Issue 45 - Article 9

Changing the way we lead: how changes in attitude and behaviour in Cluster Coordinators support humanitarian reform

December 14, 2009
Richard Luff, UNICEF

Effective leadership is mentioned in two of the three pillars of the Humanitarian Reform process, yet leadership issues have received least attention from the Global Cluster Leads (GCLs) and OCHA as they seek to build coordination capacity. This article seeks to illustrate how Cluster Coordinators, along with Humanitarian Coordinators, should lead change through demonstrating the right attitude and behaviour. However, there is clearly a need to value and support such behaviour change to ensure that it is sustained in a systematic and widespread way, otherwise leadership will remain ad hoc and personality-driven.

 Managing ‘the brand’

Humanitarian programme staff have to manage an inherent tension created by competition amongst agencies, which sometimes sits uncomfortably alongside an acknowledged need to work together. Organisations work hard to raise their profile, using T-shirts, flags and relief items bedecked with organisational logos, which forges the brand. However, if a Cluster Coordinator cannot shed their own lead agency brand, they will lose the trust of the cluster agencies faster than you can say ‘humanitarian reform’.

 Humanitarian reform demands that Cluster Coordinators act on behalf of the whole cluster’s interests, and are seen as honest brokers, thus working on behalf of the ‘collective’. Cluster Lead Agencies (CLAs), overwhelmingly from the UN and seldom direct implementers of programmes, must have the humility to ensure that others’ work is fully credited. Cluster Coordinators must vigorously maintain this, and if required must challenge the practices of lead agencies where these emphasise the organisational brand at the expense of the work of the cluster members.


UN funding mechanisms: perspective and objectivity

Cluster guidance notes and training emphasise the role that Cluster Coordinators should play in prioritising allocations from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). UN lead agencies invariably require Cluster Coordinator input into their own funding mechanisms. However, Cluster coordinators need to recognise that UN funds are part of a more complex structure and may only be a small component of a bigger funding picture. A Cluster Coordinator must dedicate time and have the skills to encourage sharing of closely controlled financial information to build a total picture of the funds raised and requested, through NGOs and the Red Cross/Crescent movement as well as from UN-led appeals/funds. This enables a Cluster Coordinator to identify critical funding gaps and then ask the CLA to direct funds from UN-led mechanisms to address them. In Bangladesh during the first few weeks of the cyclone response in 2007, for instance, UNICEF, as WASH (water/sanitation/hygiene) CLA, directed funds to fill gaps rather than acting as the centre of the response.[1]

 Focusing on UN-led funding mechanisms, the role of the Cluster Coordinator is to ensure that allocation decisions are clearly prioritised and objective, in line with the Cluster’s strategy. There must be clear criteria, consistent with the agreed strategy, transparently shared and robustly applied, with allocation decisions taken by a group including non-UN agencies. The highest standards of integrity must be demonstrated by the Cluster Coordinator, otherwise trust in money matters will be lost, especially where decisions are hidden. Both the Afghanistan and Pakistan WASH clusters have formed strategic advisory groups to discuss and set out strategy, project selection criteria and the mechanisms for agreeing which projects will be funded.[2]


The language of exclusion and confusion

The cluster approach evaluation noted that ‘no significant (partnership) gains were seen for local NGO participants. Overall this is an area of significant weakness’.[3] A key factor here is the challenge smaller national NGOs face in communicating with the higher levels of the coordination system, and vice-versa. Language is an obvious barrier, but it is the more complex structural aspects of how we work and communicate that are seldom addressed. As internet usage and e-mail connectivity increase, we take it for granted that ever-larger chunks of data can be easily shared and digested. Cluster Coordinators have to understand what has to be communicated, and more importantly whether the audience, particularly smaller national NGOs, will be able to access information that meets their needs.


Over the last 15 years or so there has been a trend towards more comprehensive funding proposals, more exacting financial rules and the generation of more comprehensive data to support proposed interventions. There is little doubt that this increasing complexity does not help smaller national partners. At the very least it will require them to invest considerable time, often at their own expense, in comprehending what may well be a ‘foreign’ bureaucratic language. Given that each potential funding organisation measures, controls and communicates differently, trying to make sense of it all is a bewildering challenge, particularly for smaller national NGOs (but in reality, of course, for all of us).

The Cluster Coordinator and other CLA staff are critical in helping partners to navigate their way through this complexity. The key questions here could be summed up as ‘How can I help you (the potential partner)? How will I strive to help you overcome the complexity and transactional barriers to achieve greater collective impact?’


Opening up communication

In reality, a Cluster Coordinator has no ‘hard’ authority over any organisation, only the potential for influence, as all organisations in a cluster are ultimately structured to work independently and to follow their own management directions, within their own specific mandates. The only real levers of ‘power’ or influence a Cluster Coordinator has relate to decisions over UN pooled funding allocations, which as explained above should be undertaken jointly. However, the Cluster Coordinator does have a formally recognised role on behalf of the CLA, and they should be selected for their personal leadership qualities, management skills and technical competence. Perhaps more significantly, the Cluster Coordinator should understand how knowledge management works and aspire to be the very best facilitator of information flows.

Effective information management is the key added value that a Cluster Coordinator can bring; information is the most important motivator for agencies to attend coordination meetings. Reluctance to release preliminary or incomplete information, sensitivity, security and control all conspire to block or strangle information flows. The Cluster Coordinator must seek to be the information management master, who can transcend these numerous obstacles and overcome the perception that providing information to the cluster only sends it into a black hole. It is therefore critical for a Cluster Coordinator to understand that good information flow is at the heart of communication, and that he or she is there to provide an information service to others.


Partnership through sharing challenges

The term ‘partnership’ is all too often reduced to meaning those organisations that have been funded (i.e. contracted) to undertake work. The cluster approach asks us to challenge traditional attitudes to partnership, and the sense that there is a UN-dominated hierarchy. The cluster approach emphasises the words key partnerships, though this has not been further defined.[4] So while Cluster Coordinators should be open to including and listening to all relevant partners, it will still be necessary to identify and work closely with key partners, taking care not to create perceptions of favouritism or selectivity.

 A Cluster Coordinator must work hard to forge a strong sense of collective effort, in which a diverse team with different skills is working for the same overall goal. This goes far beyond the production of a joint cluster strategy and plans, as it requires trust and relationship-building to give a sense that this is a collective endeavour. A real sense of partnership can only emerge when we realise that training, working and analysing together moves us beyond passive and unchallenging cluster partnerships. Genuine dialogue, while struggling together on issues of shared concern, builds the professional respect that underpins the strongest partnerships.[5] In addition, valuing the importance and added value derived from the diversity of the ‘cluster team’ allows us to respect the potential of all contributions, including from small national NGOs with small-scale delivery capacities.

Towards shared accountability

Enforcement of formal accountabilities, often linked to financial resources, is a powerful management tool in delivering change. Yet accountabilities within the cluster approach are limited, and there is little evidence that they are being monitored, let alone enforced.[6] The WASH cluster has developed a performance tool under its learning project, but this has not helped to enforce formal accountabilities, especially when reviews are conducted some time after the acute phase of a crisis. Given the complexity and dynamic nature of crises, especially in the acute phase, how feasible is it to introduce means to address the poor performance of CLAs and Cluster Coordinators? Introducing more formal mechanisms would be enormously cumbersome, and would probably never be agreed.

WASH cluster coordination training introduces a model of mutual accountability as an effective way to build shared responsibility for performance.[7] The collective should be jointly responsible and thus accountable. The Cluster Coordinator should play a key role by conveying the strongest sense of mutual accountability to cluster members, initially by demonstrating their own accountability to the cluster members through being open to feedback. The Cluster Coordinator must then facilitate a peer review process for quality and performance as a key way of building mutual accountability. This both develops the skills to critique and appraise the whole picture, as well as sharing the responsibility for forming a view on what works and what does not. In the first phase of an acute crisis this could take the form of a review of interventions at cluster meetings, while at a later stage more formal peer-to-peer evaluations would be appropriate.[8]


Preparedness and predictability

The key to preparedness planning can best be summarised by this quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower: ‘Planning is everything, the plan is nothing.’ The Cluster Coordinator must not get bogged down in aligning many different agency plans, and must not be overly prescriptive in the production of the final plan. It is also critical to distinguish between what needs to be process-driven and what does not, and to concentrate on generic preparedness activities whilst not dwelling on detailed response planning. Ultimately, the Cluster Coordinator must not be over-controlling, but rather develop trust and engagement through a focused and relevant process where the achievement of key preparedness activities and relationship-building are recognised as key success factors.

The context within which any Cluster Coordinator works is everything, and achieving a quick grasp of this context is key to decision-making and prioritisation. Amidst the intensity of the emergency response, some process of collective information analysis and collective understanding of the situation has to be undertaken, otherwise understanding will be partial and CLA-centric. The Cluster Coordinator has to facilitate a process of building common contextual understanding and shared analysis, through open questioning and active listening, to develop so to speak the workings of a ‘cluster brain’. This requires strong leadership, to prevent a mass of detail from obscuring the major issues, while at the same time challenging agencies to think together and work in a mutually supportive manner.



The Humanitarian Reform process has made some progress towards improving humanitarian response, even working within the pre-existing organisational structure and practices of the CLAs and the UN as a whole. Despite these limitations, there is considerable latitude for Cluster Coordinators to work in a way that transcends the old patterns of doing business. This requires the existing cadre of Cluster Coordinators to question how they work and step down from this role if they cannot be part of the reform process. While CLAs need to provide more systematic performance feedback on Cluster Coordinators, cluster partner feedback is just as important. However, unless CLAs can realign their institutional attitudes and priorities to ensure that their own humanitarian programmes and interests are subordinate to the higher-level objectives of humanitarian reform, Cluster Coordinators’ efforts will be neither supported nor sustained.


Richard Luff is Senior WASH officer, working as regional WASH cluster lead and on UNICEF WASH programmes. His email address:


[1] Bangladesh Emergency Response to Cyclone SIDR, Minutes of DER WASH Strategic Advisory Group, 17 December 2007.

[2] See Afghanistan and Pakistan 2009 WASH cluster draft strategy documents.

[3] Cluster approach evaluation, 21 November 2007.

[4] Terms of Reference for Sector Leads at the Country Level, IASC Guidance Note on Using the Cluster Approach To Strengthen Humanitarian Response, 24 November 2006. The term ‘key’ is not expanded upon.

[5] In the author’s opinion, key agencies such as BRAC, NGO Forum, Oxfam and Save now sit alongside UNICEF and the government as equal partners in the WASH cluster in Bangladesh.

[6] IASC Operational Guidance, Accountability of Humanitarian Coordinators and Cluster Leads.

[7] See WASH Cluster Coordination training module 2.4 Working in partnership (see WASH page on

[8] As introduced in the WASH Cluster in Vavunia, northern Sri Lanka, in February 2009.


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