1.4 UN-led humanitarian coordination mechanisms

The primary coordination mechanisms for the international community in a large-scale emergency are led by the UN in partnership with NGOs, donors and host government authorities, and in accordance with systems set out by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). The Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is the key agency mandated to facilitate effective humanitarian coordination in an emergency.

To achieve more effective humanitarian responses, a global humanitarian reform process was launched in 2005. The objectives of this process are to enhance humanitarian response capacity, predictability, accountability and partnership. This is so that the humanitarian community can collectively reach more beneficiaries, with more comprehensive, needs-based relief and protection, in a more effective and timely manner.

Humanitarian reform has four main objectives:

  • sufficient humanitarian response capacity and enhanced leadership, accountability, and predictability in ‘gap’ sector/areas of response through the ‘cluster approach’
  • adequate, timely and flexible humanitarian financing
  • improved humanitarian coordination and leadership
  • more effective partnerships between UN and non-UN humanitarian actors.

While humanitarian coordination in emergency responses has always involved coordination mechanisms such as sector meetings and working groups, humanitarian mechanisms are now more formally defined under the ‘cluster approach’.

While a ‘sector’ refers to a specific area of humanitarian activity, a ‘cluster’ is defined as a group of organisations and other stakeholders who work together to address the needs where response gaps appear. Clusters are also usually organised around particular sectors, but not exclusively (for example, shelter, logistics). The cluster approach operates at two levels:

  • country level-A cluster approach in the field aims to strengthen the humanitarian response by clarifying the division of labour among organisations, better defining the roles and responsibilities of humanitarian organisations within the sectors, and providing the UN Humanitarian Coordinator with both a first point of call and a provider of last resort in all the key sectors or areas of activity
  • global level-At the global level, the cluster approach aims to strengthen system-wide preparedness and technical capacity by ensuring that there is predictable leadership and accountability in all of the main sectors or areas of humanitarian response.

Clusters should ensure the following types of support are in place at the field level to strengthen the quality and timeliness of humanitarian response:

  • technical surge capacity
  • trained experts to lead cluster coordination at the field level
  • increased stockpiles, some pre-positioned within regions (for example, emergency shelter materials)
  • standardised technical tools, including for information management
  • agreement on common methods and formats for needs assessments, monitoring and benchmarking
  • best practices and lessons learned from field tests.

Clusters often provide a key means of accessing UN and donor funding, so participation is particularly important. The number of clusters and the level of activity can, however, also lead to meeting overload, so it is important to be strategic and well coordinated about cluster participation, and to allocated sufficient resources. For an analysis of key issues and challenges associated with clusters, see Chapter 9.3 Other key policy issues: humanitarian policy briefs .

Under the cluster system, a ‘cluster lead’ is appointed for each sector. The cluster lead is accountable to the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator to ensure system-wide preparedness and technical capacity to respond to humanitarian emergencies. This is achieved by effective inter-agency responses, including ensuring that effective coordination and partnership arrangements are established. Global cluster leads

Sector or area of activity Global cluster lead
Agriculture FAO
Camp coordination/management:

IDPs (from conflict)

Disaster situations




Early recovery UNDP
Education UNICEF, Save the Children-UK
Emergency shelter:

IDPs (from conflict)

Disaster situations



IFRC (Convener)

Emergency telecommunications OCHA/UNICEF/WFP
Health WHO
Logistics WFP
Nutrition UNICEF

IDPs (from conflict)

Disasters/civilians affected by conflict (other than IDPs)




Water, sanitation and hygiene UNICEF

The ‘provider of last resort’ concept is critical to the cluster approach. It represents the commitment of sector leads to do their utmost to ensure an adequate and appropriate response.

Where there are critical gaps in humanitarian responses, the sector leads should call on relevant humanitarian partners to address these gaps. If the partners are unsuccessful, the sector lead as ‘provider of last resort’ may be required to address the gap.

The work of the clusters at the field level involves a Strategic Advisory Group (SAG) and Technical Working Groups (TWIGs).

A SAG is comprised of cluster members and determines the overall strategic direction for cluster response to an emergency.

A TWIG is an ad hoc sub-group established from the cluster participants to work on key technical issues, such as formulating relevant technical standards, and promoting and monitoring compliance with sector standards.

The cluster approach aims to increase the active engagement of NGOs in coordination mechanisms, and to promote broader partnership between UN and NGO actors in broader partnership, beyond simply ‘implementing partner arrangements’. NGOs are able to take on cluster lead or coordination roles and to second staff to clusters. However, in practice, clusters are still perceived to be largely controlled by UN agencies.

The global humanitarian platform ‘principles of partnership’ have been established as part of the humanitarian reform process to try to enhance UN and NGO cooperation. These are:

  • equality
  • transparency
  • result-oriented approach
  • responsibility
  • complementarity.

For a full description of the principles see http://www.globalhumanitarianplatform.org/. Engagement in cluster coordination

It is important for CARE to engage as actively as possible in relevant cluster coordination mechanisms in the country to access (as well as offer) technical support, and have access to funding and other resources that may channel exclusively through the UN/cluster system.

There are three key UN funding mechanisms that apply in emergencies, although experience shows they are currently not necessarily easy for NGOs to access, and can be very slow:

  • CERF (Central Emergency Response Fund) is available to UN agencies to support humanitarian response. NGOs cannot access funding directly but can be engaged as implementing partners of the UN agencies receiving CERF funding.
  • ERF (Emergency Relief Funds) are funds made available to NGOs through OCHA to address critical gaps in humanitarian assistance. Management of ERFs varies from country to country.
  • Pooled/Common Humanitarian Funds (CHF) are funds given by donors that are not earmarked for any specific purpose, and can be used flexibly. Responsibility for allocating funds is given to the Humanitarian Coordinator. NGOs are eligible to receive CHF funds, although this is at the discretion of the Humanitarian Coordinator.

In addition to these funding mechanisms, the Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) is a joint planning mechanism that can be an important way to seek donor funding. CAP is a mechanism to present a broad collection of funding proposals to the donor community. The CAP is managed by OCHA and while most proposals included are for UN agencies, NGOs are often also included. Actual funding decisions are managed directly between the donor and the implementing agency.

Common humanitarian services are an important part of the overall humanitarian coordination system. These are UN agencies with mandates to provide support services to humanitarian organisations. The various responsibilities of these organisations are outlined in section 1.4.9.

Organisation Responsibilities
Humanitarian Information
Centre (HIC)
  • Ensure access to information management tools to assess, plan, implement and monitor humanitarian assistance.
  • Serve as a focal point for data collection, analysis and dissemination for humanitarian operations, including developing data standards.
United Nations Joint Logistics Centre (UNJLC)
  • Facilitate and support the coordination of logistics capabilities among cooperating humanitarian agencies.
  • Complement and support the global and field Logistics Clusters.
  • Provides logistics information management, mapping, customs, and commodity tracking tools and services.
United Nations Humanitarian Air Services
  • Charter aircraft for passenger and cargo operations on short notice for one-off operations or for extended service.
  • Provide a safe, economical, responsive and efficient air transport service for the benefit of all eligible humanitarian users.

During major emergencies, OCHA often convenes conference calls of the Emergency Directors’ Group, which consists of the global emergency directors, or equivalent, of all major operational UN agencies, major international NGOs (including CARE), and the Red Cross/Crescent movement. These conference calls are used for information sharing at global level, to ensure coordination between major operational agencies and discuss any major issues. On a regular basis, the Emergency Directors’ Group meets three times per year with a particular focus on emergency preparedness and early warning.