Issue 56 - Article 13

National NGOs and the cluster approach: the 'authority of format'

January 11, 2013
Matthew Serventy
A meeting of the logistics cluster in Haiti

Numerous evaluations have highlighted the poor engagement of national and local NGOs within clusters, listing practical concerns such as language, staffing and logistics barriers, but often without a thorough analysis of why national NGOs do not engage, or what their motivations are when they do. Two questions arise. If we focus on the motivating forces behind engagement, can we build better cluster relations with national NGO partners? And by creating a prescriptive format of participation, such as the cluster approach, have we actually created a barrier to true partnership? My research on cluster partner national NGOs from Somalia, Zimbabwe, Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan reveals common general trends as well as specific contextual motivations.

Patterns and motivations of engagement

Where clusters have been operating for some time (six months to two years in this study), national NGOs reported being members of taskforces and co-chairing sub-clusters, and most described their level of involvement as very high. In the initial post-crisis period the number of participating national NGOs is generally low as awareness of the cluster system in general is low. Over time, clusters can diverge from their original intentions and may lose impetus. Conversely, the longer the cluster survives the greater the level of national NGO participation, both in numbers represented and in the depth of engagement, to the point where some NGOs expressed a desire for the clusters to continue as a permanent coordination tool.

Motivations for engagement include both what national NGOs can receive from the cluster and what they can provide, as their contextual advice ensures that populations can be reached efficiently. Information exchange was cited as an important motivation; it is important to let outsiders know what your national NGO is doing, while also keeping track of what activities others, in particular international agencies, are undertaking. Workshops and other training events become motivations to continue to engage, as well as possible avenues for material and financial assistance or technical advice. The study found some gently expressed negative comments about international technical experts importing ideas into a local context – ‘most of the experts, they have experience … but the region is totally different, and that’s why they were having problems understanding the situation’. Respondent in Kyrgyzstan.

Although funding was cited as a key motivation for joining a cluster, respondents unanimously reported that trying to access funding through the clusters was not working, and that national NGOs are expected to contribute information to funding appeals without necessarily seeing the benefits. The Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) specifically excludes national NGOs from applying for money directly, and the issue of funding needs to be handled more transparently by all parties. As always money equals power, and the funding power stays firmly in the hands of international agencies.

Personally and professionally, many respondents felt that they had gained significantly from cluster participation as it exposed them to the ‘bigger picture’ in emergency response. Some also found work, and used their participation ‘to tell people about myself and to advertise myself’. Respondent in Kyrgyzstan.

Benefits of engagement

National NGOs described numerous benefits from engaging with the clusters, including networking and an associated sense of legitimacy, knowledge exchange between members and internal changes within NGOs as a result of participation. Emergencies can encourage emergent coordination fora or stimulate the adaptation of existing ones. In Myanmar the NGO network renewed its ‘policy, organisation systems and structure’ after exposure to clusters, and in Zimbabwe NGOs found that ‘partnerships that have developed within the cluster are also growing outside the cluster’.

In Kyrgyzstan, national NGOs coordinated in existing informal networks, but the introduction of the cluster approach made many aware of each other’s work for the first time, revealed their combined power and inspired national and local NGOs to come together in a formal coordination network, as ‘the cluster approach helped local NGOs to get more organised, and get into the one network’. NGOs found that, by banding together, they developed more credibility and legitimacy with their peers, and increased their influence over government decision-making. Developing legitimacy was felt to be an important benefit of cluster participation. In Somalia, one national NGO ‘is now known as an active NGO with a good reputation’, while the cluster also provides an opportunity to establish a track record in financial management.

Another important benefit for national NGOs is knowledge exchange: to the cluster from national NGOs regarding the local context, to national NGOs from international actors and in peer-to-peer exchanges. National NGOs provide details of the political, social and financial context, as well as local solutions, to international cluster members. The international community brings outside ideas, technologies and methods, in particular in management practice. As one representative from a national NGO in Zimbabwe put it: ‘these ideas which we are implementing now we take them from the cluster … we decided … to implement similar ideas following examples that we learnt from the cluster’. This opportunity to check in on each other’s projects and see how others are operating was ‘one of the best experiences from the clusters’, Respondent in Zimbabwe.  yet knowledge exchange is not always successful. In Zimbabwe, for example, a number of national NGOs were left out of workshops provided to identify shortfalls in financial skills, and no follow-up work was done to build capacity in financial management.

The personal and organisational changes that ensue after engaging with clusters are also important for national NGOs. In Kyrgyzstan an agricultural-based national NGO stated that, in general, the clusters encourage national NGOs to become ‘more sophisticated, more organised’, including new consideration of accountability. Although they have always attempted to persuade the government to be accountable, national NGOs now realise that ‘we should be trying to be … transparent to the local government and to our beneficiaries’. There is also growth in understanding of themselves as emergency responders, on top of their usual developmental roles. The most sustainable solutions to problems are generally locally generated, and the cluster approach succeeds where it offers knowledge exchange and encourages behavioural evolution.

Despite a certain level of mistrust among international organisations of the mandates and values of national NGOs, there was no discussion of humanitarian principles within the clusters. Explicit discussion of principles would clarify differences between organisations, and also take into account the reality and context of the specific situation. One national NGO in Somalia commented that they did not explicitly discuss principles ‘since our objectives and that of most agencies are similar’. The technocratic face of clusters may result from many factors, including the technical background of many cluster coordinators and a lack of interest or ability in managing this type of discussion. However, discussion of principles need not be lofty or theoretical, but a very practical and daily part of emergency response.

Power and the authority of format

Despite being heavily engaged in clusters, national NGOs can still be removed from the true centre of decision-making power. In Zimbabwe there is a ‘head-of-NGOs’ group that meets bi-monthly. Only international NGOs and the UN are invited, and ‘the influence lies in their hands, the hands of international organisations. This group decides what can be tackled in clusters’. In Kyrgyzstan, ‘we see that … these clusters belong to the cluster heads’, despite the foundation of the cluster approach being one of partnership.

Antonio Donini speaks of partnership that is ‘deceitfully participatory’ and that ‘promotes Western forms of organisation, concepts of management, standards of accountability, and the like’. Antonio Donini, ‘The Far Side: The Meta Functions of Humanitarianism in a Globalised World’, Disasters, vol. 34, issue supplement s2.  On being asked whether her national NGO had the power to influence the way the cluster operated, one respondent in Somalia laughed and said ‘No. I don’t think so. Organisations don’t feel … like we can, and it’s sort of a set kind of thing coming from whatever UN agency or international organisation that is running the cluster … it’s the authority of format … There’s a format and … many organisations really tailor what they’re doing with what the cluster has set’.

The aid industry is built on predetermined formats – to report and describe emergencies, to apply for and report on funding and to manage intervention strategies. While standardised formats allow us to operate quickly in new contexts, we forget that they can hide the reality on the ground and predetermine our response. These formats dictate how we see, understand and react to emergencies, creating a neatly packaged world of humanitarian updates and dashboards that obscures the actual complex mess on the ground. Interventions designed on this basis run the risk of missing the real needs. The cluster approach in itself is a format, and some activities may not be undertaken simply because they do not fit neatly into the cluster structure; as one Somali NGO put it: ‘we have learnt to structure our programmes the way clusters are structured’. Information is collected in assessments which answer predetermined questions, information is shared within prescribed formats and standardised situation reports advertise the situation globally. These documents become the reality that the cluster tackles. We cannot do away with frames and formats, nor do they have only negative consequences. However, we must remain aware of their existence and power, question their history and validity and appreciate that different formats may be better suited to different contexts.


National NGOs engage with clusters for a variety of reasons, personal, organisational and on principle. The benefits they see include networking, knowledge exchange and the opportunity for change. These networks in turn provide national NGOs with operational legitimacy and financial credibility. Focusing on these motivations and benefits should encourage broader engagement by national NGOs in the cluster approach. However, the ‘authority of format’ means that the cluster approach appears inflexible to national NGOs, and unable to adapt to contextual requirements and the needs and expectations of national actors. Instead, it is the national NGOs that have to adapt themselves to the clusters, and change their own internal structures. Humanitarian reform sought change, and we should focus on change that improves the effectiveness and efficiency of humanitarian action. National NGOs report beneficial change after engagement with clusters, but this change is entirely in line with the Western enterprise of humanitarian action.

We should employ forms of coordination that focus on what needs to be done and how it should be achieved within the context, rather than according to a pre-established format. While clusters may well fill this role, they need to remain adaptable, avoiding a ‘cookie cutter’ mentality that risks ignoring operational realities and opportunities. Humanitarian reform and the cluster approach were designed to increase predictability, when the complex nature of emergencies means that what is required is flexibility. Clusters must be created, adapted and managed with the operational context as their key guide.

Matthew Serventy is a humanitarian action manager with cluster coordination experience in a number of emergency operations. He has recently completed a thesis on national NGOs and the cluster approach.


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