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date: 08 August 2020

Inter-Agency Collaboration for Natural Hazard Management in Developed Countries

Summary and Keywords

Although the concept of natural hazard management as the central institutional mode of governance for coping with disasters appeared in the 1970s, inter-agency collaboration in natural hazard management came to the fore with the declaration of the United Nations (UN) Yokohama Strategy in 1994. The Yokohama Strategy focused on collaboration amongst international and regional organizations, donors, early-warning systems, the scientific community and national emergency agencies, among others. The successors of the strategy, the Hyogo Framework for Action launched in 2005, and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015, continue to emphasize the same. Inter-agency collaboration in governing hazard management is a collective effort, and these efforts have been promoted through cooperation, communication, and effective decision making between actors and organizations, enabled by enhanced technology. The content of the UN’s Yokohama Strategy, Hyogo Framework, Sendai Framework, and the cluster system bear this out. However, more research is required to understand the extent to which national governments have translated the UN’s frameworks into action. Studying how governments and responders coordinate and cooperate and what they coordinate, cooperate on, and communicate will clarify the realized processes that underpin hazard management.

Keywords: inter-agency collaboration, cluster system, natural hazard management, developed countries, disaster risk reduction, Yokohama Strategy, Hyogo Framework, Sendai Framework


Natural hazards are increasing in number, due to global warming and climate change. The World Disaster Report (IFRC, 2013) noted an increase in the number of natural hazards from approximately 90 annually in the 1970s to approximately 450 annually more recently. A natural hazard (such as a flood, cyclone, drought, heatwave etc.) is understood to be a “natural process or phenomenon that may cause loss of life, injury or other health impacts, property damage, loss of livelihoods and services, social and economic disruption, or environmental damage” (UNISDR, 2009). There is a widespread acknowledgement that hazards can include “latent conditions that may represent future threats and can have different origins: natural (geological, hydrometeorological and biological) or induced by human processes (environmental degradation and technological hazards)” (UNISDR, 2015, pp. 3, 25).

There is also a general consensus that the impacts of natural hazards are not entirely “natural”; rather they are determined by people’s unequal exposure to risks, a consequence of the socioeconomic systems that render people more vulnerable to disasters (Cannon, 1994; IPCC, 2012; Neumayer & Plümper, 2007; Ray-Bennett, 2010; UNISDR, 2015; Varley, 1994; Winchester, 2000; Wisner, Blaikie, Cannon, & Davis, 2004). Disaster risk is then “a combination of hazard, exposure and vulnerability” (Mizutori & Guha-Sapir, 2018, p. 1). According to the World Risk Index1 it also includes coping capacity to reduce negative consequences and adaptive capacity for long term strategies for societal change (Birkmann et al., 2011, Welle & Birkmann, 2015). Based on these criteria, the World Risk Index has identified the developed countries that are at high risk, which include: Japan (17), The Netherlands (50), Greece (72), Italy (116), New Zealand, (119), Australia (121), United States of America (126), Russia (128), Portugal (132) and the United Kingdom (135).2 The World Bank Report (Dilley et al., 2005, p. 4) on the other hand, ranked countries based on their land mass and exposure to a number of hazards, placing Japan on the top (8) (for the three or more hazards category) followed by the United States of America (60) for the two or more hazards category.

The impacts of natural hazards/ disasters are economic as well as humanitarian. According to the UNISDR Report (2018, p. 3) the direct economic loss incurred by the:

disaster-hit countries between 1998 and 2017 is valued at US$ 2,908 billion, of which climate-related disasters caused US$ 2,245 billion or 77 % of the total. This is up from 68 % (US$ 895 billion) of losses (US$ 1,313 billion) reported between 1978 and 1997. Overall, reported losses from extreme weather events rose by 151 % between these two 20-year periods. In absolute monetary terms, over the last 20-year period, the USA recorded the biggest losses (US$ 945 billion), reflecting high asset values as well as frequent events. [. . .]. The World Bank has calculated that the real cost to the global economy is a staggering US$ 520 billion per annum, with disasters pushing 26 million people into poverty every year.

Climate-related and geophysical disasters between 1998 and 2017 lead to the deaths of:

1.3 million people and left a further 4.4 billion injured, homeless, displaced or in need of emergency assistance. While the majority of fatalities were due to geophysical events, mostly earthquakes and tsunamis, 91 % of all disasters were caused by floods, storms, droughts, heatwaves and other extreme weather events (UNISDR, 2018, p. 3)

Reducing the impact of natural hazards on humans and economies is currently an existential task for sustainability (Ray-Bennett, 2018a; UNISDR, 2015).

Past efforts to reduce the impact of natural hazards have focused on structural and non-structural mitigation measures, with a particular focus on technology and human vulnerabilities to reduce disaster impact (Mills, Andreay, Yessis, & Boyd, 2001) The UN’s campaign in 2000 through the Millennium Development Goals (now Sustainable Development Goals) identified disasters as a major risk to development. It also identified the impact of disasters as no longer local but rather global in nature. As a result, the UN urged the global community to intensify “collective efforts to reduce the number and effects of natural hazards and man-made disasters.” In this vein the UN’s Yokohama Strategy (1994), Hyogo Framework for Action (2005) and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015), led by the UN’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR),3 emphasized inter-agency collaboration as an important mechanism to manage and mitigate the impact of natural hazards and disasters locally and globally. In the context of this paper, cooperation, communication, and decision making are emphasized as important tenets for inter-agency collaboration in hazard management and are discussed in depth in “Inter-Agency Collaboration in Hazard Management: The Case for the UN System” and “The Cluster System.”

Although there is a plethora of studies that discuss the impact of structural and non-structural mitigation measures (see “Natural Hazard Management: A Brief Literature Review”), there are relatively few studies on inter-agency collaboration in natural hazard management. Inter-agency collaboration is operational, applied, social science and hence identifiable. The importance of inter-agency collaboration amongst international and regional organizations, donors, early-warning systems, the scientific community, national emergency agencies and the general public, among others, cannot be overestimated. It can help actors and organizations to manage labor and knowledge, to communicate, and to rectify gaps in hazard-management activities. These improvements can, in turn, promote organizational resilience and societal sustainability, mitigating the impact of natural hazards.

Natural Hazard Management: A Brief Literature Review

Since there is widespread acknowledgement that natural hazards can be natural (geological, hydrometeorological and biological) and/or anthropogenic (induced by human processes), natural hazard management has largely followed two interrelated trajectories: structural and non-structural mitigation, and global warming and climate change. These two trajectories are discussed below.

Structural and Non-Structural Mitigation Trajectory

The mainstream or dominant perspective is the traditional perspective. According to this approach, natural hazards originate from natural systems and they can cause harm and loss.4 One way of mitigating the effects of nature is through technology or a “technical fix” (Ariyabandu & Wickramasinghe, 2003; Bryant, 2005; Ray-Bennett, 2009; Wisner et al., 2004). This line of thinking was dominant in the UN’s General Assembly Resolution 44/236, adopted on December 22, 1989 (Bankoff, 2001; de Senarclens, 1998; Ray-Bennett, 2018a). As a result, structural mitigation measures, such as building concrete houses, flood levees, ocean wave barriers, cyclone shelters, embankments, and dams attained primary importance over non-structural mitigation measures, such as policies, laws, training, capacity building, raising public awareness, insurance, and aid (Davis & Gupta, 1991; Haque & Zaman, 1994; Kaiser et al., 2003; Ray-Bennett, 2018a; Zaman, 1999). This technical perspective evolved due to mid-term evaluation of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (IDNDR) (1990–2000) in 1994 (known as the Yokohama Strategy), followed by the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005–2015), and most recently the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015–2030) (UNISDR, 2005, 2015). Although the lion’s share of disaster-reduction budget tends to be invested in structural mitigation measures, literature in this review shows that non-structural mitigation measures were proposed from the 1970s onwards.

Natural hazard management as a topic of professional and scholarly study first appears in the 1970s (Slovic, Kunreuther, & White, 1974; Slovic, Fischhoff, & Lichtenstein, 1977). These authors focused on “decision making” in hazard management. They postulated the concept of “bounded rationality,” whereby decision makers do not think probabilistically and try to avoid facing uncertainty directly. They also suggest decision makers avoid evaluating utility and direct comparison of incommensurable features. The goal of the decision maker is assumed to be the achievement of a satisfactory, rather than a maximum, outcome. Because the decision maker is constrained by limitations of perception and intelligence, the bounded-rational decision maker is forced to proceed by trial and error, modifying plans that do not yield satisfactory outcomes and maintaining those that do until they fail. Given this awareness of cognitive limitations, how are decision makers to maximize their capability for making intelligent decisions about natural hazards? The theory of bounded rationality suggests two avenues for improvement: helping decision makers to better perceive (and understand) hazards, and ensuring decision makers are aware of a more complete set of alternative courses of action. A central purpose of this article is to recognize that disaster-affected communities continuously undertake self-driven coping and adaptation strategies (Alam & Collins, 2010) without relying on external agencies’ support and responses. Areas of work that emerged from this thinking include hazard management for flood, avalanche, wildfire, volcano, landmass movement, landscape management, and earthquake management. Brief summary reviews are given below.

Flood hazard management: through flood insurance (Arnell, Clark, & Gurnell, 1984); an ice jam prediction model for floodplain management (Barnes-Svarney & Montz, 1985); geologic maps and flood risk maps for floodplain management decisions (House, 2005); mapping of floodplain areas using remote sensing, in addition to traditional methods of field surveys, topographic, and debris line mapping (Brown, Gregory, & Milton, 1987); calls to involve the general public in river management to minimize conflict (Fordham, Tunstall, & Penning-Roswell, 1991); shoreline management (cliff erosion, seawalls, groins, artificial beach nourishment) to promote resilience (emergency measures and effective forecasting) (Grima, 1993); Geographic Information System (GIS) facilitating dialogue between decision makers, interest groups, and the public (Nunes Correira, Fordham, Da Graça Saraiva, & Bernardo, 1998); flood forecasting, warning, and response system (FFWRS) and importance of FFWRS working in interface with policy, public opinion and dam management (Handmer, 2001; Parker & Fordham, 1996); and increased consideration given to the vulnerability of marginal groups and the role of leadership in a flood emergency (Shrubsole, 2000).

Avalanche management: through the construction of snowpack support structures, deflecting and/or retarding structures, catchment dams in the lower part of avalanche paths, reinforced buildings and/or modified building design; evacuation planning; consistent methods for evaluating, classifying and mapping avalanche hazards; and knowledge-based systems to assist in managing the hazard to the travelling public and state highway personnel on rural highways during periods when the potential for avalanches is high (Jamieson & Stethem, 2002; Rice et al., 2002).

Forest fire management: through the reduction of excess biomass, grazing, creation and conservation of buffer areas, and participation of stakeholders, including the rural populace (Badia, Saurí, & Cerdan, 2002).

Volcano management: through a decision-assessment matrix (Hodder, 1999) and context-specific, people-centered early warning systems (Leonard et al., 2008; Sorensen & Gersmehl, 1980). Other methods promoted for the management of volcanic eruption include: state-of-the-art broadband, wide-dynamic range digital seismometers, long-term monitoring, electronic distance meter (EDM), GPS (Global Positioning System) networks supplemented by electronic tiltmeters and crack extensometers, hovering helicopter platforms, and gas monitoring (Young et al., 1997).

Landmass movements: through GIS-based logistic regression for landslide susceptibility mapping (Ayalew & Yamagishi, 2005); space-borne and ground-based SAR interferometry (Corsini et al., 2006); standardized measurement protocols for different terrains (Crozier, 2005); and GPS and digital photogrammetry for the monitoring of landmass movements (Mora et al., 2003).

Landscape management: through the consideration of vulnerability and social, economic, and political concerns in flood-related land-use decisions (Mills et al., 2001); no-build zones, high-risk and low-risk zones to minimize wildfires (Burley & Burley, 1996); and landscape planning, as opposed to landscape management, with the aim of maintaining viable populations of species associated with late-successional habitat, to meet aquatic ecosystem objectives, and sustain timber production (Cissel, Swanson, & Weisberg, 1999).

Earthquake management: emergency response particularly focusing on earthquake-initiated hazardous materials releases (EIHRs) (Lindell & Perry, 1996); remote sensing to assess physical vulnerabilities of buildings from earthquake; and comprehensive and effective disaster and emergency management (DEM) supported by the multi-criteria decision analysis (MCDA) method. MCDA techniques with geospatial systems, such as GIS, to support effective DEM (Nyimbili, Erden, & Karaman, 2018).

Global Warming and Climate Change Trajectory

Natural hazards are also investigated through the lens of global warming and climate change, and managed that basis.5 This strand has been led by the UN’s treaties: the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), launched in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, followed by the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and the Paris Protocol in 2015. The objective of the UNFCCC is to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human-induced) interference with the climate system” (IPCC, 2013, p. 1). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international body set up in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), provides policy makers with regular assessments on the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation (IPCC, 2013).

According to a 2018 IPCC report, human activities are estimated to have caused ~1.0 °C of global warming above pre-industrial levels. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5 °C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate (IPCC, 2018, A1, p. 6). Trends of increasing intensity and frequency of some climate and weather extremes have been detected, and their impact on natural and human systems have already been observed. A wide range of adaptation options are available to reduce the risks to natural and managed ecosystems (e.g., ecosystem-based adaptation, restoration of ecosystems and avoidance of degradation and deforestation, biodiversity management, promotion of sustainable aquaculture, and harnessing of local and indigenous knowledges), the risks of sea level rise (e.g., coastal defense and hardening), and the risks to health, livelihoods, food, water, and economic growth, both in rural landscapes (e.g., efficient irrigation, social safety nets, disaster risk management [authors’ emphasis], risk spreading and sharing, and community-based adaptation) and in urban areas (e.g., green infrastructure, sustainable land use and planning, and sustainable water management) (IPCC, 2018, B.6.1, p. 12). The IPCC report also identifies mitigation strategies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions for energy systems, industry, urban and infrastructure systems, and global and regional land use (IPCC, 2018).

Resilience is another important concept that has been repeatedly used as a means of mitigating the effect of climate change (Gerber, 2014, 2015; IPCC, 2018). Resilience is a term with varied and discipline-specific definitions (Boin, Comfort, & Demchak, 2010), but in the context of hazard management it refers to the ability of a community to resist, absorb, and bounce back from an external shock (i.e., an emergency or disaster). Tierney (2013) asserts that resilience occurs in administrative actions ranging from emergency preparedness and mitigation (anticipatory resilience), to improvizational actions during emergencies or disasters (responsive resilience), and to learning through administrative adjustments (adaptive resilience). Carrying out all three requires significant operational integration within a local municipal government (among various departments and offices) and cooperation and coordination with other levels of government (various state and federal agencies) (Gerber, 2015). Although the IPCC reports have made a significant contribution to knowledge and awareness building, support for local decision-making processes is still insufficient. Experts continue to note (NCA, 2011) that (1) the data and information needed to undertake vulnerability assessments is often incomplete or inaccessible; (2) communication between scientists and local communities needs improvement; (3) challenges remain in understanding the interactions between climate change and other stressors; and (4) identification of vulnerabilities should be linked to adaptation strategies to improve the capacity of decision makers to respond to climate change.

Inter-Agency Collaboration in Hazard Management: The Case for the UN System

Country-specific or region-specific inter-agency collaboration in hazard management is difficult to identify. This requires an in-depth case study or multiple case study approach and as such is not the objective of this article. Instead, this section considers the UN’s Sendai Framework, and its predecessors, the Yokohama Strategy and the Hyogo Framework. In doing so, it identifies the ways in which inter-agency collaboration has evolved since the 1990s. The Sendai Framework is currently ratified by more than 180 UN Member Countries and dictates disaster risk-management practices at national, regional, and international levels. As such, it is an important framework to study in order to understand the inter-agency collaboration that may take place at national and regional levels. “The Cluster System” is reviewed in the following section. Despite its limitations, the cluster system is one of the most effective approaches for inter-agency collaboration in response to large-scale disasters.

The Yokohama Strategy and Plan of Action for a Safer World, adopted in 1994 following the UN’s World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction in Yokohama, Japan, was the first document to provide international guidelines for the preparation and prevention of disasters and the mitigation of their impacts. The Yokohama Strategy emanated from the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction (1990–2000) and the World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction held in 1994, both of which recognized the importance of community involvement in disaster risk reduction. The Yokohama Strategy states that national development plans must consider the creation and implementation of sustainable policies that contribute to disaster prevention, mitigation, preparedness, and relief as well as environmental protection. It recognizes that disaster response in isolation yields temporary results and so it is necessary to embrace sustainable development policies in the long term. It further states that the world will become increasingly interdependent and that it is therefore vital that countries embrace partnerships and cooperation based on common interests and shared responsibilities in order to achieve real progress. Its focus was to improve the coping mechanisms of countries to withstand and recover from the impacts of disasters by incorporating the knowledge and experience in emergency management possessed by at-risk communities (Tozier de la Poterie & Baoudin, 2015). The goals of the Yokohama Strategy would only be achieved through cooperation at all levels, a fact illustrated by the number of times the term cooperation is used (11). This would in turn encourage better decision making and communication.

The Hyogo Framework for Action, launched in 2015, had five objectives drawn from the lessons learnt from the Yokohama strategy. These included the implementation of disaster risk reduction (DRR)-related provisions from the Johannesburg Plan, sharing good practice, increasing awareness of the importance of disaster-reduction policies, and increasing the reliability and availability of appropriate disaster-related information for all agencies. It set a time period of ten years (2005–2015) to achieve the expected outcome—“the substantial reduction of disaster losses, in lives and in the social, economic and environmental assets of communities and countries” (UNISDR, 2005, p. 3)—which would require commitment, full engagement and cooperation from all actors, both governmental and civil society, national and international. The Hyogo framework stresses the tremendous importance of inter-agency collaboration (i.e., cooperation, communication, and shared decision making) for disaster risk management, an imperative illustrated by the number of times the terms cooperation, communication, and shared decision making appear in the strategy—21 times in total.

By acknowledging some progress in building resilience and reducing losses and damages, the Sendai Framework, the successor to the Hyogo Framework, asserted that a substantial reduction of disaster risk requires perseverance and persistence, with a more explicit focus on people and their health and livelihoods, and regular follow-up. Over a period of fifteen years (2015–2030) the Sendai Framework expects to achieve the outcome of “the substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health and in the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets of persons, businesses, communities and countries” (UNISDR, 2015, p. 12). The Sendai Framework urges strong commitment and involvement of political leadership in every country at all levels in the creation of the necessary enabling environment. The Sendai Framework directly uses the terms cooperation, communication and shared decision making at least 50 times in total.

Having discussed the three frameworks, we now analyze the ways in which the three tenets of hazard management—cooperation, communication and decision making—are used within them. See Table 1 for an abridged version of this discussion.

Table 1. Analysis of Frameworks



Decision Making


Promotes communication among all levels, both vertically and horizontally.

Encourages cooperation at the international, national and local levels through technology transfer, information sharing etc.

Viewed in the context of disaster prevention and preparedness and development policy and planning.

Expects more and better forecasting and warning information to improve preparedness and mitigation measures.

Achieved by the application of traditional knowledge, and by enhancing the cooperation of international, government and local organizations.

Affirms its importance at the national, regional, bilateral, multilateral and international levels.

Encourages information exchange through strengthening of existing mechanisms and use of new communication techniques.

Ensures the involvement of local actors in risk management practice.

Encourages the expansion of decision making to include all sectors.


Communication used in the context of capacity building, information management, disaster preparedness and response.

International, regional and national cooperation in DRR mainstreaming, knowledge generation, risk assessment, etc.

Considers gender inclusive, multi-risk assessments and cost-benefit analysis and early warning system integration in decision making process.

Places nation state as the center of DRR and international cooperation.


Communication the basis for successful cooperation

Cooperation (developing new products and services, technology transfer and data sharing etc.) necessary among international, regional, national and sub-national organizations

Seen as a means of empowering local authorities and local communities to reduce disaster risk, but does not state how community input, traditional knowledge, and involvement is incorporated in national decision making.

Promotes the collection, analysis, used and dissemination of relevant data and encourages communication to build their knowledge of DRR.

Considers the incorporation of local knowledge and practices.

Supports the use of communication and other technologies to support national measures for successful disaster risk communication.

Recognizes the role of the scientific and technical communities which fosters science-based and effective decision making at the national and international levels;.

Cooperation in the Yokohama, Hyogo, and Sendai Frameworks

Cooperation is key in achieving the stated goals of the Yokohama Strategy, as stated in Affirmation 4 (IDNDR, 1994, p. 2):

The world is increasingly interdependent. All countries shall act in a new spirit of partnership to build a safer world based on common interests and shared responsibility to save human lives, since natural disasters do not respect borders. Regional and international cooperation will significantly enhance our ability to achieve real progress in mitigating disasters through the transfer of technology and the sharing of information and joint disaster prevention and mitigation activities.

Cooperation is encouraged at the international, national and local levels through technology transfer, information sharing, joint disaster prevention and mitigation activities, technical exchanges and research—by harnessing traditional knowledge, practices and values of local communities and by enhancing the cooperation of international, government, and local organizations engaged in DRR. Cooperation at the local level (community) ensures the involvement of local actors in risk management practice, thus valuing their experience and knowledge. The Yokohama Strategy hoped that this would ultimately promote the adoption of a policy of self-reliance in each country and community.

In the Hyogo Framework cooperation is understood as vital in mainstreaming DRR through international, regional, and national cooperation, knowledge generation, risk assessment, data sharing, cooperation in post disaster efforts, financial assistance, and implementation of early warning systems. In the Hyogo Framework, nation states occupy center stage for DRR and international cooperation. The Hyogo Framework acknowledges that bilateral, regional, and international cooperation, including partnerships, are required to reduce disaster risks. This type of cooperation must be systematically integrated into policies, plans, and programs for sustainable development and poverty reduction.

The Hyogo Framework also states that international cooperation in terms of the transfer of knowledge, technology, and expertise can stimulate and contribute to developing the knowledge, capacities, and motivation needed for disaster risk reduction at all levels. To achieve this, the Hyogo Framework promotes improved dialogue and cooperation among scientific communities and practitioners, and encourages partnerships among stakeholders, including those working on the socioeconomic dimensions of disaster risk reduction. This will, in turn, support regional programs such as those which aim for technical cooperation, capacity development, and the development of methodologies and standards for hazard and vulnerability monitoring and assessment. An example of such technological platform is the United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER).

The Hyogo Framework makes provision for post-disaster assistance which should be provided with the aims of reducing risk and vulnerability, improving capacities, and ensuring effective arrangements for international cooperation for urban search and rescue assistance. The Hyogo Framework states that each nation state has the primary responsibility for its own sustainable development and for taking effective measures to reduce disaster risk. As such the national government must make all efforts to protect its people, territory, infrastructure, and other national assets from the impact of disasters, for which international cooperation and partnerships are vital. This is a function which must be performed by the national government. The Hyogo Framework emphasizes the creation and strengthening of national integrated disaster risk-reduction mechanisms such as multi-sectoral national platforms, with designated responsibilities at the national through to the local levels to facilitate coordination across sectors. International cooperation and partnerships are crucial to the reduction of risks and vulnerability. The Hyogo framework further states that international and regional cooperation includes the provision of financial assistance to nations which will require aid for their reduction of existing risks and the avoidance of generating new risks.

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction also emphasizes cooperation among international, regional, national, and sub-national organizations to improve disaster preparedness and response mechanisms. The specific areas of cooperation include developing new products and services, technology transfer and data sharing, ecosystem-based resources, the impacts of disasters on the economy, society, and health, multi-sectoral cooperation among local governments and the updating of national laws and regulations. The Sendai Framework emphasizes cooperation among scientific and technological communities and networks to improve early warning systems and preparedness and to develop new products and services to help to reduce disaster risk, in particular those that would assist developing countries to address their specific challenges.

The Sendai Framework promotes the sharing and use of non-sensitive data and information and common information systems paired with the sharing of good practices and capacity development to address common and transboundary disaster risks. It also supports the development of thematic platforms of cooperation, such as global technology pools and global systems to share knowhow, innovation, and research and ensure access to technology and information on disaster risk reduction. An example of such a platform is the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, a biennial multi-stakeholder forum with the aims of sharing knowledge and discussing important developments and trends in managing disasters. This is intended to promote transboundary cooperation to enable policy and planning for the implementation of ecosystem-based approaches with regard to shared resources. Cooperation among global and regional financial institutions for assessing the potential economic and social impacts of disasters is encouraged, as is country-level capacity development of health risk management. The Hyogo Framework acknowledged that more cooperation is required between North and South and South and South for effective disaster risk reduction.

The Sendai Framework recognizes the higher level of vulnerability experienced by the least developed countries, small island developing states, landlocked developing countries and African countries, as well as middle-income countries with a limited capacity to respond to and recover from disasters. International cooperation and the development of genuine and durable partnerships at the regional and international levels is required to ensure that developing countries can implement the Sendai Framework in accordance with their national priorities and needs. Similar attention and appropriate assistance should also be extended to other disaster-prone countries with specific characteristics, such as archipelagic countries, as well as countries with extensive coastlines.

Communication in the Yokohama, Hyogo, and Sendai Frameworks

The Yokohama Protocol promotes communication among all levels, both vertically and horizontally. Within countries, it is expected that more and better forecasting and warning information is provided to the public to improve preparedness and mitigation measures, while at the regional and international level, information exchange is encouraged through the strengthening of existing mechanisms and the use of new communication techniques.

In the Hyogo framework the term communication is directly used in the context of capacity building, information management, disaster preparedness, and response. There is an emphasis on space-based technologies and earth observations to support disaster risk reduction.

Communication is not defined in the Sendai Framework. The Sendai Framework utilizes the terms “communication mechanisms” and “communications policies” but does not state what the elements of communication are. Rather, communication is understood to be the basis for successful cooperation and underscores at least two priority areas—understanding disaster risk and strengthening disaster risk governance. In order to understand disaster risk, the Sendai Framework promotes the collection, analysis, use, and dissemination of relevant data among sectors such as government and the scientific community. It encourages communication among government officials, civil society, communities and volunteers, and the private sector in order to build their knowledge of disaster risk reduction whilst also considering the incorporation of local knowledge and practices. At the global level, it advocates the use of communication and other technologies to support national measures for successful disaster risk communication, as appropriate and in accordance with national laws. The Sendai Framework further encourages communication and collaboration among the scientific and technological community, academia, and the private sector to establish, disseminate, and share good practices in disaster risk reduction. The strengthening of disaster risk governance, as stated by the Sendai Framework, is necessary as it fosters collaboration and partnership at the international and national levels through disaster risk reduction strategies and planning. Accordingly, the framework suggests that communication is vital in order to achieve the desired level of cooperation and to realize the creation of mechanisms and institutions that can support disaster risk reduction and sustainable development.

Decision Making in the Yokohama, Hyogo, and Sendai Frameworks

Informed decision making is a central tenet of the Yokohama Strategy. It reviews decision making in the context of disaster prevention, preparedness and development policy and planning, and affirms its importance at the national, regional, bilateral, multilateral, and international levels. The Yokohama Strategy encourages the expansion of decision making to include all sectors of society, further encouraging self-reliance in vulnerable communities. This highlights the importance of cooperation in the Yokohama Strategy; it promotes an inclusive approach to disaster risk reduction, a departure from the traditional top-down response model to one which encourages and promotes preparedness and prevention.

The Hyogo Framework states that the decision making process must be gender inclusive, must integrate multi-risk assessments and cost–benefit analyses, and must be integrated with early warning systems. A gender perspective should be integrated into all disaster risk management policies, plans, and decision-making processes, including those related to risk assessment, early warning, information management, education, and training. Governments should establish institutional capacities which integrate early warning systems into governmental policy and decision-making processes and emergency management systems at both the national and the local levels. These should undergo regular testing and performance assessments. Also, governments must develop improved methods for predictive multi-risk assessments and socioeconomic cost–benefit analysis of risk reduction activity and incorporate these methods into their decision-making processes at regional, national, and local levels.

The Sendai Framework states that “disaster risk reduction requires a multi-hazard approach and inclusive risk-informed decision making based on the open exchange and dissemination of disaggregated data, which is complemented by traditional knowledge” (UNISDR, 2015, p. 13). Decision making is seen as a means of empowering local authorities and local communities to reduce disaster risk, although it does not state how community input and traditional knowledge will be incorporated in national decision making. The Sendai Framework further recognizes the role of the scientific and technical communities which will foster effective science-based decision making at the national level; this alludes to the importance that the Sendai Framework places on science, technology, and other forms of external expertise. Global and international decision making relies heavily on scientific methodologies and tools, and on partnerships with the scientific and technological community, academia, and the private sector. It stresses the need to clearly define decision-making roles and responsibilities within disaster risk management institutions and processes through relevant legal frameworks. This will also encourage parliamentarians to support the implementation of disaster risk reduction mechanisms in their own countries.

The Cluster System

The UN’s cluster system is another example of inter-agency collaboration in hazard management. The cluster system is a working group or platform (cluster) established to improve coordination across a number of otherwise loosely connected areas, including water and sanitation, nutrition, health, emergency shelter, logistics, emergency telecommunications, camp coordination, early recovery and protection, education, and food. The cluster system was introduced in 2005 as part of the humanitarian reform agenda, and it was rolled out later in the same year following the earthquakes in Pakistan and Kashmir. Recently, it has been used in more than 30 countries to deliver humanitarian assistance.

The cluster system is activated when existing coordination mechanisms are unable to deliver efficient relief in a humanitarian crisis (IASC, 2015, pp. 7–8). The cluster approach is not the only humanitarian coordination solution however, and it can operate in conjunction with other national and international forms of coordination. The activation of the cluster system is not automatic but driven by the need to avoid wasting resources and impeding the actions of local governments.

The creation of the cluster system was based on the institutional developments that were implemented by the UN in the early 1990s with the foundation of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee and the Emergency Relief Coordinator. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee and Emergency Relief Coordinator subsequently took the initiative to reform the international humanitarian coordination system in order to address gaps in the response to multi-hazards and other humanitarian events; in particular to improve the speed and effectiveness of the response as well as the prevention of future events. The reform aimed at three key areas to improve disaster relief: (1) identification of a lead agency that would provide effective leadership and act as the central coordinator as well as the agency of last resort; (2) achieving quicker response times through the Central Emergency Response Fund (established in 2006); and (3) strengthening the role and capacity of Humanitarian Coordinators. These reforms should ensure that international responses to humanitarian emergencies are predictable and accountable and have clear leadership by making clearer the division of labour between organizations, and their roles and responsibilities in different areas (UN-Business Action Hub, 2019).

The cluster approach’s objectives can be summarized as follows: (1) to increase transparency and accountability; (2) to enhance the predictability of future events; (3) to speed up the resolution of issues; (4) to include affected communities and increase advocacy; and (5) to provide joint strategic and operational planning, thus enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of the response (UNCHR, 2015a, p. 3).

Structure and Decision Making of the Cluster System

The central node of the cluster system is the Emergency Relief Coordinator, who leads the Inter-Agency Standing Committee.6 This post is held by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs who oversees all complex emergencies that are in the need of UN humanitarian assistance. The Emergency Relief Coordinator may appoint a regional representative in the form of a Humanitarian Coordinator. The Humanitarian Coordinator reports to the Emergency Relief Coordinator as to whether an international response is warranted and ensures that it is effectively organized and executed. The Humanitarian and Emergency Relief Coordinators decide, in support of the host government, which clusters (there can be a few or many) need to be established and which organizations will lead them. Clusters are typically represented by the country head of the Cluster Lead Agency; for instance, the UNHCR representative will be in charge of the shelter cluster, and the UNICEF representative will be in charge of the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) cluster and, the World Food Programme (WFP) will be in charge of the logistics cluster to facilitate joint ventures (both global and field level), ensure system-wide preparedness and technical capacity to respond to humanitarian emergencies (White, 2015).

The clusters themselves consist of humanitarian organizations, both UN and non-UN, that relate to key areas of humanitarian action, for instance, water and sanitation, nutrition, health, emergency shelter etc. The Humanitarian Coordinator manages the response through all clusters with the assistance of his or her Humanitarian Country Team. This team includes members of the UN, International Organization for Migration (IOM), NGOs and other organizations with an observer status. These clusters will have focal points that are designated as Cluster Lead Agencies. The latter operate at two distinct levels: globally and locally. Various organizations have taken on the role of Cluster Lead Agency (examples include the WHO on health, World Food Programme on logistics and UNHCR on protection). For instance, all humanitarian organizations with expertise and capacity in water and sanitation are expected to participate in the WASH cluster, led by UNICEF. All these organizations must have the capacity to deploy staff quickly when a disaster has occurred. The decision on how many clusters are required, who can be involved and who should lead needs to be driven by an analysis of the situation and the overall response plan.

Depending on the disaster risk context, which is assessed based on five criteria (scale, urgency, complexity, national capacity, and reputational risk) (UNHCR, 2015a, pp. 1–2), these clusters may exist in diverse forms: they may take formally activated forms that have a Humanitarian Coordinator and are based in high-risk regions; the cluster may not be formally activated, but sectorial mechanisms (in the form of local committees, working groups and governmental agencies) may monitor local circumstances; a cluster may not exist in regions with either a low risk or where there is a strong governmental sector that can ensure appropriate management. The third case in this list implies that the activation of clusters depends on the identification of a gap. Clusters are not activated automatically but only in circumstances in which local capacities are overwhelmed. For instance, the Fukushima catastrophe did not lead to such an activation, because support systems in Japan that managed the humanitarian dimensions of the crisis could cope with the immediate situation. While a cluster is activated only when national support structures are overwhelmed, that does not mean that clusters are not involved in long-term planning for preparedness for emergencies. The lead agencies have particular responsibilities to monitor the humanitarian system in a country and determine whether it is well equipped to respond to a crisis. This monitoring includes hazard identification, response plans and subsequent actions.

Cluster Management, Communication, and Coordination

The managerial approach of cluster coordination relies on an understanding that communication needs to work both ways. This is because the scale and complexity of disasters vary and the management group of a cluster must be able to adapt to the situation and change depending on the evolution of its response. A one-way, purely top-down approach needs to be avoided. It is therefore crucial that the Cluster Lead, Cluster Coordinator and other organizations find meaningful participation. Good coordination is needs-based, not capacity-driven. It establishes a coherent and complementary approach that identifies ways to work together for better collective results (Humanitarian Response, 2019a).

To ensure a two-way flow of communication it is important that the various partners are able to balance consultation with leadership. Decisions need to be legitimized through communicative exchange with partner agencies and organizations. This might involve the formation of sub-clusters, such as small Steering Committees or Strategic Advisory Groups, which provide expertise and advice as well as ensuring a two-way flow of communication. These sub-clusters are formed based on professional experience with emergencies, technical knowledge, capacity for practical support, and consistent commitment. They may include organizations such as the Red Cross, the International Engineering Alliance (IEA), and the International Emergency Management Organization (IEMO). As such, the leadership is not owned at the “top” but is distributed across the participating organizations, both globally and locally. Such an approach spreads accountability for the delivery of services (health, shelter, etc.) across the participating actors and, as a result, no single agency is accountable for the entire response, and all own the effort. This shared leadership not only ensures a two-way flow of communication but has also produced better engagement and coordination (UNHCR, 2015b, p. 6).

To illustrate this point, a common understanding (instead of an applied assessment from the outside) can develop in a two-way scenario, enabling the various partners to negotiate and define their roles, thereby avoiding the duplication of emergency efforts. Likewise, the lead agencies have a reciprocal responsibility not simply to distribute information but to provide an inter-cluster coordination platform or forum that aims to meet the affected people’s needs and supports other levels of the strategic response. The inter-cluster coordination platform provides a critical link between the Humanitarian Coordinator, his or her Humanitarian Country Team, and other clusters, such as health, logistics, and protection. These activities will include shared meetings and the sharing of information. Maintaining such efficient communication can be problematic in situations where large numbers of NGOs pursue their own agendas but also possess well-trained and experienced personnel who can facilitate the communication process with the clusters. Nevertheless, based on such an exchange, synergies of roles as well as responsibilities between the various clusters are encouraged and more clearly defined. Therefore, inter-cluster coordination is a key factor in facilitating the development of the Humanitarian Response Plan and assures a coherent and coordinated approach to planning and operationalizing the shared strategic objectives (Humanitarian Response, 2019b).

To ensure that this vital communication and coordination structure works well, the clusters need to monitor their activities via self-assessment through Cluster Coordination Performance Monitoring. This self-assessment should be completed by all clusters three to six months after the onset of an emergency and annually thereafter. This self-assessment scheme is based on six core cluster functions:(1) supporting service delivery; (2) informing the Humanitarian Coordinator’s strategic decision making through the identification and assessment of gaps; (3) formulating priorities; (4) reporting on activities, needs, and recommended corrective measures; (5 building national preparedness; and (6) supporting robust advocacy through proper communication management and follow-up action. A performance review is conducted based on an analysis of these functions and of the cluster’s “fitness for purpose” within a humanitarian crisis context.

Reviews are an important part of supporting the deactivation, transfer and creation of new clusters. Deactivation may be trigged when the reviews provide evidence that the humanitarian situation has improved, leading to the transfer of core cluster functions. The reviews may not only lead to deactivation or scaling down but could also suggest the creation of a new cluster to deal with the after-effects of an emergency.

Conclusion and a Way Forward

Inter-agency collaboration in hazard management is a complex system. We have demonstrated this by reviewing the UN’s three successive frameworks and the cluster system through the components of cooperation, communication, and effective decision making between actors and organizations. The three frameworks have been global blueprints for promoting inter-agency collaboration in hazard management. At a national level however, the way that actors coordinate and cooperate, and what is coordinated, cooperated, and communicated are all aspects that require further investigation. An evidence-based case study or multiple case study approach would reveal the extent to which the Sendai Framework is being put into practice by national governments.

We recommend that the UN’s Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) establish an implementation unit to monitor inter-agency collaboration arising from the Sendai Framework. The implementation unit, in collaboration with the Country and Regional Offices of UNDRR could continue to motivate national governments to prioritize disaster risk management. Disaster risk management is one of many developmental objectives that governments and responders pursue. Therefore, in order to prioritize inter-agency collaboration for disaster-resilient sustainable development, it is important that an implementation unit is able to sustain the motivation of national governments. This is because coordination, collaboration and communication failures can exacerbate the impact of natural hazards (Ray-Bennett, 2018a, b).

The cluster system, on the other hand, has proven effective in responding to disasters, for instance during the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 (Kirsch, Sauer, & Guha Sapir, 2012). The system is not without its faults however. In Haiti, it was constrained by funding (IASC, 2010; Rencoret et al., 2010). It was also hampered by parallel coordinating frameworks (Binder & Grünewald, 2010), a delay in implementing the cluster approach, and use of the English language in meetings instead of local languages (Kattoulas, 2019). Inter-agency collaboration that is context-specific, respectful of national governments and actors, mindful of national and local challenges, and is able to overcome the challenges of a disaster is important now more than ever.


We would like to thank research administrator Miriam Kaundert for conducting a systematic literature search for this article, Mr Bede Wilson for proofreading the article, and, in advance to the reviewers for reviewing this article.


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(1.) The World Risk Index is the product of the multiplication of exposure and vulnerability. Vulnerability includes coping and adaption capacities as well as susceptibility (Mucke et al., 2017, p. 9). The World Risk Index helps in understanding: (1) the probability of events and their impact on humans; (2) the vulnerability of a particular national population; (3) the possible degree of coping with an event; and (4) measures of disaster preparedness of a particular society (Mucke et al., 2017)

(2.) The term “developed countries” lacks an agreed, official definition. According to the UN Statistics Division (2003) “there is no established convention for the designation of ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries or areas in the UN system. In common practice, the following countries/ areas are regarded as “developed”: Japan in Asia, Canada and the United States in Northern America, Australia and New Zealand in Oceania, and Europe.

(3.) This office has since been renamed the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR).

(4.) The Sendai Framework for Action defines hazard as “A potentially damaging physical event, phenomenon [. . .] that may cause the loss of life or injury, property damage [. . .]” (UNISDR, 2015, pp. 3, 25).

(5.) Global warming and climate change are not interchangeable terms. Global warming refers to “the long-term heating of Earth’s climate system observed since the pre-industrial period (between 1850 and 1900) due to human activities, primarily fossil fuel burning, which increases heat-trapping greenhouse gas levels in Earth’s atmosphere. The term is frequently used interchangeably with the term climate change, though the latter refers to both human- and naturally produced warming and the effects it has on our planet. It is most commonly measured as the average increase in Earth’s global surface temperature.

Since the pre-industrial period, human activities are estimated to have increased Earth’s global average temperature by about 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), a number that is currently increasing by 0.2 degrees Celsius (0.36 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade. Most of the current warming trend is extremely likely (greater than 95 percent probability) the result of human activity since the 1950s and is proceeding at an unprecedented rate over decades to millennia.” (NASA, undated) Whereas climate change refers to a long-term change in the average weather patterns that have come to define Earth’s local, regional and global climates. These changes have a broad range of observed effects that are synonymous with the term.

Changes observed in Earth’s climate since the early 20th century are primarily driven by human activities, particularly fossil fuel burning, which increases heat-trapping greenhouse gas levels in Earth’s atmosphere, raising Earth’s average surface temperature. These human-produced temperature increases are commonly referred to as global warming. Natural processes can also contribute to climate change, including internal variability (e.g., cyclical ocean patterns like El Niño, La Niña and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation) and external forcings (e.g., volcanic activity, changes in the Sun’s energy output, variations in Earth’s orbit). (NASA, undated).

(6.) The Inter-Agency Standing Committee is an inter-agency forum for coordination, policy development and decision making on humanitarian assistance and includes key UN and non-UN humanitarian partners.