Issue 45 - Article 10

Humanitarian reform: a progress report

December 14, 2009
Anne M. Street, NGOs and Humanitarian Reform Project

First rolled out following the earthquake in Pakistan and Kashmir in October 2005, the Humanitarian Reform process sought to address gaps in the international response to humanitarian crises, and to improve timeliness, effectiveness and predictability. The reform’s approach was three-pronged: first, the introduction of clusters to better coordinate sectoral responses and identify a lead agency which would provide predictable leadership and coordination and act as the provider of last resort; second, to improve the availability of quick-response funding through the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), established in March 2006; and third, to improve humanitarian leadership by strengthening the role and capacity of Humanitarian Coordinators. Under the subsequent Principles of Partnership, endorsed by the Global Humanitarian Platform in 2007,[1] 40 heads of agencies, including from the UN and NGOs, agreed to a set of values to underpin their humanitarian work, including equality, transparency, a results-oriented approach, responsibility and complementarity.

The NGOs and Humanitarian Reform Project was set up towards the end of 2008 to strengthen the effective engagement of local, national and international NGOs in these new coordination and financing mechanisms.[2] The project began by commissioning a series of mapping studies in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Zimbabwe, to document NGOs’ experiences of Humanitarian Reform mechanisms. The findings were brought together in a report published in October 2009, entitled Synthesis Report Review of Engagement of NGOs with the Humanitarian Reform Process. This article highlights the report’s main findings and recommendations, and outlines next steps.

The chariot wheel of humanitarian reform

Instead of the usual model, which conceptualises reform as comprising three ‘pillars’ (coordination, financing and leadership), the synthesis report proposes a conceptual framework based upon a chariot wheel, with three spokes. These spokes are closely dependent on the central hub of donor funding, and the binding wheel rims of accountability to crisis-affected communities and partnership (both initially conspicuously absent from the Humanitarian Reform agenda). All must work in tandem if humanitarian response is to be fast and effective, and if it is to meet the needs of crisis-affected people.

Figure by John Cosgrave.


Leadership and partnership

The five mapping studies found that two of the chariot wheel’s spokes had been particularly poorly implemented: leadership and partnership. The analysis identified the fundamental role and importance of humanitarian leadership for all aspects of humanitarian reform: to ensure timely and coordinated needs-based responses and sufficient funding, allocated in the right places; holding actors to account for their commitments; and ensuring that partnerships include humanitarian actors across the spectrum. In four of the five study countries, the research found that strong humanitarian leadership was missing. NGO interviewees in each of these four countries felt that Humanitarian Coordinators (who also double as UN Resident Coordinators, and typically have further duties as country heads of UNDP or as Deputy Special Representatives of the Secretary-General (DSRSGs)) had failed to challenge governments on issues such as humanitarian space and principles, or had sidelined humanitarian issues in favour of other considerations. Only in the DRC did respondents feel that the Humanitarian Coordinator had played an effective role in advocating on behalf of the humanitarian community, as well as in pushing the various parts of the humanitarian system to work better together and to hold humanitarian actors accountable for the commitments they make. These findings, although only based on five countries, demonstrate the lack of progress the reform agenda has made in improving leadership.

Although reform initially focused primarily on leadership in relation to HCs, the mapping studies demonstrated that strong and effective leadership must also be applied within the clusters, both at global and country level, where a good cluster lead can be instrumental in effectively involving a range of humanitarian actors. Cluster leads need, not just technical expertise, but also the skills to manage effective coordination and run meetings, and they need to ensure that the cluster functions in a partnership-oriented manner. Leadership is also important in coordinating between clusters, for example to ensure that gaps in the humanitarian response are addressed.

Humanitarian leaders should also work to create meaningful partnerships, including in areas related to funding. The research undertaken in the mapping studies found that partnership was unevenly applied across the humanitarian spectrum. Many stakeholders are still not familiar with the values set out in the Principles of Partnership, and a considerable cultural change is needed to embed partnership approaches within UN agencies. In particular, national NGOs remain marginalised from Humanitarian Reform mechanisms, and are often unable to effectively engage with them. Although the reasons for this are varied, and depend in part on national and local circumstances, it is a fundamental fact that the reform process was driven by an international perspective which focused on international systems of humanitarian response, without sufficiently considering the implications of the proposed changes for national and local government structures, or the roles of national civil society actors and NGOs. Other more practical barriers for national NGO participation relate to issues such as the plethora of coordination meetings, which demand a level of staffing which most national and local NGOs simply do not have.

This situation is compounded by the sidelining of national NGOs due to their lack of access to funding. For example, out of the five mapping countries the Emergency Response Fund (ERF) in Zimbabwe provided the highest percentage of funding to national NGOs, at 8% in 2008, in Sudan the CHF provided a mere 0.5% whilst in Ethiopia national NGOs cannot even access the fund directly, but have to go through international counterparts. National NGOs also feel marginalised as meetings are conducted in English, with limited or no translation or interpretation facilities. Documents and training sessions are also primarily only available in English. In some complex humanitarian crises, such as Afghanistan, clusters barely operate outside the capital, while local NGOs work primarily at the provincial level.


What makes an effective cluster?

In four out of five of the mapping study countries, the WASH cluster was seen as one of the most effective. There were a variety of reasons for this. One is that UNICEF has made a considerable staff investment, appointing full-time WASH cluster coordinators in a number of countries. In other countries, UNICEF staff have cluster-related responsibilities included in their job descriptions, and at least part of their performance assessment focuses on how they fulfil this role. In Ethiopia, UNICEF staff cited training for cluster leadership as critical to their ability to understand the breadth and function of the role, and stressed that this was not a one-off training episode, but is followed up with more in-depth work. The presence of active and committed international NGO co-chairs was also cited as being instrumental to the effective functioning of the WASH cluster in Afghanistan and Zimbabwe. The calibre of the cluster leadership also appears to be a critical element: in Zimbabwe the cluster lead was well-known and well-respected, and had previous WASH cluster experience in Pakistan. The INGO co-chair was also very active and engaged, and INGOs were prepared to invest technical expertise. Oxfam seconded a senior staff member to coordinate the global cluster, bringing together a range of actors who worked closely together over a period of time.

Relationship-building is another important element, and research for the report identified the importance of pre-existing relationships built on mutual trust as a key element of an effective cluster. In Zimbabwe, stakeholders also reported that the WASH was much more action-oriented with a good working atmosphere, unlike other clusters which were said to be more theoretical and less relevant to the implementation of response programmes. In the one country where WASH cluster coordination worked less well, Sudan, the cluster coordinator was heavily involved in managing his own agency programmes.


What next?

The report makes 15 recommendations to donors, the UN system and NGOs, focusing on leadership, coordination, accountability and funding. Of particular interest to NGOs is the report’s recommendation that international NGOs (and UN agencies) should identify ways to better involve national partners in humanitarian coordination.

What steps should NGOs themselves be taking to enhance their participation in humanitarian reform? The mapping study noted relatively low awareness amongst NGO staff of the strategic input they could give within particular clusters, and a limited understanding of the potential benefit of involvement beyond accessing funding. In cases where NGOs do participate in clusters, this participation is constrained by staff availability, and NGOs are often unable to dedicate sufficiently senior staff to attend clusters meetings, limiting the level of engagement and reducing agencies’ ability to make clear commitments within the cluster regarding the work they will carry out.

 The NGOs and Humanitarian Reform Project has placed full-time Humanitarian Reform Officers (HROs) in four countries (Afghanistan, the DRC, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe) to work with humanitarian stakeholders to address some of the impediments to the effective engagement of NGOs, particularly national and local NGOs, in the reform process. Over the next two years, their findings and recommendations, as well as the good practice case studies which they will be identifying as part of their work, will be made available on the project website. We hope that this work will make a useful contribution to the policy debates and practical efforts which have taken place over the last four years to improve humanitarian response and preparedness.


Anne M. Street is International Project Manager of the NGOs and Humanitarian Reform Project. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the project consortium agencies. The project website is at


[1] The GHP, set up in 2006, brought together heads of agencies from the three main strands of humanitarian actions: UN agencies, NGOs and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, plus the World Bank. See

[2] See for further details. Six international NGOs make up the project consortium: ActionAid, CAFOD, Care International UK, IRC-UK, Oxfam and Save the Children UK. The International Council of Voluntary Agencies is also a member. The three-year project runs until October 2011, and is funded by DFID.


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