This editorial continues the discussion on the UN Cluster Leadership Approach that began in the April issue of this Newsletter.* With the trend toward the “internationalization” of disaster response becoming more commonplace, what can Latin American and Caribbean countries expect when the next major emergency strikes? The UN cluster approach, part of a wider UN reform process, aims to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian response.  The degree to which this occurs will depend on a number of factors

It is well recognized that Latin American and Caribbean countries have accumulated several decades of health disaster management experience. Yet despite this know-how, there is still room for the cluster leadership approach to help improve disaster response and, in the process, ultimately strengthen the national institutions responsible for disaster coordination. The UN cluster approach is a relatively new mechanism for coordinating all actors working in a certain field such as health, following a large-scale disaster. Clusters are headed by UN agencies, members of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee. The success of the cluster approach will depend on several key factors, including: accountability, reducing conflicts of interest and promoting inclusiveness of all major actors.

Clear accountability to national authorities. Most everyone would agree that accountability to the victims of disasters is a top priority and long overdue. The disagreement, however, lies in who represents the affected population. Humanitarian organizations often see themselves as directly accountable to their beneficiaries—the affected population. Under the pretense of impartiality, some may even go so far as to reject any role for the national coordinating body in guiding their efforts.
In practice, many humanitarian agencies are more accountable to their donors than to their national counterparts. Therefore, if the cluster approach is to genuinely serve and strengthen national institutions, the accountability of the lead agency cannot be exclusively or primarily to the UN humanitarian coordinator, but rather must include the corresponding national agency, as is the case in the Americas, where PAHO/WHO is accountable to the Ministries of Health.

Other coordination issues can widen the chasm between the cluster leaders and the national counterparts. For example, evaluations carried out in the aftermath of the tsunami in south Asia and the earthquake in Pakistan point to the existence of parallel coordination mechanisms: one at the national level (multisectoral or health) and another at the international level (multi-cluster or health) which has been superimposed on and independent from the former. The international mechanism often has financial and communications resources far superior to what is available to national authorities. In addition, language barriers often frustrate communication. English is de facto humanitarian language, and this puts many disaster managers in non-English-speaking countries at a disadvantage. Despite these issues, national authorities, who will be on the scene long after the international presence is gone, must be major stakeholders in any UN cluster initiative.

Avoiding conflicts of interest on the part of the lead agencies. Agencies that assume the role of cluster lead must be prepared to serve all actors in the cluster impartially, even though in other circumstances they may compete for funds and visibility. However, in many cases, the same representative of a UN agency has served as both the cluster leader and as an agency’s representative, opening the door to criticism that the cluster has become a tool to promote an agency’s own interests.

 As a practical way of minimizing potential conflicts of interest, cluster lead agencies, including WHO/PAHO in health, should consider assigning one representative to exclusively perform the cluster coordinating functions and designate another person to handle the agency’s own operational functions. How agencies determine who will carry which role provides an indication as to where their priorities lie. For example, do they assign their most senior and experienced professionals to become cluster leads (a collective responsibility) or do they reserve their expertise to benefit their institutional interests? PAHO/WHO believes the collective responsibility should prevail.

Inclusiveness of the cluster approach. Many NGOs view the cluster approach as heavily dominated by the UN, and indeed their perceptions are understandable, as all cluster leads are UN or intergovernmental agencies. Yet, NGOs provide most of the direct external assistance to disaster victims and most, but not all, are professional and highly competent. They may accept the Ministry of Health’s or Civil Protection systems’ legal authority in an affected country, but are more reluctant to “subordinate” themselves to a UN agency. Therefore, the success of the cluster leadership approach will depend on the value added it offers all partners. Does it make the work of NGOs and other non-UN agencies easier to carry out? Is the work of all actors in the cluster supported, both technically and operationally? Is the lead agency’s influence leveraged to acquire resources for all actors or only for its own projects? PAHO/WHO will continue to assist the Ministries of Health in the Americas to develop an open and inclusive partnership with all national and international health NGOs that demonstrate commitment and capacity.

Time will tell whether the UN cluster approach actually improves the international response to disasters as well as the management capacity of a disaster-affected country in the Americas. National multisectoral disaster coordinators may well have the last word in this matter. Now—before disaster strikes—is the time for them to initiate a dialogue with UN representatives in their country on the respective roles of government leaders and UN agencies on convening, conducting and hosting the cluster coordination meetings.

In the health field, the cluster approach will provide PAHO/WHO with an opportunity, and hopefully the means, to ensure that the Ministry of Health can, “establish adequate coordination mechanisms … as well as good strategic planning and operational response.”  These critical coordination functions, which are assigned to the cluster leaders by the Interagency Standing Committee (IASC), are fundamentally and primarily the responsibility of the national disaster coordinators.