Crisis highlights cluster
NAIROBI, 12 February 2008 (IRIN) - The post-election crisis in
Kenya has highlighted some of the shortcomings of the cluster
approach, introduced two years ago to improve emergency responses
involving many actors.
Some NGOs perceived it as a threat to their positions and a tool
with which to criticise their failings, aid workers told IRIN.
Others feared becoming too closely associated with the UN would
jeopardise their independence. Médecins Sans Frontières and the
International Committee of the Red Cross are not part of the
cluster approach but they do share information about their
There are 11 clusters, each with a lead agency, covering for
example, education, shelter, telecommunications, food aid, health
and sanitation. Two sub-clusters have also been set up in Kenya to
address gender-based violence and child protection.
Visiting camps in Nakuru and Molo in Rift Valley Province, the
region worst affected by the violence, the UN's
Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes
highlighted the education cluster as one that had been slow to get
off the ground.
"I think emergency education is absolutely crucial because that
gives the children at least some semblance of normality. It's
never the first thing you focus on but it needs to come in fast
behind and I think that's what's now beginning to happen," he said.
Introduced by the key humanitarian decision-making body, the
Inter-Agency Standing Committee, the cluster approach illustrates
how the UN is shifting from direct implementation towards a
standard-setting and facilitation role in terms of planning and
organising humanitarian responses.
"Some people are suspicious of it. Some of the NGOs think this is
a way for the UN to make sure that they control [relief operations].
Others feel that it's a way for the UN to cover up the gaps," said
Wael Haj-Ibrahim, senior humanitarian affairs officer for the UN
Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA),
working in Eldoret.
"It's meant to be the other way round. It's meant to highlight
where the gaps are and help people think together, in the response,
who will be doing what, where. Conceptually, people haven't yet
figured it out."
While staff in Nairobi complained of too many meetings - there are
about 11 meetings each week, sometimes lasting up to three hours -
those in the field felt that decisions made in the capital did not
translate into action on the ground.
"There is such a disconnect between Nairobi and the field
sometimes. Half of those meetings should happen here in the field
because the information flow isn't good enough," said Line
Pedersen, field monitoring coordinator in the south Rift Valley
for the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.
"A lot of policies are decided at Nairobi level but what does that
translate to in the field? I am sitting in meetings here. What am
I going to tell people here?" she asked.
Early recovery - which involves meeting the needs and
opportunities of the immediate post-crisis period - has been
another problematic cluster.
"It's not a cluster in the same way as others. Food and shelter
and water are relatively straightforward. You're providing
physical goods. Early recovery cuts across everything so its needs
are more complicated, how it's organised is more complicated and
how it's funded is more complicated. So that's why it's a
difficult issue," Holmes told IRIN.
The other difficult cluster has been protection, largely because
of the complexities of the issues involved.
Al-Haj said people were still focused on activities such as
contacting the police to provide security, rather than thinking
about the problem conceptually, in terms of drawing up strategies
to influence and work with those responsible for protection.
"What we need to do is help people shift to conceptual thinking.
What's needed is the bigger picture," he said.
However, smaller NGOs that attended a protection meeting in
Nairobi praised the cluster approach for providing a forum in
which to learn about humanitarian principles, as well as getting
HelpAge's emergency coordinator Everlyne Situma found the UN's
robust criticism of Kenyan government plans to close one of the
largest displaced camps in Nairobi, Jamhuri Park, eye-opening.
"It enlightened us to the rights of the displaced," she said.
The government later agreed to delay the closure of the camp.
One commonly voiced problem was the lack of fit between clusters
such as protection and camp coordination/management and the
"The clusters are effective where there are long-standing
relationships. The problem is when there's not a natural
government counterpart. When you don't have that, how does it fit
in? A parallel situation can be set up but this causes some
confusion. You have duplication because the government is also
trying to respond. Really, all the clusters should interface with
them," said one NGO representative who wished to remain anonymous.
"The government has its own coordination mechanisms and they don't
always fit naturally with the cluster approach. Sometimes the
danger is the UN marches in and thinks there's nothing there and
there is a mechanism," agreed Simon Russell, UNHCR protection
Most concurred that the main way to improve the cluster approach
was by educating people about it.
"We need to explain it better. People get frightened by the term
as if it's something really strange whereas actually it's
straightforward," said Holmes.
"It just means that in each of the main sectors, like food and
water and shelter, there's someone who's clearly in the lead,
clearly coordinating the other organisations involved in it. It
should be clearer but of course there's a huge amount of
explanation to be done," he said.
One reform that might help get more actors on board would be
giving non-UN agencies a greater leadership role. The only non-UN
agency leading a cluster is Save the Children, which co-leads the
education cluster alongside the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF.
"There's some scepticism and resentment that NGOs are not more
actively involved. There are NGOs that would be happy to take on
this responsibility," said Carl Triplehorn of Save the Children.
However, said Holmes: "We are trying to make sure that as many
NGOs are as heavily involved as possible. Where possible, we'd
like to see co-leads on the ground and we're suggesting that here
too. Education is one of those where that's already happened at
the global level. It takes time to achieve that culture change but
that's very much the way we're pushing it," he said.