In the past decade the humanitarian system has had to respond to natural disasters and complex emergencies of increasing severity. In 2005, as an attempt to increase coordination amongst humanitarian actors and improve coherence in humanitarian response, the United Nations implemented a coordination mechanism called the Cluster Approach. The aim of this paper is to present common challenges of the Cluster Approach raised since its implementation and to provide lessons learned, based on the findings of a meta-analysis of 18 existing case studies, evaluations, and literature. The paper assesses progress the Cluster Approach has made toward meeting its intended goals, exposing different stakeholder perspectives and aggregating findings from various clusters and country contexts. The research reveals that, overall, the Cluster Approach has increased the effectiveness of humanitarian action, suggesting that it is a worthwhile mechanism to pursue. However, there are many challenges associated with the approach. First, there are large gaps in predictable leadership. This is primarily due to the high turnover rates of cluster coordinators, lack of impartiality of cluster lead agencies, and insufficient training and experience of cluster coordinators. Second, there are barriers to inclusive partnership in the Cluster Approach. Cluster coordination is not only labour intensive, requiring a significant amount of time and resources for effective participation, but it has largely failed to create a sense of NGO ownership and involvement. Third, the Cluster Approach does not have sufficient mechanisms in place to enhance accountability to affected populations. The key findings of the meta-analysis highlight that there are many opportunities for improvement within the Cluster Approach, but that the structure of the coordination mechanism is a positive shift in humanitarian relief efforts.
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