal earthquakes found, “Across the board there has been generally high appreciation for the functioning of the clusters as coordination and technical guidance bodies. The shelter cluster for example comprises well over 100 members (Sanderson et al., 2015, p. 17).

There are, of course, a number of complexities and challenges within the Cluster Approach (discussed next, and also later in this article), and also a number of criticisms over its day-to-day functioning. A metaevaluation by Humphries (2013) identifies three key challenges:

  • Large gaps in predictable leadership, due to a high turnover of personnel and the relative inexperience of staff in leadership positions.

  • Lack of NGO ownership and involvement, due primarily to the commitment of time and resources (personal) to attend meetings, may be several times a week; such a challenge is quickly compounded if an organization is engaged in more than one sector (as many organizations are).

  • Lack of mechanisms relating to building accountability to affected populations.

A significant feature of the Cluster Approach, referred to in the second point, are Cluster meetings. Usually, Cluster meetings are open to all who want to come and are engaged according to sectoral engagement. Cluster meetings, therefore, may be large (especially in the stages following a disaster), and they can last for some time. In such circumstances, and given the wide range of actors present, Cluster meetings may become events aimed at information sharing, rather than as places where decisions can be made.

Other challenges with Cluster meetings, as well as the wider Cluster Approach, include the following:

  • The manifestations of differing values, ethos, and operational types among organizations. Humphries (2013) describes this broadly as two groups of thought: “The first group is driven by governmental and inter-governmental bodies, and places an emphasis on a centralized, unified, hierarchical structure, which is assumed to be more effective and efficient. The second group, preferred by NGOs, is based on a loose centralized approach to coordination. This group tends to regard the centralisation as a means of control over actors and focuses on how a diversity of efforts and approaches can ensure success: if one fails, all do not fail.” Such differing approaches can lead to frustrations between the two when it comes to making quick decisions.

  • Linked to the first point, the various agencies do not have to “toe the line,” so to speak. As ALNAP states, “The HC [Humanitarian Coordinator] does not have power, authority
over NGOs [or] UN agencies; nor does the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) “have the mandate or the authority to direct everyone to be part of a common system” (Knox Clarke & Campbell, 2016, p. 16).

  • With the high influxes of international organizations, language can be a barrier in Cluster meetings that can often pose a hindrance to local organizations (international aid meetings in the early stages of recovery are very often held in English).

  • Meetings may include representatives of NGOs managing hundreds of millions of dollars to small “briefcase NGOs,” which may be in effect one person. In such circumstances, it is not uncommon for “baby clusters” to emerge—smaller groups where representatives of larger major agencies meet.

  • Lack of understanding of or experience with the Cluster Approach by national NGOs.

  • Limited incentives for national actor participation, if many of the processes are perceived to be handled by international representatives.

  • Location of coordination meetings, which can be a problem in cities; for example, in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, chronic traffic jams and the location of Cluster meetings on the outskirts of the city meant that several hours a day could be spent in a vehicle (Clermont et al., 2011).

Cross-sector Coordination and Improved Leadership

While the Cluster Approach has gone some way to improving coordination among different organizations within their respective sectors, coordination among sectors may remain more of a challenge. ICC is a key element for effective collaboration in postdisaster recovery. According to Steets et al. (2010), “for ensuring cohesiveness of the humanitarian response, the relationships between Clusters are as important as the relationships within them.” According to ALNAP, ICC has deeper systemic problems and is “an area that has been identified in the literature as needing significant improvement” (Knox Clarke & Campbell, 2016, p. 23). They also identify that “while it is clear that, in many cases, ICC is not working, it is not really clear or agreed what the role and priorities of ICC should be” (p. 23).

Other studies are equally critical. The metaevaluation by Humphries (2013) found that “there is a lack of coordination between clusters, or inter-cluster coordination. In most country-contexts, OCHA is responsible for providing the infrastructure and framework for inter-cluster coordination; however, this area of response was repeatedly criticized as being inadequate. In most cases, OCHA was successful at information sharing, but much weaker in identifying multidisciplinary issues, strengthening coordination between clusters, and following-up on identified issues for improvement.”

ALNAP’s research concluded that “interviews and meeting participants (with only a few exceptions) tended to see formal inter-Cluster coordination structures as ‘weak’ and ‘ineffective’, too focused on bureaucratic processes and seemingly unsure of their function” (Knox Clarke & Campbell, 2016, p. 12). The same research also acknowledged, however, that “the inter-Cluster function was potentially the most difficult element of the coordination architecture to get right, because it works against the sectoral logic of the current system and because it can only be as good as its parts: in order to work well, all of the Clusters in the country need to work well, and this is not always the case.” A further issue also relates to the communication among subnational mechanisms and national-level Clusters/the ICC mechanism. ALANP’s research found that subnational coordination bodies can be “completely detached” from the rest of the coordination system (Knox Clarke & Campbell, 2016, p. 27).

The Nepal review by Sanderson and colleagues (2015) found, “While clusters have been largely effective, several stakeholders have noted challenges in enacting cross-sectoral themes, such as cash and gender. The sectoral focus of the cluster model is both its strength and weakness: while co-ordination and information sharing within clusters has worked reasonably well at village and district level, and local NGOs were generally engaged, the mechanisms to ensure coordination across clusters has not been as effective. This poses a risk to attempts to build a more integrated approach to the recovery and reconstruction phases” (p. 18).

As part of a wider recognition of a need for increased cross-sector coordination, as well as a need to review progress in the Humanitarian Reform Agenda, the Transformative Agenda came into being in December 2011, initiated by the Emergency Relief Coordinator. The aim of the review, which led to the Transformative Agenda, was “to address acknowledged challenges in leadership and coordination, as well as to enhance accountability for the achievement of collective results” (UNHCR, 2013, p. 1). Key elements of the Transformative Agenda are as follows:

  • Establishing a mechanism to deploy strong, experienced senior humanitarian leadership to guide the humanitarian response from the outset of a major crisis

  • Strengthening of leadership capacities and rapid deployment of humanitarian leaders at various levels, to ensure that the coordination architecture functions well

  • Improved strategic planning at the country level that clarifies the collective results that the humanitarian community sets out to achieve and identifies how clusters and organizations will contribute to them

  • Enhanced accountability of the Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) and members of the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) so that they achieve collective results, and of the humanitarian community in their services for the affected people

  • Streamlined coordination mechanisms that are adapted to operational requirements and contexts to better facilitate delivery

The first point relates to the need for better leadership, a cornerstone of the review and its outcomes, and a point echoed by the Humanitarian Reform Project, which noted that Clusters perform better when a full-time Cluster Coordinator is hired (HRP, 2009). This is a key point for cross-sector coordination, since, as Steets et al. (2010, p. 35) note, “Humanitarian Coordinators are customarily responsible for inter-cluster coordination. Effective inter-cluster coordination is necessary to ensure that multidisciplinary and cross-cutting issues that cannot be tackled by individual clusters alone are addressed appropriately and that inter-cluster duplications and gaps are eliminated.”

To redress this issue, the same report recommended intersector improvements in order that “Humanitarian Coordinators should play a more active role in the cluster approach, providing more feedback and guidance on cluster operations and facilitating strategic inter-cluster coordination.” And, concerning HCTs, they note that Humanitarian Coordinators should ensure that “Humanitarian Country Teams are not only inter-agency, but also inter-cluster meetings and identify and address strategic inter-cluster gaps and overlaps” (Steets et al., 2010, p. 80).

As part of the Transformative Agenda, a number of specific efforts have been made to foster better cross-sector collaboration. One such effort at the postdisaster assessment stage is the Multi-cluster/sector Initial Rapid Assessment (MIRA) tool, which intends to ensure collaboration across clusters to assess needs after a rapid-onset disaster. The intention is that the tool is a primary activity, with the first report to be produced within two weeks after a disaster: “It is a precursor to cluster/sectoral needs assessments and provides a process for collecting and analyzing information on affected people and their needs to inform strategic response planning” (IASC, 2015, preface).

A further important development concerning predictable leadership (item 1 of the Transformative Agenda) concerns the development of National Disaster Management Authorities (NDMAs), which are intended to improve national capacity for disaster management. This often occurs at a high level. For example, India’s NDMA structure is headed by the prime minister and comprises State Disaster Management Authorities (SDMAs), headed by the states’ respective chief ministers. The NDMA structure came into being to enact the 2005 Disaster Management Act. In Kenya, the Kenya National Disaster Operations Centre is responsible for coordinating national operations in disaster response and recovery (Featherstone, 2014, p. 12).

Developments and Opportunities

As noted at the beginning of this article, humanitarian action is at a crossroads in terms of its capacity to respond to increasing and complicated crisis. Indeed, many argue that the system may be in terminal decline; the ODI argues that “the formal system faces a crisis of legitimacy, capacity and means, blocked by significant and enduring flaws that prevent it from being effective” (Bennett, 2016, p. 7).

According to the United Nations Global Humanitarian Overview (OCHA, 2016), the number of people in need of aid in 2017 is 92.8 million in 33 countries, which requires funding support of US$22.2 billion. This is the highest figure ever, and it compares to a call of US$20.1 billion in 2016 for 87.6 million people in 37 countries, and a much lower figure of US$2.7 billion in 1992, when the first UN appeal was launched (ReliefWeb, 2016).

The way that humanitarian response takes place, therefore, is a topic for consideration. A review undertaken by Mitchell (2014) describes four approaches that the humanitarian system has taken since its inception. Called the “4 C’s” model, the approaches are as follows:

  1. 1. Comprehensive—that is, where humanitarian response broadly assumes that local capacity is weak or nonexistent. In such a situation, the responders consider that the response must provide almost everything. An example provided is the response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Mitchell calculates that around half of aid spending until 2014 has accounted for this approach.

  2. 2. Constrained—that is, recovery operations are limited due to the complexity of the operating environment (for instance, due to conflict). An example would be protracted conflict situations. Spending until 2014 accounts for roughly 25%.

  3. 3. Collaborative—that is, government is relatively strong, and the role of operational agencies is to complement governmental efforts. An example of this would be the 2010–2012 Pakistan floods. Global aid spending in this form of response is around 15%.

  4. 4. Consultative—that is, operational agencies provide technical, logistical, and other forms of support in locations with strong local governance. The 2010 Chile earthquake offers such an example. Mitchell calculates that less than 5% of spending on aid is in this form of response.

Concerning disaster recovery settings, the review argues that the evolution of humanitarian action needs to move more toward a Consultative model. This is for a number of reasons—not least that the resources needed for humanitarian response on the scale of the Comprehensive model are beyond reach, but also, and more important, because effective recovery relies on humanitarian action supporting any existing structures. To these ends, aid efforts need to be seen wherever possible as investments in long-term recovery.

Considering collaborations and cross-sector coordination, this implies that all such efforts should prioritize working with existing structures, including local and national governments, local NGOs, other members of civil society, the media, and the private sector. This also means working more closely with the private sector, especially in urban areas where markets, commerce, and competition are commonplace. For example, following the 2015 Nepal earthquake, a number of INGOs collaborated with banks to provide a more effective distribution of cash transfers using existing banking infrastructure (Sanderson et al., 2015).

The need to rethink relations among external actors and local counterparts was a central issue at the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, held in Istanbul in May 2016, with the agenda to “rethink aid.” About 8,000 people attended the event, which was preceded by two years of wide-ranging regional consultations. A key outcome of the WHS was the “Grand Bargain,” an agreement between a number of influential donors, UN agencies, and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement. The commitment to improved collaboration and coordination is as follows: “Above all, the Grand Bargain is about the need to work together efficiently, transparently, and harmoniously with new and existing partners, including the private sector, individuals, and non-traditional sources of funding. This requires us to innovate, collaborate, and adapt mind-sets” (UN, 2016, p. 2). The importance of better partnerships and the need to improve collaborative ways of working are throughout the document, which, according to the commitment, includes the following:

  • Commitment 3: “Increase the use and coordination of cash-based programming.” Cash-based programming has steadily increased in popularity as an effective recovery approach, due to its low-cost of transfer, that those receiving cash can use it on what they think are their most important needs, and because it assists local economies (by using local markets). This commitment states that effective cash transfer approaches “should include new partnerships, be coordinated across aid organisations and be delivered through common mechanisms” (2016, p. 6). In addition, ALNAP’s review of coordination notes that cash-based programming, which by its very nature is cross-sectoral, will render the sectoral (i.e., Cluster) approach “more problematic” (Knox Clarke & Campbell, 2016, p. 7).

  • Commitment 5: “Improve joint and impartial needs assessments.” As referred to previously with the example of the MIRA, considerable opportunities for improved collaborations are possible through joint assessments. This commitment acknowledges that there have been failures to date, notably that there is “a lack of shared understanding, expectations, and commitment to the collective endeavor (in needs assessment) … The proliferation of uncoordinated needs assessments leads to duplication, wasted resources, and putting a burden on affected populations” (2016, p. 8). Among other things, the commitment calls on signatories to commit to “a single, comprehensive, cross-sectoral, methodologically sound, and impartial overall assessment of needs for each crisis” (2016, p. 8).

  • Commitment 7: “Increase collaborative humanitarian multi-year planning and funding.” This commitment addresses the overall fragmented nature of donor approaches, and for many NGOs, the reliance on project-by-project funding, which can reduce overall effectiveness and provides difficulties for long-term planning. The commitment calls for “Collaborative planning and funding mechanisms for longer programme horizons that are incrementally funded can produce better results and minimize administrative costs for both donors and aid organisations” (2016, p. 11).

Urban Disaster Recovery and Area-Based Approaches

A growing challenge in postdisaster recovery relates to the complex challenges of urban settings. As described in the introduction to this article, rapid urban growth is causing an urbanization of the planet, where more people are likely to be living in areas of increased vulnerability (e.g., in poorly constructed buildings that may collapse during earthquakes), or increasingly on poor-quality land that contains steep slopes or coastal or riverine areas susceptible to flooding. Combined with the effects of climate change, such as stronger winds and sea-level rises, it is highly likely that an increasing number of disasters will occur in urban environments.

It has long been acknowledged that disaster response in urban environments presents especially complicated situations; issues include density, access, a proliferation of actors, the presence of governmental structures, competing interests, and reliance on cash-based livelihoods—to name just a few (Sanderson & Knox-Clarke, 2012). To these ends, humanitarian action itself needs to urbanize, given that much of the experience of humanitarian agencies is built on rurally related approaches and tools. This was recognized by the IASC’s call for a paradigm shift in humanitarian assistance in urban areas based on a district or community based (approach), rather than, an individual beneficiary approach so as to forge partnerships for assistance delivery and recovery with actors on the ground (IASC, 2010, p. 2). The IASC also challenges the validity of the Cluster Approach to urban recovery operations, stating that “the current cluster system is structured around sectors of expertise and sectorial coordination, while in a context of urban crises there might be a need to identify and respond holistically to multi-sectorial needs in a given territory, requiring stronger inter-cluster linkages and coordination at city-level” (IASC, 2016, p. 1). ALNAP’s research findings agree: “There are also concerns that the sector-based approach to coordination, exemplified by the Clusters, is not the best method for addressing the complex, multi-sectoral needs of affected people” (Knox Clarke, & Campbell, 2016, p. 7).

Given this scenario, many humanitarian organizations (especially since the Haiti earthquake of 2010, which caused extensive damage in urban areas, and to which agencies struggled to respond) have sought to develop more urban-oriented approaches. Key among these has been the development of area-based approaches (ABAs). Essentially, ABAs, in post-disaster recovery operations, require implementing agencies to prioritise the geographical area—a neighbourhood, district, settlement or part of a city or town—over the particular goods and services a particular agency may be delivering. In an area-based approach, therefore, the priority lies on what each area requires. This in itself requires coordination of agency actions and effective collaborations to be paramount at every stage. A review of urban ABAs (Parker & Maynard, 2015, p. 3) identified three defining characteristics, namely, they are geographically targeted, and adopt a multi-sectoral, participatory approach.” The same study identifies the benefits of such an approach, including the following:

  • They act as a catalyst for local change—that is, by focusing efforts on one area, improvements can be seen more quickly by surrounding neighborhoods.

  • They prevent the creation or reinforcement of tensions and inequalities within the defined area—too often, the provision of goods and services to targeted households (meaning that their neighbors might not receive a similar level of support) has long been a problem in response efforts.

  • They focus resources effectively and increase the impact relating to the reduced costs of concentrating efforts on one location, rather than efforts being disbursed.

Concerning a geographical focus as a starting point (rather than a “what-can-be-provided” approach embodied within the Cluster Approach), the IASC also states that the adoption of a city-level intercluster Working Group “would support stronger coordination among sectors and with local actors” (IASC, 2016, p. 3).

ALNAP’s research supports the need for context-based approaches. In a workshop of senior humanitarian personnel, ALNAP states, “Participants noted that, Every big response is different”; “there’s not one model that will fit all contexts”; and, “the best way to coordinate complex settings is to take the specific details about that particular event” (Knox Clarke, & Campbell, 2016, p. 28). Similarly, IASC affirms the need to “[s]hift from sectorial to multi-sectorial area planning to efficiently respond to needs of individuals, communities, and systems within a specific territory, with strong coordination and synergies between sectors/clusters” (IASC, 2016, p. 6).

Concluding Comments

The coordination of postdisaster recovery efforts in a humanitarian context is complex and fraught with difficulty. Issues include, but are not limited to, the proliferation of actors (with differing agendas, modes of activity, and, often, differing opinions on what a successful outcome may look like); the complexity of the operating environment (humanitarian responses usually take place in low- and middle-income areas, where conditions before a disaster may have already been far from ideal); and tensions over time frames for actions to be undertaken (donor pressure often focuses around short recovery periods, which can contradict the reality on the ground).

Within this context, the initiation of the Humanitarian Reform Agenda’s Cluster Approach in 2005 has improved coordination within sectors, although it is widely recognized that further improvement is needed. The respective efforts to improve cross-sector collaborations, especially at the level of improved leadership, remain a challenge, although efforts that build national and local responsibility are welcomed.

In response to increasing and changing needs, not least in the operating environment of urban disasters, new approaches are needed. ABAs, where the location takes precedence, provide opportunities for more effective postdisaster recovery, wherein meaningful partnerships and effective coordination and collaborations are essential ingredients for success (Sanderson & Sitko, 2017). Such approaches reinforce the critical ingredient for effective recovery, where aid efforts play a supporting role to local leadership and decision-making in places where effective mechanisms of governance exist.


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