NGOs & International Inter-Agency Humanitarian Coordination Architecture

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International Inter-Agency Humanitarian Coordination System 


A government request for international humanitarian assistance prompts established global agreements for different types of coordination structures, depending on the scale and type of emergency. 
The current international inter-agency humanitarian coordination system was set by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 46/182 in December 1991. This resolution created 12 Guiding Principles for strengthening UN humanitarian assistance and coordination, and a system of leadership and support structures that included the position of the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC), the Inter-Agency Standing Committee and a Secretariat that is now known as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). (OCHA is the part of the UN Secretariat responsible for supporting the ERC and coordinating actors to ensure a synchronized response to emergencies. OCHA supports a framework for situations involving non-refugee international humanitarian coordination structures and/or involving IDPs within which each humanitarian actor can contribute to the overall response effort.)
The IASC is the primary mechanism for inter-agency coordination of humanitarian assistance. It is a unique forum involving UN humanitarian agencies, the ICRC, the IFRC, and NGOs.
The ERC chairs the IASC, is head of OCHA, and as such is responsible for the oversight of all emergencies requiring United Nations humanitarian assistance. She/he acts as the focal point for governmental, intergovernmental, and non-governmental relief activities.

Improving Humanitarian Coordination, Response, and Leadership: Humanitarian Reform and the Transformative Agenda 2005-2014


Due to the serious consequences of not having formal agreements and a strong, recognized coordination framework, the international humanitarian community, via the IASC, undertook a program of reform starting in 2005 known as the Humanitarian Reform. 
Humanitarian Reform aims were to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian response by ensuring greater predictability, accountability, and partnership. This resulted in the establishment of:
  • More adequate, timely, flexible, and effective humanitarian financing, including through the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF);
  • A strengthened Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) system, providing more strategic leadership and coordination at the inter-sectoral and sectoral levels; and
  • The ‘Cluster Approach’ to build up capacities in gap areas—as part of wider efforts to ensure adequate response capacity, predictable and enhanced leadership, accountability, predictability, and strong partnerships in all sectors.
After a period of time under the Humanitarian Reform framework, issues and room for improvement remained. From 2011 to the present, the Transformative Agenda (TA), , is transforming the international humanitarian architecture with even greater emphasis on strong leadership and systems and procedures meant to further increase predictability and accountability.
 The Transformative Agenda also introduced the ‘Level 3’ (L3) classification for large-scale emergencies. This is a mechanism to mobilise adequate means from the whole of the humanitarian system to respond collectively to a major humanitarian crisis. It is an exceptional measure designed for exceptional circumstances. L3 supports the activation of specific measures to ensure that the appropriate humanitarian architecture is in place to manage the response. It represents a statement of priority among global crises.

IASC Coordination and Leadership Components at Country Level


The Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) is the senior-most United Nations official in a country experiencing a humanitarian emergency. The Humanitarian Coordinator is appointed by, and accountable to, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) when a new emergency occurs or an existing humanitarian situation “worsens in degree and/or complexity.” Humanitarian Coordinator and Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator posts are IASC positions; that is, they belong to the entire humanitarian community, including NGOs. In contrast, Resident Coordinator (RC) positions are UN positions.
Deputy Humanitarian Coordinators (DHC) are appointed when a humanitarian situation worsens in degree or complexity, requiring additional support to the humanitarian leader in place. A DHC can be located either in the capital, together with the HC, or in the region most affected by the crisis. DHCs are designated by the ERC in consultation with the IASC.
Implications for NGO forums: While NGOs may have bilateral meetings with the HC, it is imperative that the NGO coordination forums are meeting regularly with the HC. 
The Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) is a strategic and operational decision-making and oversight body established and led by the HC to lead and coordinate international humanitarian assistance in support of existing national efforts. It is not an inclusive forum but rather includes only operationally relevant agencies, such as UN agencies, funds, and programmes, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), INGOs and NNGOs, and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement. Some HCTs include donors. Agencies that are designated Cluster leads represent both their Cluster and their organization in the HCT. The HCT is responsible for agreeing on common strategic issues related to humanitarian action.
Implications for NGO forums: The number of seats available to NGOs on the HCT is decided in country. There are many examples where NGOs have the same number of seats as the UN (there are also many examples where there are too few NGO seats). The IASC recommends that while NGO representatives on the HCT (which may be an IASC Country Team or some other structure that includes UN, NGOs or NGO coordination bodies and other key stakeholders in a country)  may be from a consortium or umbrella organisation (where it exists), this representation must be complemented with operational NNGOs and INGOs. The HCT is a strategic and operational decision-making body for the entire community. As such, members of the HCT must influence decisions on behalf of the entire community rather than on individual interests, and the selection of NGO representatives on the HCT is the responsibility of the NGO community as a whole. The NGO coordination body could serve the function of selecting NGO representatives, as well as discussing HCT agendas with their members and reporting back to their members.

Clusters & Sector Working Groups


Clusters provide clear sectoral leadership and co-leadership, and are accountable for the provision of appropriate and adequate humanitarian assistance ( ).
Clusters are activated “when clear humanitarian needs exist within a sector, when there are numerous actors within sectors and when national authorities need coordination support. Clusters create partnerships between international humanitarian actors, national and local authorities, and civil society.” ( )-Clusters and cluster lead agencies are designated for 11 different sectors, as shown below
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Cluster Coordinators are responsible for ensuring that cluster-specific concerns and challenges that cannot be solved within the cluster are raised and properly discussed at the HCT, and that ensuing strategic decisions are shared and acted upon at the operational level.
There is increasing good practice of shared leadership of clusters to allow for an equitable and meaningful distribution of either Cluster Lead Agency or cluster coordination responsibilities at the global, national and/or sub-national levels.Studies show that sharing leadership between UN, NGOs, Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, and other key humanitarian actors generally produce positive benefits through improving partnership, advocacy, and information for results.
Sector working groups are established both in refugee contexts (where the cluster approach will not be activated), and in other contexts where the cluster approach is not currently activated or has been de-activated. They will often exist in contexts that have long-term issue of vulnerability, but where no large emergency has occurred. Sector working groups follow many of the same premises of the clusters but will not always follow the same lead agency. In a refugee context, they report to the Head of UNHCR in country, as well as the HCT, where one is activated.
Implications for NGO forums: It is important for the NGO coordination bodies to keep an overview of developments in the various clusters and encourage NGOs to participate and take leadership roles where applicable.