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Agency Coordination and Cross-Sector Collaboration in Fragile States

Summary and Keywords

Despite myriad descriptions and indicators used to define a fragile state, the international community has come to an agreement that a fragile state lacks the ability to maintain physical control of its territorial boundaries, provide basic public services, facilitate economic growth, and interact as a full member of the international community. Fragile states have historically experienced a disproportionate amount of natural disaster-related losses. For example, from 2005 to 2009, more than 50% of those impacted by a natural disaster lived in a fragile state, resulting in over $200 billion in losses. When natural disasters occur in such areas, they exacerbate already weak governance structures and further undermine their governments’ capability to respond to the crisis while simultaneously addressing challenges related to poverty and conflict. To remedy these and other complex issues inherent in fragile states, scholars are beginning to recognize the importance of investigating how fragile states can mitigate natural disaster losses through effective agency coordination and cross-sector collaboration. Agency coordination, in the context of natural disaster response, refers to the integration of facilities, equipment, personnel, and communication by public agencies for supporting incident response activities. Cross-sector collaboration refers to the sharing of information and resources by organizations in two or more sectors to achieve an outcome that cannot be produced by organizations in one sector alone. Because forecasts suggest that natural disaster-related losses will only increase in fragile states owing to population growth, urbanization, and climate change, there is a pressing need to understand the ways public organizations not only coordinate before, during, and after a natural disaster, but also how they collaborate across organizational sectors.

Keywords: agency coordination, cross-sector collaboration, fragile states, disasters, Haiti


Despite myriad descriptions and indicators used to define a fragile state, there is consensus across the international community that a fragile state lacks the ability to maintain physical control of its territorial boundaries, provide basic public services, facilitate economic growth, and interact as a full member of the international community (Brinkerhoff, 2007; Fund for Peace, 2016; Mitra & Vivekananda, 2015). Fragile states have historically experienced a disproportionate amount of natural disaster-related losses. For example, from 2005 to 2009, more than 50% of those impacted by a natural disaster lived in a fragile state, resulting in over $200 billion in losses (Ghesquiere, 2016). When natural disasters occur in fragile states, they exacerbate already weak governance structures and further undermine their governments’ ability to respond to the crisis, while simultaneously addressing challenges related to poverty and conflict (Ghesquiere, 2016). To remedy these and other complex issues inherent in fragile states, scholars are beginning to recognize the importance of investigating how fragile states can mitigate natural disaster losses through effective agency coordination and cross-sector collaborations.

On one hand, agency coordination refers to the integration of facilities, equipment, personnel, and communication to support incident response activities (Bharosa, Lee, & Janssen, 2010). Cross-sector collaboration, on the other hand, refers to the sharing of information and resources by organizations in two or more sectors to achieve an outcome that cannot be achieved by organizations in one sector alone (Bryson, Crosby, & Stone, 2006). In a humanitarian environment, such organizational sectors include international aid agencies, host governments, military, local, and regional nongovernmental organizations, private businesses, and others (Balcik et al., 2010; Cozzolino, 2012). Although some humanitarian organizations and scholars use the terms “coordination” and “collaboration” interchangeably, others differentiate these terms based on the strength of the relationship among the actors involved (Balcik et al., 2010). Thus, the major difference between coordination and collaboration, in the context of humanitarian relief, is that coordination refers to a weaker relationship among response agencies, whereas collaboration refers to a stronger relationship that focuses on building relationships and establishing trust before, during, and after a catastrophic incident. Because forecasts suggest that natural disaster-related losses will only increase in fragile states owing to population growth, urbanization, and climate change (Ghesquiere, 2016), there is a pressing need to understand how fragile states coordinate and collaborate across organizational sectors (Pettit & Beresford, 2009). The concepts of agency coordination and cross-sector collaboration in fragile states are elucidated here, using the 2010 Haiti Earthquake as the empirical setting.

Fragile States

What Is a Fragile State?

Across the international community, myriad descriptions and indicators describe a fragile state. The World Bank (2007), for example, defines a fragile state as a state that faces significant developmental challenges owing to weak institutional capacity, has ineffective governance structures, and remains plagued by political instability. Similarly, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2012) defines a fragile state as one having minimal capacity to provide basic government services and develop meaningful relationships with society. This delineation differs slightly from that of the World Bank, as it suggests that a state’s fragility not only connotes the abrasion of a state’s authority, but also the importance of their standing within society. The Fund for Peace (2016) argues that a fragile state lacks territorial control, legitimacy, the ability to provide public services, and the capacity to interact with other states as a full member of the international community. Unlike the World Bank and the OECD, the Fund for Peace suggests that a state’s fragility also depends on its ability to interact across the international community.

Scholars have also offered several definitions of a fragile state. The Crisis States Research Centre (CSRC) (2006), for example, suggests that a fragile state is one that remains significantly vulnerable to both internal and external shocks as well as domestic and international conflicts. The Centre for Research on Human Inequality, Human Security, and Ethnicity (CRISE) defines a fragile state as one that is failing in authority, legitimacy, and service (Stewart & Brown, 2009). Brinkerhoff (2007) observes state fragility on a continuum, arguing that a failed state remains at one extreme and a vulnerable state remains at the other. A state’s fragility along this continuum is measured by its inability to provide basic security, develop and espouse economic opportunities, and garner legitimacy from its citizens. Newbrander, Waldman, and Shepherd-Banigan (2011) also suggest that a state’s legitimacy, along with its effectiveness, defines the extent of its fragility. The authors suggest that state legitimacy refers to the government’s ability to provide core services and basic security, while effectiveness refers to how well a state is able to provide services and security. The OECD (2008) concurs that legitimacy and effectiveness remain highly correlated, recognizing that when a government is unable or unwilling to meet its constituents’ most basic needs (e.g., food, health, safety, shelter), government remains largely ineffective.

In an attempt to incorporate the divergent descriptions, this entry defines a fragile state as one that lacks the ability to maintain physical control of territorial boundaries, provide basic public services, facilitate economic growth, and interact as a full member of the international community (Brinkerhoff, 2007; Fund for Peace, 2016; Mitra & Vivekananda, 2015). It is, however, important to note that the variations in conceptualization by the international community and scholars alike pose significant problems (Brinkerhoff & Johnson, 2009). Specifically, the lack of a singular definition of a fragile state undermines attempts to compare studies and observe trends over time. Similarly, fragile states continually move across trajectories (i.e., a state can move from stable toward fragile and vice versa) (Brinkerhoff, 2007), making it difficult to compare fragile states at any time.

Causes and Measures of State Fragility

Early research suggested that violent conflict remained the sole cause of state fragility (Naudé, Santos-Paulino, & McGillivray, 2011). Contemporary research, however, has neglected this claim, arguing that the causes of state fragility are both multicausal and multidimensional (Mcloughlin, 2012). After systematically reviewing both extant and contemporary literature, Mcloughlin (2012) suggests that the following factors are the main causes of state fragility: structural and economic, political and institutional, social, and international. According to Mcloughlin (2012), structural and economic causes include poverty, income inequalities, violent conflict, lack of natural resources, and urbanization; political and institutional causes comprise illegitimate and unauthoritative governance structures, political transitions, and the repression of political competition; social causes include gender inequality, weak or lack of social capital, and social exclusion; and international causes include the global political economy as well as global economic shocks (i.e., increases in food and oil prices). These causes are even more evident in reports that seek to measure state fragility.

Official development agencies such as the World Bank and other international organizations, including the Fund for Peace and the OECD, have developed tools or have used existing tools as proxies for measuring state fragility. For example, in 2005, the World Bank created the Country Policy and Institutional Assessment (CPIA). The CPIA serves as a diagnostic tool that rates countries using 16 indicators spread across four clusters: economic management (e.g., fiscal policies), structural policies (e.g., trade, private sector, business regulatory environment), social inclusion and social equity policies (e.g., gender equality, building human resources, and equity of the distribution of public resources), and public-sector management institutions (effectiveness, transparency, accountability, etc.) (Woolcock, 2014; World Bank, 2013). Using these 16 indicators, the World Bank rates countries on a scale of 1 (a very fragile state) to 6 (a very stable state). The World Bank takes the average score, and if the score remains at or below 3.2, the state is considered fragile. At its inception, the CPIA did not serve as a tool for measuring state fragility, but later became a proxy for doing so as World Bank analysts found that the CPIA remained highly correlated with other indicators of state fragility (Woolcock, 2014).

In addition to the CPIA, the Fund for Peace (2016) annually publishes the Fragile States Index, a tool that measures a state’s fragility based on social (e.g., demographic pressures, natural disasters, violence and discrimination), economic (e.g., poverty, unemployment), and political (e.g., state legitimacy, public services, civil liberties) indicators. Finally, the OECD combines the data gathered by the Fund for Peace’s Fragile State Index and the World Bank’s CPIA to prepare an annual State Fragility Report (OECD, 2015). Based on these datasets, the OECD identified five indicators of state fragility: peaceful and inclusive societies, access to justice, effective and accountable institutions, economic foundations, and resilience (OECD, 2015). Although three tools have consistently provided policymakers with annual reports on what states have moved into and out of fragility, the different variables used to measure state fragility have resulted in different states classified as fragile.

Natural Disasters and Fragile States

A natural disaster refers to an event triggered by a natural hazard that overwhelms local response capabilities and undermines social and economic development in the affected area (UNISDR, 2007). Hence, a natural disaster is not measured by the magnitude of the natural hazard, but by the ability of human systems to respond to its negative effects. Historically, fragile states have experienced a disproportionate amount of natural disaster-related losses. In fact, from 2005 to 2009, more than 50% of people impacted by a natural disaster resided in a fragile state (Ghesquiere, 2016). Furthermore, in 2010 alone, more than 42 million people were displaced by a natural disaster, up from 17 million in 2009 in fragile states (United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction [UNISDR], 2015). Numerous examples of natural disasters affecting fragile states abound. The droughts in Chad in 2005 and 2009, for example, affected 1.6 million and 2.4 million, respectively (UNISDR, 2015). The Myanmar cyclone in 2008 killed 138,366 and affected over 2.2 million (UNISDR, 2015), and the 2010 Haiti Earthquake resulted in roughly 316,000 fatalities and over $11 billion in damage estimates (U.S. Department of State, 2012). More recently, the 2014 floods in Bosnia and Herzegovina killed 20 and displaced nearly 90,000 (Ghesquiere, 2016). When natural disasters like these and others occur in fragile states, they exacerbate the states’ fragility by increasing their vulnerability to natural disasters, undermining already weak governance structures, and placing additional stress on humanitarian agencies to respond (Mitra & Vivekananda, 2015).

Vulnerability refers to an entity’s susceptibility to a natural hazard (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2013). Fragile nations are significantly more vulnerable to the negative effects of natural disasters than stable and developed countries (Phillips, Neal, & Webb, 2011). The susceptibility of fragile states to natural disasters stems from deficits in their built, social, and economic environment. For example, the infrastructure of fragile states, including buildings, homes, and roadways, are often not designed to withstand the impact of a major natural disaster (Phillips, Neal, & Webb, 2011). This weakness can have substantial impacts on the social environment, as these poorly designed infrastructures are more likely to generate higher death tolls when they fail. With widespread loss of human life, communities can then experience greater loss of social capital, a key component of resilience (Phillips, Neal, & Webb, 2011). Finally, from an economic standpoint, large portions of a fragile state’s population live in extreme poverty and, as a result, have few financial resources to adopt risk-reducing measures (Phillips, Neal, & Webb, 2011). This lack of individual and household preparedness places additional stress on the host government to provide basic necessities (e.g., food, water, shelter).

Natural disasters can also overburden and undermine the ability of governments of fragile states to respond adequately and effectively, thus fueling grievances among affected communities (Mitra & Vivekananda, 2015). For example, during the 2011 East African drought, poor governance over the distribution of food intensified group grievances, resulting in a humanitarian crisis plagued with violence (Harris, Keen, & Mitchell, 2013). An ineffective and inequitable natural disaster response can also challenge the host government’s social contract to support affected communities. The 2006 Kyrgyzstan Earthquake, for instance, revealed how a government’s inability to distribute emergency relief equitably across the affected area can spur protests and public demonstrations (Mitra & Vivekananda, 2015). Moreover, natural disasters can weaken state capacity and, in turn, encourage criminal activity and produce power vacuums (Mitra & Vivekananda, 2015). The Afghanistan droughts in 2006 and 2007, for example, caused populations to migrate, with some choosing to join armed groups (Heijmans et al., 2009).

Finally, natural disasters can place a heavy burden on humanitarian relief organizations, causing greater harm than good (Mitra & Vivekananda, 2015). Humanitarian relief organizations play a vital role in natural disaster response, especially in areas plagued by political unrest as they seek to save lives and preserve and restore communities (Mitra & Vivekananda, 2015). However, in rapid-onset natural disasters, humanitarian relief organizations can inadvertently make conditions worse by failing to consider key environmental issues. For example, during the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, United Nations peacekeeping forces failed to treat water sources, sparking the cholera outbreak, a waterborne disease that killed thousands of Haitians (Mitra & Vivekananda, 2015). This oversight prompted riots between protestors and United Nations troops (Mitra & Vivekanada, 2015).

In light of forecasts suggesting that natural disaster-related losses will only increase in fragile states as a result of population growth, urbanization, and climate change (Ghesquiere, 2016), there is a growing need to understand how fragile states can reduce their losses. In an attempt to remedy these issues and others inherent in fragile states, scholars are beginning to recognize the importance of investigating how fragile states can mitigate natural disaster losses through effective agency coordination and cross-sector collaboration.

Agency Coordination

What Is Agency Coordination?

Coordination broadly describes the integration and interaction of various humanitarian relief actors. Agency coordination, in the context of natural disaster response, more specifically refers to the integration of facilities, equipment, personnel, and communication for supporting incident response activities (Bharosa, Lee, & Janssen, 2010). To integrate these resources effectively, governments must establish a coordinated response system consisting of several agencies, spanning across multiple jurisdictions and levels of government (Kapucu, 2009). However, developing such systems remains a considerable challenge for public agencies as these actors maintain different goals, visions, expertise, and resources to respond to a natural disaster (Balcik et al., 2010; Kapucu, 2009). In fact, Rey (2001) argues that a lack of coordination has and continues to be the greatest challenge in humanitarian relief efforts. This weakness can increase operating costs, lengthen response times, duplicate efforts, and, ultimately, increase the number of lives affected and property damage (Balcik et al., 2010).

Agency Coordination in Fragile States

Effective coordination, especially in a humanitarian environment, remains elusive, primarily because of the disparate actors involved in humanitarian relief (Stephenson, 2005). Such actors can be divided into two large categories (Kovács & Spens, 2007). The first category consists of entities that are intrinsically linked to the host government, including the military as well as local, state, and regional response agencies, whereas the second category contains international organizations such as the United Nations, large aid agencies, and nongovernmental organizations with a global reach (Kovács & Spens, 2007). A considerable amount of research has focused on how these disparate actors coordinate response activities through the lens of humanitarian logistics (see Cozzolino, 2012; Kovács & Spens, 2007, 2008; Overstreet et al., 2011; Pettit & Beresford, 2009; Stephenson, 2005; Van Wassenhove, 2006). Humanitarian logistics refers to “the process of planning, implementing, and controlling the efficient, cost-effective flow and storage of goods and materials as well [as] related information, from the point of origin to the point of consumption for the purpose of alleviating the suffering of vulnerable people” (Cooper, Lambert, & Pagh, 1997, p. 1). Kovács and Spens (2007) argue that humanitarian logistics encompasses both continuous aid work and natural disaster relief. Continuous aid work refers to natural disasters that require constant and continuous support (e.g., drought), whereas natural disaster relief is reserved for sudden-onset catastrophes (e.g., earthquakes) and accounts for approximately 80% of response operations (Overstreet et al., 2011). As a result, it is imperative for fragile states and humanitarian relief actors to develop a system for coordinating response efforts.

Unlike relatively stable states, fragile states rely heavily on international organizations to coordinate the natural disaster response and recovery activities (Cozzolino, 2012). The United Nations has historically served as the lead international organization for assisting states lacking the capacity to respond to emergencies and natural disasters. For example, in 1991, the United Nations developed the Emergency Relief Coordinator position and created the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (Cozzolino, 2012). The Emergency Relief Coordinator plays a vital role in natural disaster response by maintaining authority over all emergencies and natural disasters requiring humanitarian assistance. The individual occupying this position also chairs the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, which serves as a forum to discuss coordination, policy development, and decision making among humanitarian actors (Cozzolino, 2012). In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly established the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC). The UNDAC, at the discretion of the Emergency Relief Coordinator, can deploy teams within 12–48 hours to any nation in the world, free of charge to the host government. Soon after, the United Nations established the Department of Humanitarian affairs, which was later reorganized into the Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) (OCHA, n.d.). As of 2017, OCHA serves as the overall division charged with alleviating human suffering caused by natural disasters and emergencies, and coordinates effective and ethical humanitarian action (OCHA, n.d.). OCHA also plays a key role in advocating for human rights, promoting natural disaster preparedness and prevention efforts, and facilitating sustainable solutions (OCHA, n.d.). Although these and other U.N. actions pioneered early humanitarian efforts, it was not until the Humanitarian Reform of 2005 that the United Nations made one of its most innovative attempts to coordinate humanitarian disaster relief efforts—the development of the cluster system (Altay & Labonte, 2011).

Clusters refer to groups of humanitarian organizations (both U.N. and non-U.N. organizations) that can assist in critical humanitarian sectors (e.g., shelter and health) (OCHA, n.d.). The cluster system serves as the United Nations’ coordinating approach for humanitarian emergencies and disasters as it establishes divisions of labor and common operating procedures, and enhances partnerships (Balcik et al., 2010). Currently, the United Nations has identified 11 critical sectors: logistics, nutrition, emergency shelter, camp management and coordination, health, protection, food security, emergency telecommunication, early recovery, education, and sanitation, water, and hygiene (OCHA, n.d.). Each of these clusters contains a primary organization designed to maintain responsibility for identifying and coordinating resources. Figure 1 provides a graphical illustration of the United Nations’ cluster system and the organizations that remain responsible for a particular disaster response function. For example, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) serves as the lead organization for logistics and emergency telecommunications, whereas the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) leads efforts related to nutrition and education as well as sanitation, health, and hygiene.

Agency Coordination and Cross-Sector Collaboration in Fragile States

Figure 1. The United Nations Cluster System.

Source: OCHA (n.d.)

Factors Undermining Agency Coordination

Balcik et al. (2010) have identified several factors that significantly undermine agency coordination in humanitarian relief efforts. First, although relief agencies operate under the same general goal (e.g., to help those affected and alleviate suffering), they often differ in their mission, motive, and capacity as well as their geographical, cultural, and organizational policies (Van Wassenhove, 2006). Communication and language differences can also create additional barriers. For example, meetings held in English may unintentionally exclude non-English-speaking organizations. Second, because the humanitarian relief environment remains largely unregulated, no agency has legitimate authority to make organizations engage in a designated coordination system (Seaman, 1999; Stephenson, 2005). Generally, the national government of the affected country will maintain responsibility for relief operations, causing international relief organizations to abide by the laws and policies set forth by the national government. However, when host governments become overwhelmed and dysfunctional, the roles and responsibilities of incoming humanitarian relief become unclear (Seaman, 1999). Third, because donors play a pivotal role in supplying the necessary funds to support natural disaster response efforts, relief actors are often required to view donors as customers rather than as supporters. Donors, for example, can place restrictions on their donations by specifying how to disburse the funding. Similarly, relief organizations often compete for funding. This competition can cause relief organizations to withhold information to maintain a competitive advantage (Stephenson, 2005). Fourth, the timing, location, and magnitude of natural disasters, as well as the political, economic, and social environment of the affected area, are often unpredictable. These uncertainties make it difficult to establish pre-disaster coordinating structures that remain both efficient and flexible. Fifth, relief organizations often struggle to maintain the necessary resources to meet the demand. This lack of financial, human, technological, and informational resources can cause relief organizations to compete for resources, which, in turn, may cause organizations to cease coordinating with other organizations. Such competitions can also transpire into another problem—oversupply. Natural disasters often already generate enormous sums of materials and resources, some of which are unusable or unsuitable. When such supplies arrive, staff must process, store, and disperse the resources as needed, an incredibly time-consuming task. Finally, establishing an effective coordinating system is both timely and costly. For example, organizations must pay personnel salaries and travel costs to the affected area while simultaneously providing funding and resources to meet the host government’s needs. Together, these challenges can significantly undermine attempts to establish an effective coordination structure, especially in fragile states.

Cross-Sector Collaboration

What Is a Cross-Sector Collaboration?

Over the past 20 years, there has been a shift toward preparing and responding to natural disasters in a collaborative environment (Cozzolino, 2012). Collaboration refers to “broad and sincere relationships among individuals and organizations to encourage trust, advocate a team atmosphere, build consensus, and facilitate communication” (Blanchard et al., 2007, p. 4). Building on this definition, a cross-sector collaboration refers to formal and informal organizational arrangements involving two or more sectors working collectively to achieve an outcome that cannot be achieved by organizations in one sector alone (Bryson, Crosby, & Stone, 2006). In a humanitarian environment, these organizational sectors include international relief entities, host governments, local and regional nongovernmental organizations, private businesses, donors, and others (Balcik et al., 2010). Such actors provide varying levels of expertise, equipment, and other resources to assist in natural disaster response and recovery operations. Collaboration thus allows these disparate sectors to transfer, obtain, and share expertise and resources to better prepare, respond and recover from natural disasters (Barringer & Harrison, 2000).

The literature on cross-sector collaboration has focused extensively on the United States, thus neglecting much of the international community. Several holistic frameworks exist within this literature and, though centered on a stable state, provide important insights into the design and management of cross-sector collaborations (e.g., Bryson, Crosby, & Stone, 2006; Thomson & Perry, 2006; Ansell & Gash, 2008; Provan & Kenis, 2008; Emerson, Nabatchi, & Balogh, 2012; Koschmann, Kuhn, & Pfarrer, 2012). Bryson, Crosby, and Stone (2015) provide a thorough review of the major theoretical frameworks and findings related to cross-sector collaboration in recent years. Based on this review, they have identified seven major categories organizational leaders should consider when developing cross-sector collaborations. These categories are general antecedent conditions; initial conditions, drivers, and linking mechanisms; collaborative processes; collaboration structures; intersections of processes and structure; endemic conflicts and tensions; and accountability and outcomes (Bryson, Crosby, & Stone, 2015).

General antecedent conditions involve the availability of resources, the institutional and political environment, and the need to have multiple organizations working together to address the given issue. Initial conditions, drivers, and linking mechanisms emphasize the importance for collaborative partners to agree on the problem as well as initial goals and objectives. This category also stresses the importance of using preexisting relationships as a means of judging the trustworthiness of potential collaborative partners. The collaborative processes category accentuates the importance of trust, inclusive partnerships, establishment of communication systems, and planning and building capacity to achieve mutual goals and objectives. Another important part of the collaborative process is building legitimacy among both external constituents and collaborative partners. Collaboration structures broadly refer to the need to develop rules, agreements, and norms of engagement among collaborative partners. The intersections of processes and structure category involves the need to establish leadership roles and governance structures, and to have a thorough understanding of the collaborative partners’ capacity and competencies. The endemic conflicts and tensions category refers to being aware of power imbalances and establishing mechanisms to address tension. Finally, the accountability and outcomes category emphasizes the need to establish formal and informal accountability mechanisms as well as create immediate, intermediate, and long-term outcomes. These seven categories provide important insights into the design and management of cross-sector collaborations and also show the inherent complexity of engaging in cross-sector collaborations.

Cross-Sector Collaboration in Fragile States

Effective humanitarian relief, especially in fragile states, requires that the organizations of competing sectors develop relationships prior to the onset of a catastrophic natural disaster. Before, during, and after a natural disaster, fragile states should consider collaborating with a number of key players, including governments, international aid agencies, nongovernmental organizations, the private sector, and donors. Figure 2 presents a graphical illustration of these players. The lines connecting these key players represent their potential interactions. Not all collaborations, however, require the integration of all the key players. The decision to initiate a collaboration and include a key player depends on the expertise and resources needed to address the societal problem successfully.


Affected host governments maintain overall responsibility for preparing, responding, and recovering from natural disasters. As a result, the affected host government also maintains authority to initiate operations and mobilize resources (Cozzolino, 2012). These governments can also call upon their military for assistance, though at a relatively high cost. When host governments’ resources become overwhelmed, they can then request assistance from international aid agencies as well as neighboring countries. However, the engagement of other countries remains a delicate matter, as many fragile states do not enjoy favorable relationships with their neighboring states (Cozzolino, 2012).

International Aid Agencies

International aid agencies are the organizations and offices, such as the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, responsible for administering foreign aid to civilians. International aid agencies are an important collaborative partner, as these entities not only have a wealth of response resources, but they are also very agile and adaptable (Van Wassenhove, 2006). For example, because they have experience responding to myriad rapid and continuous natural disasters, international aid organizations are capable of obtaining and mobilizing logistical support quickly and in different environments (Van Wassenhove, 2006). Finally, and as mentioned earlier, international aid agencies like the United Nations frequently assume leadership of coordinating natural disaster response and recovery in fragile states.

Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs)

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) refer to local, national, and international non-profit organizations. NGOs, as well as faith-based organizations, are important collaborative partners, for they provide critical health and human services to community members (Simo & Bies, 2007). These entities can range from large, international nonprofit organizations to small, regional nonprofit organizations. CARE, for example, is a leading international NGO that deploys emergency response teams to help disaster-stricken communities by providing emergency food, shelter, water, and sanitation supplies to survivors.

Private Sector

Humanitarian relief agencies have traditionally only interacted with the private sector as needed and solely on a monetary basis (Cozzolino, 2012). In fact, it was not until the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami that humanitarian actors recognized the importance of engaging corporate businesses in pre-disaster planning (Cozzolino, 2012). This incident showed that private companies could assist well beyond the typical monetary goods. For example, Coca-Cola bottled large quantities of water and used its distribution network to deliver the water to relief sites during this disaster (Cozzolino, 2012). Furthermore, several transportation companies, including British Airways, the United Parcel Service (UPS), and Federal Express (FedEx), provided free or subsidized transportation for relief cargo (Cozzolino, 2012).

Overtime, for-profit organizations have become more aware of the benefits of collaborating with humanitarian relief agencies (Cozzolino, 2012). For example, private businesses now view providing funding and goods as a means of contributing to society while simultaneously enhancing their reputation and image. Additionally, companies may be interested in establishing relationships with affected governments as a means of detecting new markets and business opportunities to deliver their services. Similarly, companies may become interested in developing new or improved products, services, or processes to help humanitarian agencies to respond more effectively to affected areas. For instance, companies in the pharmaceutical, packaging, food, and other logistical sectors have developed tailored products specifically for humanitarian purposes (Cozzolino, 2012).


Donors play an invaluable role in humanitarian relief operations as they provide the majority of the funding for response activities (Cozzolino, 2012; Kovács & Spens, 2007). Donors include country-specific funding (e.g., funding provided by the United States, European Union) and foundations, individual donors, and the private sector (Kovács & Spens, 2007). These donors generally provide in-cash donations as well as goods and resources to assist host governments and international aid agencies to respond to the natural disaster (Figure 2).

Agency Coordination and Cross-Sector Collaboration in Fragile States

Figure 2. Key Partners in a Cross-Sector Collaboration in a Fragile State.

Source: Modified from Cozzolino (2012).

Challenges in Engaging in Cross-Sector Collaborations

Although collaborations are indeed desirable, especially in extreme circumstances such as natural disasters, crises, emergencies, and catastrophes, organizations face several problems and obstacles when engaging in a cross-sector collaboration in fragile states (Tomasini & Van Wassenhove, 2009). According to Kovács and Spens (2009), the first obstacle is determining what organizations to collaborate with. This task is by no means easy; every organization has a unique mission and goals. Thus, finding the right partner to collaborate with becomes challenging. The second obstacle is overcoming a lack of mutual understanding (Tomasini & Van Wassenhove, 2009). Different humanitarian actors maintain different goals, objectives, and approaches to solving the collective problem. These differences can fuel grievances among the disparate individuals and organizations seeking to lend help. The third challenge is identifying the roles and responsibilities of the humanitarian actors. Tomasini and Wassenhove (2009) note that aid agencies may be reluctant to have private businesses take on certain tasks, believing that private businesses are only assisting to increase their reputation and public image. Fourth, and arguably the greatest challenge, is managing the collaboration. Collaborations come in various shapes and sizes, and when they become too large, they can cause greater confusion and chaos, resulting in duplicated efforts (Van Wassenhove, 2006). The fifth challenge is obtaining buy-in from all collaborative partners. Because a top-level manager typically decides whether to engage in a collaboration, it is important to ensure that employees at the operational level (e.g., humanitarian workers in the field) are fully committed to engaging in the collaboration.

Haiti Case Study

Haiti as a Fragile State

Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the world and has historically been plagued by political instability, violence, and natural disasters (Brattberg & Sundelius, 2011; Sadiq, 2014). Haiti has also suffered from significant challenges related to education and employment (Sadiq, 2014). For example, its unemployment rate remains around 40% (Klose & Webersik, 2010), and approximately half of all school-age children do not attend school (Kaufman, 2012). Together, these characteristics have caused official development agencies and international organizations to classify Haiti as a fragile state. The 2010 Haiti Earthquake greatly exacerbated the nation’s fragility. For example, according to the Fund for Peace’s Fragile State Index, in 2009, Haiti ranked as the twelfth most fragile state in the world (Fund for Peace, 2009). Just two years later, Haiti moved up seven placements, becoming the fifth most fragile state in the world (Fund for Peace, 2011).

2010 Haiti Earthquake

On January 12, 2010, at approximately 4:53 p.m., a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck just 15 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti (DesRoches et al., 2011). After the initial earthquake, the country experienced, at a minimum, 59 aftershocks with a magnitude of 4.5 or higher (USGS, 2011). The devastation engendered by this event was overwhelming—roughly 316,000 fatalities and over $11 billion in property damage estimates—making this earthquake the nation’s most devastating natural disaster ever (USGS, 2011; U.S. Department of State, 2012). Scholars have gone further: they have described this incident as “the worst recorded natural disaster in the Western Hemisphere” (Weisenfield, 2011, p. 1097).

Haiti’s Emergency Management System

Haiti’s emergency management system has maintained limited capabilities to respond to natural disasters. As a result, the country has historically relied on regional and international bodies to reduce the physical and economic losses engendered by natural disasters (Fordyce, Sadiq, & Chikoto, 2013; Sadiq, 2014). Indeed, the international community helped develop the first regional emergency management program named the Pan-Caribbean Disaster Preparedness Prevention Project (PCDPPP) (Poncelet, 1997). Established in 1981, the PCDPPP underscored the importance of disaster preparedness and mitigation, laying the foundation for Caribbean countries such as Haiti to begin developing national disaster management systems (Poncelet, 1997). Although the PCDPPP remained successful at emphasizing the need for disaster preparedness, it failed to reduce the risk of natural disasters through mitigation efforts. This realization prompted the Caribbean community to develop the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Response Agency (CDERA) in 1989.

Unlike the PCDPPP, CDERA commanded a much stronger position by taking part in cooperative agreements with international agencies (e.g., air and defense carriers) as a means of establishing procedures for mobilizing resources to disaster-stricken Caribbean nations (Fordyce, Sadiq, & Chikoto, 2013). CDERA, which is called the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), remains funded by its member states and donor agencies, making this agency a key resource in Haiti’s national emergency management system (Fordyce, Sadiq, & Chikoto, 2013). Although Haiti’s reliance on these regional systems has helped this fragile state mitigate, prepare, respond, and recover from natural disasters, the 2010 Haiti Earthquake is evidence that the country must take responsibility over these actions and that an overhaul of its emergency management system is desperately needed (Sadiq, 2014).

Response to the Earthquake

Profoundly affected by the unimaginable devastation Haiti suffered in the earthquake, the international community responded with an enormous show of support (Sadiq, 2014). Specifically, the international community assisted with response and recovery operations by sending personnel, equipment, and other critical resources. For example, the United States sent approximately 13,000 troops, equipped with 23 ships and 263 aircrafts to the disaster-stricken nation (Brattberg & Sundelius, 2011). Humanitarian assistance also came from other countries, including England, and France. International aid was channeled through bilateral agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) or through international NGOs (Fordyce, Sadiq, & Chikoto, 2013). According to OCHA’s database, 505 international NGOs and 222 national NGOs operated in Haiti (OCHA, 2012). Moreover, before the 2010 earthquake, there were approximately 8,000 international NGOs in Haiti, making Haiti the country with one of the highest number of NGOs per capita in the world (Lawry, 2010).

To respond to this unprecedented catastrophe, the United Nations appointed a relief coordinator and implemented the cluster system to coordinate the myriad players involved in the relief and recovery operations. Moreover, CDEMA played an integral role in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. For example, within 24 hours of the event, CDEMA deployed its disaster relief unit, which then teamed up with the Jamaica Defense Force to provide humanitarian assistance. CDEMA also developed a Regional Response Mechanism (RRM) to provide survivors with necessities such as food, water, and shelter. Finally, CDEMA facilitated and channeled fundraising efforts (Fordyce, Sadiq, & Chikoto, 2013).

Agency Coordination and Cross-Sector Collaboration in the Aftermath of the Haiti Earthquake

Despite the huge influx of humanitarian aid and the presence of NGOs in Haiti, the 2010 Haiti Earthquake revealed serious problems with coordination and collaboration. There was weak coordination between the international humanitarian actors, civil society groups, and the Haitian government (Haver, 2011; Rencoret et al., 2010). For example, in many instances, local groups within Haiti were excluded during the coordination of the relief efforts, thus undermining the legitimacy of such efforts and buy-in from local groups (Rencoret et al., 2010). In addition, the U.N. cluster system failed in many areas (Howitt et al., 2011). Specifically, clusters related to health, water, sanitation, and hygiene were deemed largely ineffective. Moreover, cluster leaders had little training and only limited ability to establish subgroups within the cluster (Howitt et al., 2011). In terms of collaboration, Howitt et al. (2011) note that several agencies did not collaborate well for various reasons. For instance, the U.S. government did not always collaborate well with the United Nations. Similarly, the United Nations did not collaborate well with the Haitian government and, at times, disrespected their authority (Howitt et al., 2011).

Despite these weaknesses, Howitt et al. (2011) suggest that some improvements in coordination and collaboration occurred during the Haiti Earthquake. The use of social media and other information-sharing technologies, for example, improved the ability of organizations to coordinate relief efforts. Howitt et al. (2011) further add that civilian-military relationships and food distribution were largely effective and heavily praised. These improvements suggest that fragile states can indeed make meaningful efforts to enhance coordination and collaboration in the aftermath of a natural disaster.


The following set of recommendations can improve agency coordination and cross-sector collaborations in fragile states.

Better Coordination among International NGOs (INGOs), the National Government, Local, and Civil Society Groups

In the aftermath of a natural disaster in a fragile state, it is imperative that all agencies, including national, local governments, and civil society groups and international NGOs and other international humanitarian groups, work collaboratively to ensure that the response to the natural disaster is effective. It is beneficial for each agency to value one another by recognizing that each has something to contribute toward achieving the collective goal. One approach in this area may be for the United Nations to conduct training exercises with INGOs, national governments, and local/civil societies. In so doing, agencies will familiarize themselves with the work each one does, as well as understand the role of each agency prior to and during a natural disaster. By working collaboratively as one, the agencies can build trust, synergy, and strong relationships that can enhance their collaboration and coordination in future natural disasters.

Cultural Barriers

A major challenge facing agency coordination and cross-sector collaboration in fragile states is dealing with cultural issues such as language barriers. For example, during the response to the Haiti Earthquake, some humanitarian actors could speak neither French nor Creole, not surprisingly leading to communication problems (Rencoret et al., 2010). Although organizations such as the United Nations have taken important steps to ensure the representation of different languages among their humanitarian personnel like their emergency response teams (Baker & Chikoto, 2004), the language base of their workers needs to be expanded. While INGOs cannot have all languages represented in their humanitarian workers, certain strategies could help with this issue. For instance, as part of their mandate, INGOs could include working with a credible local agency in the disaster-affected country to deliver humanitarian services. Similarly, the United Nations could maintain a database of such local partners, train with those partners, and establish a strong partnership with them prior to a natural disaster. In so doing, these partners will be familiar with U.N. procedures and in turn, the United Nations will be familiar with the partner’s modus operandi.


A lack of trust between local agencies and INGOs was a major obstacle to successful coordination and collaboration in the aftermath of the Haiti Earthquake (Remington & Ganapati, 2016). It is therefore imperative that the United Nations recognize and take active steps to foster trust among the national, state, and local governments of a disaster-stricken country and INGOs. One way to establish this trust is for the United Nations to provide the forums by which INGOs can spend time with the local organizations, learning their problems and their needs, and work together to create solutions to the identified problems (Remington & Ganapati, 2016). Unfortunately, procedures put in place to ensure the safety of aid workers, such as curfews and restricted zones, may undermine the much needed immersion and integration of aid workers with locals (Remington & Ganapati, 2016). The United Nations needs to examine this issue and come up with a solution that balances the needs of integration and coordination with protection of the need to aid workers. For example, rather than designate restricted areas, the United Nations could give aid workers access to those areas, accompanied by security personnel.

Good Governance Structure

The importance of framing a good governance structure to foster agency coordination and cross-sector collaborations in fragile states cannot be overemphasized. The presence of a credible, reliable, and transparent government can contribute to an atmosphere of collaboration and inclusion. In addition, a good governance structure can provide the necessary foundation for establishing meaningful programs and policies that will lead to social, political, and economic improvement in fragile states.

Establishment of an Information Sharing Platform

The United Nations should create a platform for sharing information such as lessons learned and best practices with regard to agency coordination and cross-sector collaboration. Such a platform should contain information that will include, but not be limited to, what works and what does not work in efforts to establish agency coordination and cross-sector collaboration in fragile states. The United Nations should ensure that fragile states, NGOs, humanitarian agencies, and relevant private entities have access to the platform, with the proviso that parties will contribute to and benefit from the platform.

The United States Department of Defense’s (DOD) All Partners Access Network (APAN) could serve as a model for helping the United Nations develop an information-sharing platform for fragile states. Established as a collaboration enterprise for the DOD, APAN provides the DOD and other collaborative partners, such as governmental agencies, militaries, and international humanitarian relief organizations, with the ability to share information on a common, unclassified website (APAN, 2016). The DOD and its collaborative partners use APAN during disaster response and humanitarian relief operations to share real-time information, increase situational awareness, and, ultimately, reduce response times (APAN, 2016). But regardless of what platform the United Nations employs, it is essential that the platform be updated frequently so that it contains the latest trends, lessons, and best practices on agency coordination and cross-sector collaboration in fragile states.

Because research on topics such as coordination in times of natural disasters and other catastrophes remains rudimentary, there is an urgent need for additional studies. Scholars, for example, should study the factors that enhance and hinder agency coordination and cross-sector collaborations in fragile states. This will give researchers and practitioners a better understanding of how to improve collaboration and coordination among various actors working to address the problems confronting fragile states, especially their vulnerability to natural disasters, climate change, and poor socioeconomic conditions. Future studies should also seek to examine the role natural disasters play in developing and improving agency coordination and cross-sector collaboration in fragile states. Natural disasters, for example, can create windows of opportunity that organizations and donors can leverage to make disaster management a higher priority. This study is a first step in gaining a better understanding of these topics.


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