NGOs and the cluster approach: a worthwhile investment?

The cluster approach to humanitarian disasters offers NGOs the opportunity for greater engagement and influence in humanitarian action. It also presents new practical and (for some NGOs) ethical challenges which each NGO must consider when deciding to participate. Linda Doull, Director of Health and Policy at Merlin, asks: Is cluster engagement a worthwhile investment for NGOs? She reflects on Merlin’s experiences at global and country level in this area since 2005. She discusses the challenges faced and how NGOs need to face up to the criticisms aimed at them.

Background to the cluster approach

In 2005, the cluster approach was launched by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee as one of the three pillars of humanitarian reform. It aims to ensure a more timely, predictable and effective response to humanitarian crises. Today there are 12 clusters. The approach has been implemented in 26 countries since its inception, most recently in Libya.

Through the Principles of Partnership, the cluster approach promotes a more effective and collaborative way of working among the wide range of humanitarian actors within the international system. The intended result is more effective humanitarian action through more transparent inter-agency dialogue, greater recognition of each agency’s role and capacity and their explicit role commitment to each response. The designers of the cluster approach recognized the key role played by both international and national NGOs in every humanitarian response. They promoted increased NGO engagement at country and global level.

Two major external evaluations and several reviews undertaken by NGOs, suggest that, while far from perfect, the cluster approach with NGO engagement, adds value. But there are important questions about how NGOs engage now and in the future. Each NGO should consider whether cluster engagement is a worthwhile investment for them and the response in general. Merlin’s reflections are below.
Why did Merlin become a cluster partner?

Merlin was invited to join the Global Health Cluster by the World Health Organization (health cluster lead agency) based on our commitment to and track record of supporting humanitarian health action in both acute and protracted complex emergencies. Merlin took the strategic decision to become a cluster partner because the approach:

  • Fitted with organizational remit and objectives;
  • Matched Merlin’s commitment to partnership working and belief in the power of collective action;
  • Created opportunities for enhanced resource mobilization and capacity, and
  • Created opportunities to be a catalyst for change, influencing humanitarian health action and promoting the role of NGOs.

What role has Merlin played?

Country level

Merlin has participated in a wide range of cluster activities at country and global level. The greatest engagement is at country level where teams play an active role in defining and delivering the health cluster response strategy for each crisis. Merlin automatically participates in the health cluster as soon as the cluster is officially activated and becomes the main coordination mechanism for the health sector response.

Merlin teams help to identify critical service delivery gaps and inform strategic decision-making either through joint assessment, or by regularly sharing information with the health cluster coordination team. Once identified, Merlin ‘fills the gap’ by supporting the Ministry of Health to deliver health assistance, in accordance with the comprehensive service package agreed by health cluster partners.
Through joint planning, Merlin and other cluster partners avoid geographical overlap and service duplication, making effective use of available resources. Merlin also uses its presence and technical expertise to strengthen the health cluster coordination. In Myanmar, we seconded a health information expert to the cluster to coherently manage the overwhelming amount of data received. In both Democratic Republic of Congo and Myanmar our established relations with local NGOs enabled them to access emergency funding and present their views to the authorities.

One of Merlin’s most important contributions – and greatest challenges – has been in the role of cluster co-steward, supporting WHO at national and sub-national level to implement the health cluster strategy. Merlin took on this new role in Myanmar, DRC and Somalia/Puntland, seconding senior staff to strengthen health cluster coordination, particularly at sub-national level, where WHO often has a limited presence. The experience has been important in clarifying the value of co-leadership; the skills, experience and resources needed, and the value NGOs can bring.

Global level

At global level, Merlin participates in two Global Health Cluster (GHC) groups:

  1. The Working Group which focuses on the development and dissemination of cluster tools and guidance; training for health cluster coordinators (including staff nominated from NGOs); and joint country support missions, such as the one Merlin undertook in Afghanistan.
  2. The Policy and Strategy Team where Merlin has actively contributed to the development of GHC position papers on user fees and civil–military co-ordination, designed to assist country teams in decision making. Merlin also represents the GHC to major stakeholders, including donors.

What are the benefits of cluster engagement?

Merlin’s engagement in the health cluster at country and global level has required considerable effort but our internal reviews indicate it has largely been worth the investment. Particular benefits include gaining greater understanding of the humanitarian system and each specific context; increased access to information to enhance our decision-making and programming; access to funding through participation in Flash Appeals and other mechanisms; more open dialogue and strengthened relations with national authorities, UN agencies and donors; increased influence on sector policy and practice; and opportunities to innovate and learn from new ways of working leading to quality improvements with Merlin and beyond.
What are the challenges of being a cluster partner?

Merlin’s engagement in the health cluster has been invigorating and beneficial, but we have faced challenges. An internal review and consultation with other health cluster partners across ten countries identified similar challenges including: the issue of time commitment needed to participate in cluster meetings; ensuring suitably experienced staff are available for key activities such as joint assessments, country support visits and being co-steward; financial resources (all cluster partners are encouraged to mainstream costs within existing budgets, but some activities (e.g. being co-steward) are not cost neutral); the need for more awareness of, and training in, the use of cluster tools such as Initial Rapid Assessment and the Health Resources Availability Mapping System; and ensuring information from the GHC filters through to country health cluster teams.

In addition to these important operational issues, Merlin has reflected on wider concerns raised. Firstly, does being a partner in this UN-led approach reduce our independence as a humanitarian NGO? To date, Merlin does not feel this has been a problem, but remains vigilant in our risk assessment in each given context. Secondly, how can local NGOs and the Ministry of Health participate more effectively in the health cluster? Merlin’s experience shows that it has an important enabling role, using existing in-country relations with both, to bring them and/or their information to cluster meetings, to enhance inter-agency dialogue, planning and response.

Looking ahead

Delivering timely, effective and predictable responses to humanitarian crises will remain a priority in the years ahead as the frequency and scale of crises increases. The humanitarian sector acknowledges that – despite its well-documented faults – the cluster approach adds value. Based on learning to date, the role of NGOs within it should be enhanced. Encouraging though this is, if we are to be effective, NGOs must also think hard about two key criticisms aimed at us:

  • Too many participating NGOs hinders rather than helps cluster effectiveness. In Haiti nearly 400 health NGOs registered as cluster partners, many with no previous experience in such a crisis, and made a limited contribution to strategic dialogue and planning.
  • Being a cluster partner means sharing the challenges and identifying solutions to deliver coherent humanitarian health action, as opposed to the ‘opt-in’ / ‘opt-out’ approach adopted by some NGOs when the situation becomes complex.

Is cluster engagement a worthwhile investment for NGOs? From Merlin’s experience – yes – so long as you are clear about your added value; are willing to commit the time, energy and resources to engage; and are willing to adapt to new ways of working and learn from the individual and collective experience.

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