1.4.2 What the cluster system is

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 .