Al-Mazrak Camp for internally displaced people in Haradh, northern Yemen Al-Mazrak Camp for internally displaced people in Haradh, northern Yemen Photo credit: OCHA
Overcoming obstacles: Inter-Cluster Coordination in Yemen
by Leah Campbell April 2014

Inter-Cluster Coordination (ICC) requires clusters to work together to identify and reduce gaps and duplication, establish joint priorities and address cross-cutting issues in order to improve humanitarian response.+Adapted from pg 29, IASC, Reference Module for Cluster Coordination at the Country Level – Draft Revision, June 2013, September 2013, http://www.unicef.org/videoaudio/PDFs/Cluster_Coordination_Reference_Module_II_rev_1_14june2013.docx. Information sharing is a first step, but ICC groups can also establish joint assessments and indicators, align training opportunities, set priorities, make recommendations to Humanitarian Country Teams (HCTs) and develop proposals for the Central Emergency Response Fund and other funding pools and engage in other activities. In a recent evaluation of global cluster performance, ICC was judged to be ‘ineffective in most cases and there is little integration of cross-cutting issues’.+Pg 10 Groupe URD & GPPI, Cluster Approach Evaluation 2: Synthesis Report, April 2010, http://www.gppi.net/fileadmin/gppi/GPPi-URD_Cluster_II_Evaluation_SYNTHESIS_REPORT_e.pdf. Coordination mechanisms were criticised for focusing too much on sharing information instead of coordinating strategic actions and reducing duplication and gaps in humanitarian response.+Ibid.

This article examines the structure and functions of the ICC Mechanism in Yemen. The cluster system was activated in Yemen in 2009, and currently ten clusters and two sub-clusters – on Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) and Child Protection – are active. These clusters, as well as a representative from the INGO Forum, meet monthly in a national ICC Mechanism. Mechanisms have also been established in four coordination hubs (Sa’ada, Haradh, Al-Hudaydah/Raymah and Aden). Early experiences were difficult, as a series of short postings and inadequate resources meant that little progress was made and it took some time to get ICC off the ground, even after the appointment of a dedicated ICC Coordinator in January 2013. Terms of reference and an organisation chart now exist for the ICC group, which set out the structure and remit of inter-cluster coordination in Yemen.

The functions of the ICC Mechanism

The ICC group in Yemen is both a forum for decision-making and a place where common issues and coordinated solutions can be identified. Regular monthly meetings have built trust and developed working relationships and have increased joint programming opportunities between Cluster Coordinators (CCs). The monthly meetings typically combine information sharing, updates on continuous processes such as the Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) and Common Needs Assessment Platform (CNAP) and discussions around emerging issues and potential for collaboration. These areas often overlap. For example, information sharing following conflict in Dammaj at the end of 2013 led to the ‘life-saving’ clusters (Health, WASH, Food, Nutrition, Camp Coordination/Camp Management and Protection) arranging to meet and establish a coordinated response plan, to be shared for reference with the rest of the ICC Mechanism.

The ICC group also identifies cross-cutting issues and gaps and overlaps. Following a discussion of the mid-year review of the HRP in the group, a meeting was set up between the Protection and Early Recovery Clusters and the Mines Working Group to establish a common method of recording mine injuries. When the Early Recovery Cluster developed a new strategy, it was brought to the ICC Mechanism for comment. Involving other clusters clarified that the ER strategy would deal exclusively with areas not covered by other clusters, such as local governance, NGO capacity-building and non-agricultural livelihoods. Cluster Coordinators have also used the ICC meetings to discuss cross-cutting issues, such as the neutrality of partner organisations and contingency planning processes.

Access is a major challenge to the humanitarian response in Yemen. It also makes it especially important to work together, conducting joint needs assessments where possible and harmonising assessment tools to ensure that data can be easily shared. Through the ICC Mechanism, Cluster Coordinators gave input at the planning stage of the CNAP, and each cluster appointed a representative to participate in an Assessment Task Force. A pilot Multi-Sector Initial Rapid Assessment (MIRA) was conducted as a joint needs assessment in mid-2013, and several have been carried out since. The Assessment Task Force worked as a sub-group of the ICC Mechanism to establish and agree on common indicators. A database is now being created to hold information, led by REACH.+See http://www.reach-initiative.org. While the CNAP process has taken longer than expected due to funding constraints, a beta version of the platform is expected to be available in June 2014 and there are plans to develop guidelines and a standardised methodology for needs assessments. In the meantime, the ICC group continues to share information and plan joint needs assessments where possible, including most recently in Amran. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Yemen is also trying to develop common systems for situation reporting and contingency planning.

Challenges

The security environment in Yemen is perhaps the most significant challenge to Inter-Cluster Coordination. It often prevents meetings from being held, even when Cluster Coordinators are all in the same city. However, the ICC Mechanism has adapted by conducting meetings by phone or moving location. The group takes the attitude that, although meetings may be postponed, the security context only reinforces the importance of ICC. If meetings are necessary, the group will adopt whatever measures are necessary to ensure that they happen. This does mean accepting that processes are likely to take longer than they would in other contexts. ICC involves more than meetings, and though these may be disrupted work on needs assessment, strategic planning and response activities continues. Cluster Coordinators may be in contact bilaterally and outside of the capital even if national coordination activities are postponed.

The ICC Coordinator in Yemen was evacuated in December 2013 following a security threat. This had an impact on the quality of discussions within the ICC Mechanism. The Coordinator had developed a good rapport and trust with Cluster Coordinators, and this was cut off without notice. Although it took several months to recruit a replacement, a new Head of Coordination is now in post at OCHA Yemen.

There are also capacity issues around both human and financial resources. Frequent turnover of OCHA staff and Cluster Coordinators has made it difficult to build trusting relationships and enhance coordination. OCHA’s Coordination Department has no national staff, making access problematic given the restrictions on where international staff can safely go. OCHA recognises the importance of staff stability, and is trying to ensure that all posts are filled. However, recruiting international staff for medium- or long-term placements is difficult.

Funding remains a challenge, both for coordination systems and clusters. Lack of funding delayed the CNAP process and places heavy demands on a small number of staff working in a challenging context with multiple competing priorities. Funding constraints make it harder for clusters, and the ICC Mechanism, to prioritise needs and projects.

The shift towards improved coordination has taken more time to reach all levels of response, and sub-national cluster coordination has lacked focus and clear objectives. There is a lack of understanding of the role of Cluster Coordinators and lines of accountability, as well as high turnover. Given the difficulties of access in Yemen, sub-national coordination is vital. There has been an effort to streamline sub-national coordination by creating Area Humanitarian Coordination Teams (AHCTs). As at the national level with the HCT, the AHCTs deal with operational and strategic decisions and provide direction to the response, while sub-national Cluster Coordinators focus on more technical coordination mechanisms. Important progress has been made in south Yemen, where an INGO Forum has worked with clusters to identify ‘alternate’ Cluster Coordinators at the sub-national level, which means that coordination is not disrupted if a Cluster Coordinator is unavailable to participate in a coordination meeting or activity.

While ICC has been increasing in Yemen, some Cluster Coordinators believe that there are still gaps. An initial period of weak coordination has created scepticism and a fear that progress could quickly dissipate, and recent disruption within OCHA, with unstable management and changes in key staff, means that it is difficult to know what Inter-Cluster Coordination in Yemen will look like in the future. The ICC mechanism was chaired at first by the ICC Coordinator, who had a close relationship with the Cluster Coordinators, but found it difficult to integrate ICC Mechanism discussions and activities into HCT decision-making. In May 2013, a new Deputy Head joined OCHA and took over as chair of the ICC Mechanism in an effort to better link it with the HCT. However, this created confusion about responsibilities within the OCHA coordination team, and efforts to better integrate the ICC Mechanism and HCT are ongoing.

Lessons

Several lessons can be gleaned from the experiences of ICC in Yemen. Firstly, ICC provides a clear and cohesive structure, facilitating communication between clusters and the HCT as well as other actors. It should be prioritised as a core working practice. Secondly, the role of the ICC group in funding and planning processes must be embedded in country-level planning structures. While decisions about the prioritisation of needs made in the ICC group can reduce the burden on HCTs, the outcomes of such decisions must be followed up. Thirdly, regular meetings, when not used as just an information-sharing platform, are worth the time involved for Cluster Coordinators, particularly when they are complemented by strong communication links for those unable to attend every meeting.+Of those interviewed, none wanted less frequent meetings and most wanted more. Fourthly, while ICC is most effective when all participate, not all clusters will have the same capacity to respond. This does not mean that they should be excluded from inter-cluster activities. Instead, efforts should be made to keep them informed and involved. ICC works best when all clusters are kept informed and involved to the extent feasible. Lastly, the importance of consistency and stability cannot be understated. ICC is near-impossible when Cluster Coordinators are constantly changing. Over time, the ICC group can be used to create continuity when Coordinators do change.

Conclusion

In the coming months the Yemen ICC Mechanism will work on this year’s HRP, piloting the CNAP and conducting Cluster Performance Monitoring. There are plans for more training to increase the capacity of Cluster Coordinators, coordinated situation reports and contingency planning. More work is needed to understand how OCHA Yemen can best support the ICC Mechanism, including who does what and seeing that sufficient capacity is available. Cluster Coordinators in Yemen rely on OCHA for guidance and to set standards for coordination. Given the additional challenges of recruiting and ensuring the safety of international staff, incorporating national staff into the OCHA Coordination team is recommended. While a challenge, ensuring continuity in an environment when rapid change can be the norm is key to effective coordination, particularly as efforts continue to develop ICC processes both nationally and sub-nationally.

Leah Campbell works at ALNAP, where she focuses on urban and other complex environments. Her research on ICC in Yemen is part of ALNAP’s on-going work on operational leadership, including effective inter-agency decision-making.

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