Organising staff transport onto a Malaysian military aircraft Organising staff transport onto a Malaysian military aircraft Photo credit: © John Tipper/Mercy
Engaging with clusters: empowering and learning from local organisations
by John Tipper January 2015

Shortly after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in November 2013, I was employed as an advisor by a long-standing national NGO based in Cebu city, which in turn worked with a number of community-based organisations in Cebu Island, Bohol Island and the wider Tacloban region. The NGO, which went on to receive close to $1 million in funding for relief activities, wanted professional guidance to ensure that it was applying good principles in its work in the food, non-food, shelter and health sectors. This article is based on observations of the experiences of these local organisations as they attempted to engage with various clusters.

A number of positives can be taken from the NGO’s experience of interacting with the cluster system. Initial online submissions of data to cluster coordinators received prompt and helpful responses, with good guidance for further submissions. The UN flight system UNHAS was used by the NGO and its partners on over 40 occasions, greatly increasing the time available on the ground to work on projects. In the weeks and months following Haiyan the Shelter cluster in particular has been a source of very useful and relevant information as the NGO works on reconstructing over 500 homes. These positive experiences notwithstanding, however, the cluster system in the Philippines largely failed to involve local civil society. This article highlights the multiple problems caused by this failure, and suggests a number of solutions.

Failure to engage with local actors

One of my first tasks as an advisor was to register the national NGO with relevant clusters. However, it was only thanks to my knowledge of the cluster system that engagement was possible – the NGO itself was unaware of this system of aid coordination, and there was scant evidence of clusters proactively engaging non-cluster actors. In one example, in the immediate aftermath of Haiyan a local businessman in Cebu city donated large quantities of foodstuffs to a sizeable inner-city church, for distribution in villages in Northern Cebu. The congregation included a number of truck owners and this, combined with voluntary labour, allowed for the distribution of over 17,000 food packs. Church members were unaware of the existence of the Food Security cluster; had they known about it, their relief efforts would probably not have been duplicated in the days following their distributions. In fact, two or sometimes three distributions were made to the same village by different agencies. Furthermore, the church’s resources, including trucks, drivers and interpreters, could have been made available to newly-arrived international NGOs as the church’s distributions were scaled down.

In addition to engaging with the Food Security and Shelter clusters and the Child Protection working group, I advised the local NGO I was working with to attend Logistics cluster meetings. In later discussions, the Filipina director of the NGO admitted to being intimidated by the meeting environment. As an experienced manager with years of international exposure, she was not daunted by foreign styles of meeting. What was offputting was the overwhelming number of international workers (only one other Filipino in a room of approximately 30 people), the jargon and acronyms being used and the brusque ‘you’re assumed to know what we’re referring to’ style of interaction between the meeting participants. While the director and her colleagues arguably possessed much greater knowledge of the operating environment in the Philippines than almost every newly arrived foreigner in the room, they ended up feeling like ‘poor relations’ (their description). They did not have the agency T-shirts and caps, the VHF radios, the satellite phones and the other trappings of international NGO responders – at that point they did not even have agency ID cards. The overall impression they received from the Logistics cluster meeting – no doubt unintentionally – was that their knowledge was of limited value.

In subsequent operations on Leyte the local NGO enjoyed a considerable level of access to key resources. The senior military commander in Ormoc, a schoolfriend of a volunteer, providedtransportbetweenOrmocandTacloban;thedeputy mayor of Tacloban, a college friend, provided an in-depth description of needs in Tacloban based on reports from his staff and the wider community; and the local chaplain to the Filipino emergency services at Tacloban airport arranged access to Hercules flights between Tacloban and Cebu at a time when UNHAS capacity was stretched. The local NGO would have gladly extended the benefits of these local relationships to international counterparts if they had known the mechanisms for involving them.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the lack of coordination was that, although local community-based organisations were providing accurate information about remote areas where aid had not been received, this information was not being transmitted to the clusters. Had the appropriate cluster been informed, this information could have been disseminated to those members with the resources to help. One of the main criticisms levelled at the response to Haiyan has been that the majority of aid followed the main roads. This is understandable given that newly-arrived NGOs generally had little knowledge of the remoter parts of the affected islands. Several of these neglected areas were not geographically distant from the aid hub in Tacloban, yet went unserved due to lack of knowledge about them. This was only to be expected given the absence of local contacts, exacerbated by poor infrastructure and insecurity, but this information was held by some Tacloban community organisations and could have contributed both to the initial Multi-Agency Initial Rapid Assessment (MIRA) and to subsequent assessments. Again, however, these local organisations were unaware of the mechanisms for sharing the information they had.

The way forward

In the aftermath of Haiyan the clusters undoubtedly proved very useful in inter-agency coordination and resource sharing among UN agencies and international NGOs. However, to derive even more benefit from the cluster system adaptations are required to allow for the involvement of local actors, many of which are of significant size and have well-developed management and accountability structures – structures which are well-suited to interaction with inter-agency coordination mechanisms.

A significant goal in this process must be to develop a culture of inclusivity within the cluster approach which sees local actors as equally-contributing partners. The cluster system has made progress in bringing international NGOs onto a more level footing with UN agencies; now they need to advocate for the inclusion of local NGOs and community-based organisations in the cluster process.

The key issue here is preparedness. A number of steps need to be taken, beginning with identifying the areas of the world where a disaster is most likely to occur, and where local capacity indicates that a multi-agency international response would be one likely outcome of such a disaster. Subsequently, for each area identified, an assessment should be made of the UN agencies and international NGOs working in the area, requesting that they put forward a list of suggested local organisations that could play a local cluster liaison role. Those local organisations should be familiar with the humanitarian system and possess staff with considerable experience at a managerial level. While the personnel that they second to the clusters need not be natives of the affected area, fluency in the local language would be essential. Above all, they should be in regular touch with the wealth of other local agencies on the ground in their region. The need to identify and include local organisations could be built into the operating guidelines of clusters at a global level and incorporated in terms of reference by individual cluster groups working in an emergency.

This process could be undertaken through consultations between the UN and international NGOs and the local organisations they are in contact with. In the process of consulting to find suitable individuals, an information campaign can simultaneously be conducted informing local NGOs and CBOs of the cluster approach. The twin goals of such a consultation would be to identify suitably skilled cluster liaison personnel in advance and ensure that local organisations are aware of the role of coordination.

Another critical component of any future cluster acti-vation following a disaster must be a greatly improved information campaign notifying local organisations of the presence and purpose of cluster meetings in their area. This should be seen as being of equal priority as, for example, the creation of good-quality maps showing the locations of food distributions. Such maps are useful and play a major role in a response, but if the data which they contain is limited due to lack of input from locally active groups then their value is greatly diminished. Herein lies an example of the culture shift required, moving away from a top-down approach with maps based on data from very limited sources towards a ground-up approach that places a premium on data from a much wider range of sources.

The early engagement of local groups could also allow for the identification of important infrastructure before a crisis strikes, including offices where cluster meetings can be held and local accommodation, such as community halls. This would shift the focus of cluster meetings away from UN camps and expensive hotels to locations more accessible to local groups. There is also much that international NGOs in an area prone to disaster can do in advance to enhance the capacities of local groups to work effectively following a major catastrophe. In addition to advising local groups of the existence of the clusters and the benefits they can bring to a response, NGOs can raise awareness and provide training on issues that affect a local group’s ability to engage effectively with them, including education on humanitarian principles and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Code of Conduct. This is of particular importance for faith- based groups or organisations that receive significant amounts of local government funding, as many may naturally seek to work exclusively with counterparts that share their own religious or political viewpoint. Also of importance would be training local groups on issues including civil–military coordination, do no harm principles, Sphere standards and the value of timely information collection and dissemination.


Including local groups in the clusters in the initial days following Typhoon Haiyan would have resulted in information about existing needs and completed distributions by local groups being submitted earlier, and locally available assets such as vehicles, local accommodation and translators being made available to international NGOs quickly and at much less cost. This in turn would have greatly increased coverage and improved the efficiency and effectiveness of the response. It is hoped that the proposals outlined above will generate discussion on ways to ensure greater involvement of knowledgeable local groups in future emergencies.

John Tipper is Co-Director, Disaster Preparedness & Response, for the Swedish NGO Operation Mercy.