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Coordinating a Humanitarian Response

This article details how humanitarian interventions are coordinated, the different mechanisms they use and the different funding they receive.
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© London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
Coordination mechanisms allow humanitarian actors to organise themselves in an attempt to improve humanitarian interventions and reduce duplication of effort. Here we will learn about the different actors in place in emergencies and the approaches used to coordinate humanitarian response.

The humanitarian actors

If a Government requests and/or accepts external assistance, a variety of international humanitarian actors may be asked to support disaster response and disaster response preparedness, including:
  • UN agencies, such as OCHA for general coordination, WHO for health, UNICEF for nutrition, water, sanitation, and hygiene and protection of children and adolescents, and UNHCR for refugee populations
  • Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for armed conflicts and International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) for natural disasters)
  • Regional intergovernmental bodies (e.g. Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation, and Pacific Islands Forum)
  • National and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) (e.g. Médecins Sans Frontières‎, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, Oxfam, Action contre la Faim, and International Medical Corps)
  • Assisting Governments, and
  • The private sector.

Humanitarian coordination mechanisms

Humanitarian coordination seeks to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian response by ensuring greater predictability, accountability, and partnership.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

OCHA leads the international community’s efforts in crisis situations through needs assessments, definition of common priorities and strategies, and monitoring of humanitarian assistance1.

The Cluster Approach

This approach was developed after the 2005 Humanitarian Response Review, commissioned by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) and the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC)2.
Eleven clusters were defined and are coordinated both by UN agencies and NGOs. These eleven clusters are:
  • Logistics (WFP)
  • Emergency telecommunications (OCHA-Process owner, UNICEF Common Data Services, WFP – Common Security Telecommunications Services)
  • Camp coordination and management (UNHCR for conflict-generated IDPs and IOM for natural disaster-generated IDPs)
  • Emergency shelter (IFRC)
  • Health (WHO)
  • Nutrition (UNICEF)
  • Water, sanitation, and hygiene (UNICEF)
  • Early recovery (UNDP)
  • Protection (UNHCR for conflict-generated IDPs, UNHCR, UNICEF, and OHCHR for natural disaster-generated IDPs)
  • Education (UNICEF and Save the Children)
  • Agriculture (FAO)3
The mission of the Global Health Cluster (GHC), led by WHO, is to build consensus on humanitarian health priorities, related best practices and to strengthen system-wide capacities to ensure an effective and predictable response. It is mandated to build global capacity in humanitarian response in three ways:
  1. Providing guidance, tools, standards, and policies
  2. Establishing systems and procedures for rapid deployment of experts and supplies, and
  3. Building global partnerships to implement and promote this work3.
The cluster should provide a framework for effective partnerships among international and national humanitarian health actors, civil society, and other stakeholders, and ensure that international health responses are appropriately aligned with national structures. At country level during major crises, the humanitarian coordinator designates the Cluster Lead Agency for all key humanitarian response sectors. WHO is the lead agency for the health cluster, which is comprised of partner organisations who are also working in health, including local and international NGOs and civil society organisations. As cluster lead, the WHO provides leadership and works on behalf of the health cluster as a whole. It facilitates cluster activities, such as meetings, and develops a strategic plan, which is used to lead and guide health response.
Additionally, collaboration with other humanitarian clusters, such as education or protection, is key as there are many cross-cutting issues that do not fit clearly within a single cluster group, e.g. protection, disability, or gender issues. Finally, as cluster lead, WHO should also support the national country’s health system in order to ensure their responsibilities are being met and that there is consistent leadership. The WHO should also ensure that all partner organisations in the health cluster, have coherent strategies3.

Humanitarian Programme Cycle

The humanitarian programme cycle (HPC) is a coordinated series of actions undertaken to help prepare for, manage, and deliver humanitarian response. It consists of five elements coordinated in a seamless manner, with one step logically building on the previous and leading to the next. Successful implementation of the humanitarian programme cycle is dependent on effective emergency preparedness, effective coordination with national/local authorities and humanitarian actors, and information management4. This approach, agreed by IASC Principals as part of the Transformative Agenda, is based on innovations that have become good practice in the field and aims to achieve the following results 5:
  • Stronger emphasis on the needs of affected people
  • Improved targeting of the most vulnerable
  • Increased funding for humanitarian priorities, and
  • Greater accountability of humanitarian actors and donors for collective results5.
Based on the Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO), the country team formulates a response analysis with targets and boundaries, sets strategic objectives, and develops cluster plans aimed at meeting those objectives. These strategic country objectives and cluster plans form the humanitarian response plan (HRP), which is the primary planning tool for the humanitarian coordinator and the humanitarian country team4. The HRP serves a secondary purpose as a fundraising tool, as it can be shared with donors and partners to communicate the strategic priorities of the response. The Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and Country-Based Pooled Funds (CBPF) funding is recorded against these response plans. All funding information is recorded in the Financial Tracking Service (FTS) database, which is managed by OCHA6.

Pooled Humanitarian Financing

Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF)

Established in 2006 by the UN General Assembly, the CERF makes seed funding provided by governments, the private sector, foundations, and individuals available in order to start an action before any international funding mechanism is in place. The CERF was launched in 2006 and represents an important international multilateral funding instrument for UN agencies. This means that funding is provided by a group of countries, or an institution like the UN that represents a group of countries, instead of a single country or government donor. It provides rapid initial funding for life-saving assistance at the onset of humanitarian crises and critical support for poorly funded, essential humanitarian response operations. Each year, the CERF allocates approximately US$400 million7.

Country-Based Pooled Funds

CBPFs operate in 17 countries and since 1995 have been managed by OCHA. The Humanitarian Coordinator can allocate funds directly to UN agencies and the International Organization on Migration (IOM), national and international NGOs and Red Cross/Red Crescent organizations. CBPFs allocate funding based on identified humanitarian needs and priorities at the country level in line with the HPC. Around $500 million were allocated for the year 20158.
We have seen how these various mechanisms and processes can aid in the coordination of humanitarian interventions. We would now like you to reflect on the role of the WHO as lead of the health cluster and imagine that you are on the ground in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. You know that the main health issues facing the population are sanitation-related diseases and trauma, both physical and mental, caused by the typhoon. How would you begin to lead a strategic plan for response?
© London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
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Health in Humanitarian Crises

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