Tuesday, November 19, 2013

International Disaster Response is a cluster...

The Philippines, an archipelago comprised of 7,000+ islands, is a paradise where the warmth and friendliness of the Filipino people make it a top travel destination. When Yolanda mowed her way across the island chain and it became apparent that it was going to be an event requiring significant humanitarian response, aid organizations put out appeals for donations and sent in assessment teams to figure out how best to provide their special brand of assistance.

With the overwhelming need created by the Typhoon, coordinated response remains a top priority. But how do you coordinate that many moving parts? In the U.S., coordination is a consistent challenge faced by federal, state, local, and community-based response structures. Internationally, aid organizations, foreign and domestic military assistance, and agencies representing the alphabet soup of UN agencies also need to be taken into account on top of everything else. With millions affected, thousands dead, and hundreds of thousands of homes damaged or destroyed across multiple island communities, where do you begin, how do you begin, and who's in charge?

The international humanitarian aid community has something that we in the United States do not--something that helps alleviate a lot of the guesswork around how the response will be shaped so that the focus can be on the provision of aid to those in need. On the premise of improving humanitarian response in emergencies, the United Nations (UN) created the IASC (the InterAgency Standing Committee), and in 2005 the Cluster System for coordination in humanitarian emergencies was adopted. The cluster system provides a scalable and replicable way for handling the delicate dance of leadership and coordination based around functional needs in response operations.

Cluster Overview

The thematic focus of the cluster system alleviates confusion around roles and responsibilities and makes it easier to highlight competency within a specific response function. While clusters aid in the dissemination and consumption of operational data, they also create unique funding opportunities. Because of the way the cluster system is structured, pooled funds managed by the UN are available to help support humanitarian operations and are oftentimes granted through the cluster system:
Because complex humanitarian emergencies require so many aid organizations working together, a system to coordinate their activities is needed without limiting their independence. The Cluster System, for any faults it may have, is a system that has the buy-in needed and the ability to fill the most critical of role's--coordination that enables a stronger and more cohesive response.

While every system has its proponents and detractors, the fact that there's a unified system to point to is a big accomplishment. Domestically, emergency support functions (ESFs) would be the mechanism that plays a role most similar to that of the clusters, but unfortunately I think that the cluster system succeeds in combining the focus of ESFs with the coordinative function of a VOAD.

Coordination will always present a challenge to governments, municipalities, donors, and any other moving component involved in the disaster response machine. For whatever faults it may have, I applaud the IASC for endorsing the cluster system and for the organizations who operate within it's framework...I look forward to seeing all the good it can do in expediting a coordinated response to the communities struggling in the aftermath of Yolanda.

1 comment :

  1. I believe you make a good point. ESFs permit agencies to create principalities to rule as they like under the mantle of FEMA instead of a true unified command like intended.