The next phase of humanitarian reform – time for a new approach to cross-cutting humanitarian issues [blog entry]

One of the recurring themes in HERE’s work is the need for prioritisation, whether at the strategic, policy, or operational/programmatic level. Our latest work on humanitarian coordination has shown how the laundry list of policy issues humanitarian agencies and donors have put on the agenda is a longstanding challenge to effective coordination. This is not to say that accountability to affected people, diversity and inclusion, gender, gender-based violence, the humanitarian-development(-peace) nexus, localisation, prevention of (or protection against) sexual exploitation, abuse, and sexual harassment (PSEAH), (general) protection, etc. should not be addressed, but if everything is a priority… you know how the saying ends.

In this guest contribution, co-author of the review of the IASC protection policy and independent consultant Damian Lilly offers his thoughts on how to approach the coordination of so-called cross-cutting issues.

With the High-Level Panel on IDPs recommending an “independent review of humanitarian response to internal displacement” humanitarian reform is back on the agenda. In 2005, the Humanitarian Response Review led to the roll out of the cluster system to coordinate  humanitarian action.

This time around there are myriad issues that could be addressed in such a system-wide review: Is this the end of the cluster system? Will area-based coordination take over? How do you solve the problem of humanitarian leadership? Will local actors finally be treated as equal partners?

No-one would disagree that the humanitarian system is dysfunctional, if not broken. Transforming it so that it is more effective is the more enduring challenge.

The next chapter of humanitarian reform, though, is likely to focus as much on ‘how’ aid agencies work as ‘what’ they actually do.

There has been a record-breaking expansion of humanitarian needs in the last five years with climate change and COVID-19 adding to the longstanding problems of armed conflict and displacement. Some have suggested that the humanitarian system needs to pivot from war aid to climate aid while health emergencies are likely to become more of a common feature.

Sectors still work well enough

Whatever future humanitarian challenges might arise, the sectoral approach to humanitarian action has stood up surprisingly well. Returning to the humanitarian sector after more than two decades away the new Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths has said he has been impressed with how the cluster system still functions.

Cash assistance is the major innovation in humanitarian aid in the last decade. A model for cash coordination has recently been agreed by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC).

Protection has always had a bit of an identity issue being both a ‘sector’ and a ‘goal’ of humanitarian action. The recently published IASC Protection Policy Review – of which I was a part – has recommended a more simplified protection architecture that makes a distinction of protection as a system-wide and sectoral responsibility.

The Early Recovery cluster is the other sector that has struggled from being an approach rather than a form of assistance. An evaluation of its functioning in 2018 suggested that it might be time to wind it up.

Otherwise, the traditional humanitarian sectors of food security, health, WASH, education, nutrition, etc. are still largely fit-for-purpose for organising humanitarian action save perhaps the need for an energy cluster.

A better approach to multi-sectoral programming is needed, but sectors are likely to endure. Some see area-based coordination as the panacea for the ills of the humanitarian system, but such a model is always likely to complement, rather than replace, sector coordination.

Cross-cutting humanitarian issues are what need fixing

The more intractable issues that the humanitarian system still needs to solve relate more to how agencies approach humanitarian action as what assistance they provide.

Localization, Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP), the Triple Nexus, Humanitarian Access, the Centrality of Protection and Gender are some of the major cross-cutting issues for which a lack of progress is holding back improving the effectiveness of the humanitarian response. They have all been acknowledged priorities for years, but share in common a lack of transformational change in the way humanitarian organizations operate.

Numerous research, reviews and webinars have lamented the humanitarian system’s insufficient commitment to these issues, while the way in which they are currently being dealt with is clearly not making a difference. It is not a lack of know-how for how they should be addressed, which has been articulated in reems of technical guidance. Rather the problem is the intuitional barriers within the system as a whole and the failure of individual agencies to hardwire them into their organizational practices.

The standard approach is to hire a specialist to produce guidance on the issue, convene a working group and then develop a strategy that all humanitarian actors sign up to. The problem with this approach though is that rather than it leading to more accountability, it tends to establish endless processes that drain the attention of humanitarian actors and detract them from more pressing operational concerns.

A more simplified approach is needed to this increasing bureaucratisation of aid. In the same way as the cluster system brought order to sectoral coordination so too does there now need to be a holistic reorganisation  of cross-cutting issues within the humanitarian system. For this to occur several things need to happen.

First, strategic planning on cross-cutting issues should be streamlined. A specialised approach for what are cross-cutting concerns tends to erode collective ownership for them rather than facilitating it. More individual strategies are not needed. Instead, planning on cross cutting issues should be simplified and integrated more fully into existing processes such as adding a new module to the Humanitarian Programme Cycle (HPC).

Second, there needs to be predictable leadership. Humanitarian Coordinators (HCs) are nominally accountable for coordinating all these issues, but they clearly don’t have the time and expertise to do so. Their offices though are filled with a plethora of advisors each pushing their own agendas. There needs to be a rationalization and re-organization of these positions that reduces duplication and enhances synergies to provide dedicated technical support to HCs.

Third, the coordination arrangements on cross-cutting issues need to be clarified. While people may decry the cluster system there is at least predictability in the way humanitarian assistance is organised. The same could not be said for cross-cutting issues for which there is no agreed coordination model but rather a countless different working groups and tasks forces that vary from one context to the next and often overlap in their responsibilities. As with the clusters there should be a standardised set of coordination mechanisms, with clear lead responsibilities, that should be established in all responses albeit depending on the contextualised needs.

Fourth, a results-based approach needs to be adopted. The efforts invested in addressing these cross-cutting issues should be judged not by the amount of time that they take from people but by the results that they achieve. This requires setting out clear indicators and benchmarks to measure progress, and ensuring that there are accountability frameworks that spell out who needs to take what required action.


The ’to do list’ for humanitarian reform is long – there are many things that need fixing. As the cluster system helped clarify sector coordination in previous rounds of reform, though, so too could a new approach to cross-cutting issues help transform the humanitarian system and make it more effective to meet the growing humanitarian challenges of the future.

Damian Lilly is an independent consultant and previously worked for the UN for more than 15 years, both in the secretariat in New York and in several crisis countries. He most recently served as Chief of the Protection Division in the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and Senior Protection of Civilians Advisor in the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). He has published a number of different academic, policy and other articles on topics related to human rights, peacekeeping, humanitarian affairs and development cooperation. He is from the United Kingdom and currently is based in Mozambique.

You can find Damian on LinkedIn and twitter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.