News 2008


Crisis highlights cluster complications

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 activities.

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.

Cluster problems

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 practical support.

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.

Education necessary

One commonly voiced problem was the lack of fit between clusters such as protection and camp coordination/management and the government.

"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 cluster lead.

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.