Four ways to improve coordination among humanitarian organisations

Major disasters often mobilise hundreds of humanitarian organisations, and coordinating these organisations is a huge challenge. The United Nations has come up with a solution: logistics clusters to facilitate the exchange of information and resources – yet there have been questions about the effectiveness of the UN’s cluster approach because of failures in coordinating relief efforts in previous disasters. To better understand and facilitate effective coordination, Dr Lea Ruesch of London School of Economics, Dr Murat Tarakci from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), and Prof. Maria Besiou and Prof. Niels Van Quaquebeke from Kühne Logistics University have developed four action points in their paper entitled Orchestrating coordination among humanitarian organizations.

During her work in a refugee camp, Lea Ruesch witnessed how humanitarian workers compete for resources but also waste them. Unfortunately, coordination failures are not an exception. For example, the Haiti earthquake in 2010 when coordination between organisations was labelled a huge failure.

It’s shocking, precisely because humanitarian organisations and their agents all exist – and strive – to save as many lives as possible. Although the UN has implemented the cluster system to act as a central coordination lever, the coordination problems persist. What is going wrong?


“When one humanitarian organisation plays a purely facilitating role in coordinating a crisis, there is much less waste or resources.”


Avoiding destructive power struggles

The paper focuses on the United Nations' cluster system, one of the most centralised coordination platforms in the humanitarian sector. The researchers used multiple methods including qualitative interviews with people from a diverse sample of humanitarian organisations alongside reviews of the minutes of 163 meetings before developing an agent-based simulation to build their theory of leadership roles in humanitarian settings.

The researchers’ qualitative analysis found that the dual role given to the organisation that leads the cluster – the ‘cluster lead’ – might be the cause of the coordination failures. The cluster lead with a dual role acts as both facilitator of cluster meetings to coordinate the humanitarian organisations at the same time as actively participating in the disaster response. This prompts power struggles, and harms trust among other members of that cluster.

Trust issues arise when organisations in the cluster question whether or not the cluster lead favours its own agenda. So they hesitate to share their local knowledge and resources, and then the relief effort is derailed.

The agent-based simulations confirm earlier research that highlighted the coordination benefits of having a cluster lead. But the researchers also found that there is much less waste of resources when the cluster lead plays a purely facilitating role for other cluster members without having to make its own active response to the crisis. Instead, it listens to cluster members’ priorities, coordinates their efforts, and provides them with missing resources, information and materials.


Four ways to facilitate aid

Scarce resources and the need to balance profit, social responsibility and sustainability mean that organisations increasingly need to collaborate. The researchers’ results are, they say, intended to help organisations to better work together and share their resources – i.e. their information, skills, knowledge, and materials. The researchers noted four action points:


  1. Leads assigned to manage inter-organisational relationships should signal neutrality and prioritise members' needs over their own.
  2. Staff from the lead organisation should be trained to suppress its organisational identity for the sake of inter-organisational cooperation. The organisation acting as cluster lead should acknowledge that its coordination role should not be exploited to serve its own agenda, and should also make sure that no coordinators feel pressured into promoting their organisations’ agenda.
  3. Cluster lead staff should be as transparent as possible by documenting their decisions, and provide their reasoning for decisions about allocating resources.
  4. Priorities should be developed by the cluster lead and cluster members in tandem by democratically exchanging their insights and data.


Taking it further

The researchers have presented their findings to the World Food Programme in Rome and have shared the paper with all their study participants. They have received feedback saying that the study provides empirical evidence for destructive behavioral dynamics that are otherwise hard to grasp and address. Lea Ruesch was subsequently invited to Haiti to conduct follow-up studies addressing the implementation of the study, and to write reports for the cluster.


This article was published in Production and Operations Management under the title Orchestrating coordination among humanitarian organizations.

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top-ranked business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

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