Thursday, January 8, 2015

Disaster Management: The Cluster System Approach

What is the cluster system approach?

That is exactly what I typed into the search engine on my computer.  After a full week of face-to-face lectures and (what I felt were) plenty of readings, I still could not put together a concrete answer to that question on my own.  I found the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs (OCHA) diagrams that were provided to us in our resource list to be very well put together and while they did provide me with a sense of what the cluster system is about, I was left wanting a more thorough explanation.  So, naturally I turned to my favourite search engine: Google.

As was to be expected, my Internet search brought up the two OCHA diagrams that I referred to earlier and have included below.  However, it also brought me to the Humanitarian Response website (provided by OCHA), which had a plethora of information to help answer my question.

Cluster Approach

(Humanitarian Response n.d.a)

Key Actors
(OCHA n.d., pp. 2)

Side note: there is one thing that bothers me about the diagrams, particularly the second one (Key Actors), and that is the fact that the contributions of the affected populations to their own response and recovery are not represented.  From what I have learned during this course is that affected populations are also encouraged to help themselves whenever and however possible so that they are involved in the process and feel useful rather than helpless.

So what did I learn about the cluster system approach?

In short, the cluster system is a network of organisations that come together to mobilise a well-rounded response in the event of a disaster, provided that assistance has been requested and/or permission has been granted (Dunham 2014; Humanitarian Response n.d.c).  The members of the Global Health Cluster (GHC) include major players in the humanitarian aid sectors as well as some of the smaller ones.

Partners in the GHC (UN actors in bold):

FAO, UNFPA, UNHCR, UNICEF, African Humanitarian Action, American Refugee Comm, CARE, Catholic Relief Service, Center for Disease Control, Columbia, Concern Worldwide, ECHO, Handicap Intl, Harvard, Help Age Intl, IFRC, ICMH, Intl Council of Nurses, Intl Medical Corps, Johns Hopkins, M√©decins du Monde, Merlin, OFDA, Save the Children, US/UK, Terre des Hommes, WADEM, Women’s Commission, World Vision International


ICRC, Interaction, MSF and the Sphere Project

(WHO cited in Dunham 2014, pp. 54)

Each of the contributing partners brings their own knowledge, experience and capabilities in at least one of the key sector of emergency response.   These include:

  • Health
  • Protection
  • Agriculture
  • Emergency Telecommunication
  • Camp Management & Coordination
  • Emergency Shelter
  • Emergency Telecommunication
  • Sanitation, Water and Hygiene
  • Nutrition
  • Logistics
  • Education
  • Early Recovery

(Humanitarian Response, n.d.a)

The approach itself involves the coordination and allocation of activities between the organisations based on their particular fields of interest and expertise (Dunham 2014; Humanitarian Response, n.d.a).  It also involves having the response systems and the roles and responsibilities of various agencies in place ahead of time, before a disaster hits to facilitate timely action (Dunham 2014).  The first OCHA diagram in this post (Cluster Approach) indicates which organisations can be expected to take the lead in each sector, which I found to be very helpful in picturing a response scenario.  The GHC is led by the World Health Organization (WHO), while the approach is led by Humanitarian and Emergency Relief Coordinator(s) to whom the WHO is accountable (Dunham 2014).

The Emergency Relief Coordinator or ECR is responsible for overseeing emergencies requiring humanitarian assistance from the UN (Humanitarian Response, n.d.b).  The ECR may appoint a Humanitarian Coordinator or HC in the country impacted by disaster that will determine whether an international response is required and if so, will ensure the appropriate the response activities are organised accordingly (Humanitarian Response, n.d.b).  The HC is also responsible for establishing and leading the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT), a forum including representatives from the Cluster lead agencies.  This forum is tasked with strategic and operational decision-making and supervision (Humanitarian Response, n.d.b).

The GHC strives to support, contribute to and operate in conjunction with the national coordination mechanisms that are already in place (Dunham 2014).  In fact, it aims to include the national health players in co-leading the response whenever and in whatever way possible (Dunham 2014).

The functions of the GHC at the country level outlined in our Study Guide are (more or less) to:

  1. Coordinate processes and inclusion of key actors in Cluster forums
  2. Foster relationships with other important stakeholders
  3. Assess, analyse and monitor the situation and response to identify gaps in assistance
  4. Strategise and fill gaps
  5. Put together contingency plans
  6. Set standards
  7. Train and build local capacity for emergency response
  8. Perform surveillance and reporting activities
  9. Advocate for, collect, prepare and deploy resources
  10. Act as the provider of last resort

(Dunham 2014)

Number 10 (provider of last resort), is always a difficult one for me.  I would not expect that any country would want to get to the point where they are looking at their last resort and the GHC system has so many key players in it with so many resources, that it hardly seems worthy of the term.  I would certainly not look at it as “scraping the bottom of the barrel”.  However, I do understand that the principle is to only activate the GHC response when there is no other option.  I presume the goal is to wait and see if the country itself can mount an adequate response without external involvement in an effort to preserve autonomy and independence.  However, waiting until the situation becomes dire likely means that there will be a considerably more serious problem to deal with and more resources will be required.

The Humanitarian Response website provides specific key points as to why the Cluster system approach is beneficial and I honestly cannot agree more.

First, there is the point of increased transparency and accountability (Humanitarian Response, n.d.c).  From my experience, people behave better when other people are watching them and when they have to answer to others for their actions.  Aid organisations are trusted with a great deal of money, resources and leeway when it comes to entering a country and providing assistance.  They are also not immune to corruption and potentially harmful behaviour.  However, working alongside other organisations helps to minimise the risk of inefficient and potentially harmful activities.

The second reason is enhanced predictability (Humanitarian Response, n.d.c).   Knowing exactly which organisations are supposed to do what and in what time frame would save a lot of time trying to sort that out during an actual disaster when time is of the essence (Humanitarian Response, n.d.c).  It also means that organisations know what is to be expected of them and their fellow Cluster members so they can properly prepare.

Thirdly, having one point of contact within the humanitarian aid system facilitates engagement with national and local authorities and therefore the entire response process (Humanitarian Response, n.d.c).

The fourth beneficial aspect of the Cluster approach is the inclusion of the affected communities, which helps to ensure that the response proceeds with the guidance and acceptance of local people and authorities (Humanitarian Response, n.d.c).  A response that is well informed by the needs and wants of the local population maximises the likelihood that the solutions will be appropriate and effective.

The fifth advantage of the GHC is more effective advocacy.  The Cluster provides a scenario in which organisations can advocate together, which helps to give their concerns more credence and importance to donors (Humanitarian Response, n.d.c).  It also helps narrow the focus of donors to giving to one body instead of having to choose between several different organisations, which could dilute the resources available.  This way, all of the funds are pooled together and allocated to different sectors based on need.

Lastly, the system utilises joint strategic and operational planning when it comes to organising activities between and within agencies and clusters to maximise productivity and proficiency (Humanitarian Response, n.d.c).

The Cluster system seems like a very practical and logical approach to me.  I am a strong supporter of multidisciplinary and holistic approaches to health care and this course has illustrated that the same is undeniably true for disaster management.  After all, it is not exactly helpful to set someone’s broken leg if they are just going to die of dehydration or malnutrition.   I think that coordinating the response activities in all major sectors from one point of origin just makes sense to help everything run smoothly.  It is also one of the best ways to minimise the likelihood of gaps and prevent duplicating efforts, which could result in an unnecessary surplus of resources.  Finally, I was pleased to see that logistics was included as a key sector all on its own since getting the right resources in the right amount to the right place at the right time is highly important, but can be quite complicated.


Dunham J 2014, Health Aspects of Disaster, Course study guide, University of Queensland, Brisbane.

Humanitarian Response n.d.a, What is the Cluster Approach?, viewed 3 January 2015, <>

Humanitarian Response n.d.b, Who does what?, viewed 3 January 2015, < >

Humanitarian Response n.d.c, Why do we need the Cluster Approach?, viewed 3 January 2015, <>

OCHA n.d., How are disaster relief efforts organized? – Cluster Approach and Key Actors, viewed 3 January 2015, <>.


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