Colum Lynch gets his hands on an email that the top UN Humanitarian official John Holmes sent to his deputies in which the OCHA chief is critical of how certain UN agencies are handling their responsibilities.  At issue is the “cluster” mechanism that the UN put into place a few years ago in which certain UN agencies take the lead in coordinating the humanitarian response in specified sectors. For example, UNICEF is responsible for water and sanitation; the WFP is responsible for food and logistics; the World Health Organization is responsible for health, you get the picture. In all there are twelve cluster areas.  This CNN piece gives a snapshot of what the cluster mechanism looks like, first hand. 

This approach helped put experts in water and sanitation on the ground in Haiti within days of the earthquake, according to Paul Sherlock of the charity group Oxfam.

“There are meetings every day at 3 p.m. at the Ministry of Water in Port-au-Prince, in the offices which have not been too badly damaged, so that all water and sanitation agencies will go to that meeting and coordinate how they best respond,” he explained.

The cluster system was devised after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the response to which sometimes included aid agencies performing duplicative tasks. The Haiti earthquake is the first big test of the new system. And as the email from Holmes shows, it is not without challenges.  He singles out, for example, the pace at which emergency shelter is being provided to vulnerable Haitians (the International Organization for Migration is in charge of that cluster, by the way.)  In the email, he explains the source of his concerns.

Part of the problem relates to our overall operational capacity. I fear we have simply not yet injected the necessary resources in some areas in terms of capacity to implement practical programmes and deliver on the ground. The magnitude and complexity of the disaster are such that all major organisations need to deploy their most experienced disaster response staff and to make sure they are procuring, delivering and distributing what is needed as quickly as possible. This is a major test for all of us and we cannot afford to fail. So I ask you all to take a fresh hard look at what you are able to do in the key areas, and pursue a much more aggressive approach to meeting the needs.

To me, this email reads like a boss is trying to light the fire under the feet of his deputies.  That’s a good thing!  The bottom, line, though is that this is a massive disaster that is testing a new response mechanism for the humanitarian community.  It’s in everyone’s best interest that they get this right. 

Image: UN Foundation. A cluster meeting.

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