The Water, sanitation and hygiene sector and the coordination represent two major issues in contemporary humanitarian aid. In this article, the three authors offer us an in-depth analysis of the achievements and challenges of a global system.
In 2008, two years after the Humanitarian Reform (HR) was proposed to the United Nations (UN) and all other humanitarian actorsJeremy Konyndyk, “Five Takeaways on the Future of Humanitarian Reform”, Center for Global Development, 2019., the Global WASH ClusterGlobal coordination platform for Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) humanitarian actors. (GWC) partners agreed that the GWC’s primary role, as a global coordination entity, was to clarify the coordination concepts and systems practised, create tools and resources to facilitate coordination and support countries with implementing those tools in humanitarian settingsFor more information on the GWC: https://www.washcluster.net. The GWC partners decided to mobilise a surge project, the Field Support Team (FST), to help the clusterOCHA, “What is the Cluster Approach?”, 2019, https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/en/about-Clusters/what-is-the-Cluster-approach fulfil these needs. The FST is a skilled team of surge emergency experts who provide the functions of national or sub-national cluster coordination, information management and coordinated assessment to support National Humanitarian WASH Coordination Platforms (NHWCP). A consortium of humanitarian WASH agencies took ownership of the project from 2010. Nearly fifteen years since the launch of the HR, the FST project is still active, in high demand and respected by the country coordination platforms and even replicated by other clusters. So, why is the FST so successful and why are the NHWCP still so reliant on the FST’s support? What could the disengagement strategy of this project be in the medium term?
A brief history of humanitarian coordination
As widely acknowledged, humanitarian coordination is critical to achieve an effective (prompt) efficient (thrifty) and coherent (coordinated) response. This is particularly essential nowadays with the constant increase in the frequency, intensity and complexity of humanitarian crises, accompanied by an escalating number of people in need and targeted for assistance and by the rising financial volume of humanitarian appeals in the last ten yearsUNDRR, “2018: Extreme weather events affected 60 million people”, 2019, https://www.preventionweb.net/news/view/63266 ; UNHCR, “Figures at a Glance”, 2019, … Continue reading.
The humanitarian coordination system operates at two interrelated levels: global and national/subnationalWith technical support provided at both the global and regional levels.. There is a mirror effect in the coordination structures of these two levels. First, the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) has the coordination leadership at the global level and the Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) at the national level. Each structure is supported by their advisory group: the Inter Agency Steering Committee (IASC) and the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) respectively. Second, the eleven sectoral clusters, including the WASH cluster, are represented at the global level by their global cluster coordinators, mirrored at the national level by the country cluster coordinators, each having their respective Strategic Advisory Group comprising WASH partners. The IASC approves activation of national clusters, provided there is a justified request from the country’s HCT, as an essential requirement to coordinate the response to the crisisOCHA, “OCHA Global Overview of Coordination Arrangements in 2016”, 2017, https://interagencystandingcommittee.org/other/documents-public/ocha-global-overview-coordination-arrangements-2016. The subnational level of coordination, usually handled by local partners and/or local authorities, is essential for addressing the humanitarian response.
The coordination model originated from the 2006 Humanitarian Reform. The reform promoted the dedicated and skilled leadership of coordination platforms, easily accessible funding such as the Central Emergency Relief Fund (CERF)Central Emergency Response Fund, Guidance and Templates, https://cerf.un.org/grant-cycle/guidance-and-templates, sectoral coordination (clusters) and, as a crosscutting pillar, the principle of partnership between actors. This “partnership” pillar aims to engage all actors (including government, national authorities and civil society) to work alongside national and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and United Nations agencies in order to coordinate a response and see that it is more effective, predictable, reliable and inclusiveALNAP, “Coordination Workshop Briefing Paper: How can we improve humanitarian coordination across a response?”, 2016, … Continue reading. It remains a major challenge of the Humanitarian Reform implementation.
The Humanitarian Reform model was adapted through the 2011 Transformative Agenda (TA)Agenda for Humanity, “Initiative Grand Bargain”, 2019, https://agendaforhumanity.org/initiatives/3861 ; IASC, “IASC Transformative Agenda” 2019, … Continue reading, which puts the emphasis on leadershipMaintaining a continuity of dedicated and professional HCs and cluster coordinators remains a challenge today., standardisation of the Humanitarian Project Cycle (HPC) across all sectors and reassertion of the importance of Accountability to Affected Populations (AAP). The TA also strengthened mutual accountability between partners and released the cluster leader agencies (normally in the UN) from the constraints of the “Provider of Last Resort” status they held before. These amendments to the Humanitarian Reform caused more of an evolution than a revolution in the way coordination and humanitarian assistance are delivered.
The 2016 World Humanitarian Summit (WHS)IASC, “Grand Bargain Annual Self-Reporting Exercise”, 2017, https://interagencystandingcommittee.org/system/files/icva_-_self_report_.pdf marked an important step. The summit put forward radical changes to crisis response. The first ten commitments proposed by the WHS included promoting localisation (working with local agencies, either governmental or non-governmental), encouraging affected populations to participate in designing their own humanitarian response and implementing the triple nexus approach (humanitarian action, development cooperation and peacebuilding).
Today, as the inheritors of these successive coordination reforms, it is important to assess where we are in terms of the new commitments from the WHS and any challenges from the HR and TA still to be addressed. Humanitarian WASH coordination has, through the GWC, specifically adapted to each development and commitment, for example by including in its materials for NHWCP the scale of AAP, Quality Assurance (QA) and building (local) capacity. The FST is integral to this support.
Persistent coordination challenges
The greatest challenge to sustaining humanitarian coordination is the staffing of national and subnational positions by relevant and competent agencies. In 2021, the GWC cluster lead agency, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), employs sixty-seven national coordinators and information managers across thirty country coordination platformsGlobal WASH Cluster, Humanitarian Response Dashboard 2021, https://www.washcluster.net/GWC_Dashboard2021. Many of these platforms were established by FST staff over the last ten years. In addition, WASH partners are filling national co-facilitation roles and large numbers of subnational coordination positions (generally part-time).
The primary role of the FST project is to introduce new coordination mechanisms in crisis contexts where they do not exist and to support NHWCP in fulfilling the seven 2015 IASC Core Coordination Functions (CCF)The seven CCF are 1) Support service delivery; 2) Inform strategic decision-making; 3) Plan and implement cluster strategies; 4) Monitor and evaluate performance; 5) Build capacity in preparedness … Continue reading in countries where WASH clusters or sectors are activatedInter-Agency Standing Committee, “IASC Reference Module for Cluster Coordination at Country Level”, 2015, … Continue reading. In 2017, the GWC indexed these seven functions with twenty-three minimum requirements for WASH coordination. The GWC organises an annual survey to understand how national WASH platforms perform against these indicators, which platforms require external support and how this support can best be deliveredGlobal WASH Cluster, “Minimum Requirements for National Humanitarian WASH Coordination Platforms”, 2017, … Continue reading. The 2020 CCF survey, taken by more than thirty NHWCP, showed for example that globally the three poorest performing core functions are:
– performance monitoring and evaluation: support should be oriented towards Quality Assurance to improve monitoring the quality of the WASH sector response;
– preparedness and contingency planning: capacity-mapping and capacity-building of humanitarian actors – at the local level in priority – , calls for support and guidance; and
– accountability to affected populations: the main challenges remaining relate to guidance and how to communicate on this new function as well as setting focal points on the platforms for this crosscutting themeGlobal WASH Cluster, “2020 Core Coordination Functions Survey”..
Based on this survey, the FST mechanism, which currently consists of a surge team of ten people organised around the three major support functions (cluster coordination, information management and coordinated assessment), may want to add AAP, QA and CB to its skillset, either by recruiting dedicated new members of staff or by acquiring and mainstreaming these competencies among existing staff.
New challenges for national coordination platforms
However, the WHS faces two new significant and interrelated challenges on top of the weak areas exposed by the CCF: achieving localisation as a concrete realisation of the principle of partnership and promoting the triple nexus, which is about merging the humanitarian, development and peacebuilding agendas.
Localisation is a strategic move to sustain humanitarian coordination by integrating it, and the ensuing response, in the national and regional (e.g. African Union) landscapeALNAP, “Coordination Workshop Briefing Paper: How can we better involve national actors in humanitarian coordination?”, 2016, … Continue reading. Collaborating with governmental agencies and local authorities is the essence of the Humanitarian Reform, where co-led mechanisms are encouraged. This is, of course, only possible when national authoritiesAccording to humanitarian principles, especially in terms of neutrality and independence. have sufficient capacity and are willing to engage. The contribution of local actors to subnational and national coordination is expected to be critical in terms of enhancing AAP and shaping emergency preparedness planning, notwithstanding its added-value in accessing and providing a WASH response in the most challenging and hard-to-reach locations. Collaborating with the private sector is another example, through pre-signed agreements designed to make national Emergency Preparedness and Response Plans (EPRP) more appropriate and less harmful to the local economies – which could be easily destabilised by a massive external humanitarian response. Co-leadership of activated clusters by UN and governmental agencies (sector ministries in charge) should be encouraged in the first place as it contributes to representativeness and mutual accountability of WASH partnersPaul Knox Clarke and Leah Campbell, “Improving Humanitarian Coordination”, 2016, … Continue reading.
“Achieving the triple nexus, still somewhat of a holy grail, aims to empower the national authorities to become primary actors in charge of their national humanitarian response.”
|Localisation: the example of Burkina Faso, 2021
Following a rapid deterioration of the humanitarian crisis in Burkina Faso, the WASH cluster was activated in late 2019, initially counting eighteen members, all international NGOs. Yet a committed and legitimate national ministry, in charge of WASH, exists in the country, as well as numerous civil society organisations, which fully understand the context and have good access to the field; their involvement in the WASH cluster was therefore crucial. Today, the cluster has sixty-four members including twelve government institutions and thirteen national organisations. This strong connection with local actors was achieved by decentralising coordination platforms, opening cluster membership to implementing partners of international NGOs, networking with national umbrella organisations and capacity building of national stakeholders. Advocacy was also undertaken to facilitate direct access to funding for local NGOs. The link with the WASH ministry was strengthened through cluster co-piloting at national, and especially regional level, the inclusion of WASH emergency data in national monitoring systems and an ongoing process for the triple nexus institutionalisation. These are indeed preparedness elements that consolidate and sustain the national and local capacity for a humanitarian WASH response in preparation for the government takeover of Cluster coordination.
Achieving the triple nexus, still somewhat of a holy grail, aims to empower the national authorities to become primary actors in charge of their national humanitarian responsePaul Knox Clarke and Leah Campbell, “Exploring Coordination in Humanitarian Clusters”, 2015, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281586442_Exploring_Coordination_in_Humanitarian_Clusters ; … Continue reading. This is critical for at least two reasons. First, because governments are the duty bearers of human rights for their populations. These include the duty of protection, the respect and fulfilment of human rights, and the responsibility for the humanitarian response. The mandate of the UN system is to support and never replace governments. Second, the rising number, length, caseload and intensity of humanitarian crises means it is unrealistic to rely on external global surge assistance only and makes a pledge for promising national EPRP.
Both internal and external conflicts should be mitigated by enforcing basic human rights and securing proper institutional governance and accountability. The main directions for achieving the triple nexus are therefore:
– ensuring the strong participation of governments in coordination structures (national and subnational) and building their capacities accordingly (with an emphasis on the principle of partnership, human rights and accountability to affected populations);
– promoting and supporting an institutional bureau for humanitarian response and preparedness activities (hosted under the most appropriate ministry)There are numerous excellent examples of similar institutional structures, such as Burkina Faso, Indonesia, Cambodia, etc.;
– actively supporting the authorities in building and supplying their EPRP;
– advocating for a dedicated budget, part of the national budget plan, for humanitarian response and its coordination (including possible external support mechanisms such as the FST project or humanitarian consultants);
– merging the humanitarian response monitoring and evaluation with recommendations from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)/Development Assistance CommitteeOECD, “DAC Criteria for Evaluating Development Assistance”, 2019, https://www.oecd.org/dac/evaluation/daccriteriaforevaluatingdevelopmentassistance.htm.
|Triple nexus: the example of Iraq, 2021
In Iraq, the WASH Cluster worked at the national and subnational level to facilitate coordination with the Government of Iraq (GoI). For national response ownership, the WASH Cluster engaged the government in response planning and support for populations affected by the crisis linked to ISIS’s action This is illustrated through the development of the Iraq Cholera Preparedness Plan with the health cluster and GoI. The plan was developed in 2015 in consultation with the local authorities and was updated in 2018 to incorporate lessons learned by the GoI. By engaging the government in the development and updating of the plan, it created ownership, supporting the planned transition from cluster to government-led sector. These engagements enabled joint interventions, including the rehabilitation of Qaqa’a central water treatment plant in Baghdad with cost sharing between the government and UNICEF.
Sub nationally, the WASH Cluster in 2016 appointed a member of the Duhok Board of Relief and Humanitarian Affairs (BRHA), the Iraq entity for humanitarian and development cooperation, as the subnational coordinator. By engaging directly with BRHA and empowering them to lead coordination, the Cluster engaged the Directorate of Water and Directorate of Municipalities more effectively to identify priority needs and ensure that the humanitarian and development transition was well considered throughout the interventions.
The critical role of the Field Support Team
The Field Support Team is a surge coordination response mechanism designed to establish a new coordination platform or strengthen an existing one. The GWC partners agreed ten years ago to base the mechanism on a consortium model to share the coordination workload across all WASH partners. The FST provides systematic support for NHWCP across the Core Coordination Functions as expressed in the IASC reference module (2015) through deployments to the field, targeted remote support and generalised support to the global NHWCP. The FST consortium is coordinated by Action Against Hunger (ACF) and includes Oxfam (Oxford Committee for Famine Relief), Impact Initiatives, Norwegian Church Aid and iMMAP with oversight from the GWC and UNICEF. Multilateral donors and in-kind support from the project partners (essentially the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)/Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA)), complemented by UNICEF – France, UNICEF – Geneva, Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and ACF), fund the project. An annual survey, addressed to the coordination platforms, helps to gauge the satisfaction of the support received and provides recommendations to improve FST services year after year. The 2020 survey included twenty-eight platforms and confirmed the high demand and need for such external support projects. We are seeing that the project, initiated by the Global WASH Cluster and replicated by other global clusters (e.g. Global Nutrition Cluster), is a success. This global mechanism, however, raises important questions about its own sustainability, its potential delocalisation towards regions and countries (in the form of Rapid Response Mechanisms, already deployed in Sub-Saharan Africa and essentially funded by the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO)), and the development it needs to become more effective and relevant. It also helps us to consider the entire humanitarian coordination mechanismALNAP, “The State of the Humanitarian System: Summary 2018”, https://www.alnap.org/system/files/content/resource/files/main/SOHS 2018 Summary online_2.pdf with its undeniable strengths (effectiveness, proven life-saving impact) and systemic weaknesses (funding, continuity, long-term sustainability, localisation and role of governments).
The first challenge of the FST project is to manage its own success. Due to the overall quality of FST support combined with a deteriorating global humanitarian situation, NHWCP demand for support rose from 58% in 2019 to 69% of activated platforms in 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic increased demand for support (57% of respondents who requested support connected it with Covid-19-related needs). At the same time, the number of platforms that accessed support from the FST mechanism for the development of their Global Humanitarian Response Plan (GHRP) increased from thirty in 2019 to sixty-three in 2020.
The second challenge, still according to the 2020 survey, is the Covid-19 response. The pandemic prompted increased demand and brought additional challenges to traditional humanitarian crises, either by diverting human and financial resources or destabilising local economies.
The third challenge relates to its ability to continuously adapt to a changing humanitarian landscape, shaped by the Humanitarian Reform and Transformative Agenda without counting the structural evolutions of the WASH sector influenced by development agendas such as the 2030 Agenda (Sustainable Development Goals).
Coordination is still poorly funded (which justifies the existence of FST), which generates gaps that directly impact life-saving. Humanitarian actors often consider coordination as a UN-earmarked responsibility, even if the Humanitarian Reform and subsequent Transformative Agenda promote mutual accountability and the principle of partnership as exemplified in the FST consortium. Multilateral donors such as USAID/BHA as well as global consortium partners historically support the FST project through in-kind contribution. Because the project outcome is to serve NHWCP around the world, such a funding mechanism “from above” is an anachronism and so the project’s sustainability and replicability is under constant threat. The FST mechanism, initiated by the WASH Cluster, has been replicated to other global clusters (e.g. Nutrition), which could lead to a sprinkling of dedicated resources.
“This global mechanism, however, raises important questions about its own sustainability, its potential delocalisation towards regions and countries.“
The project also faces structural challenges: its limited size (ten deployable staff) means the number of languages spoken and therefore the possible areas of intervention are limited. In front of the increasing range of skills and competencies required (see the seven Core Coordination Functions plus the theme proposed by the World Humanitarian Summit), the GWC and FST continuously face challenges regarding capacity.
Finally, the demand for FST supportBetween November 2020 and October 2021, the FST mechanism proceeded eighteen deployments (fourteen in-person and four virtual) to twelve country coordination platforms (Central African Republic, … Continue reading is unpredictable and it is therefore quite impossible to secure a yearly or even quarterly planning for the project. This leads to frustrations, turnover and management challenges. Although there will always be a need for global surge support for coordination, what would a feasible exit strategy for the FST project or at least a reasonable scale down look like? The surge support sizing question, closely linked to the FST’s sustainable economic model, remains critical for a medium-term disengagement plan.
Adapting the FST response to the challenges identified
The immediate response to the growing number of field surge support requests is to reinforce and possibly expand the current FST team (in term of staff numbers and specific experience). In parallel, Covid-19 has influenced the modalities of support for national platforms – physical deployments becoming temporarily impossible. Support and training were provided virtually rather than in situ during most of 2020 and the first months of 2021. To cope with the additional demand prompted by Covid-19, the FST’s members were allocated to regions to simplify remote support management processes. The mechanism learned to become more agile and use remote conferencing as a substitute for deployments, training and global support to NHWCP.
The FST mechanism’s global support role also consists of producing technical guidance and standard operating procedures. For example, defining national Humanitarian Response Plans or assembling online resource documents related to Covid-19. National platforms appreciated two documents in particular: “GWC COVID-19 Guidance for Coordination” and “GWC COVID-19 Technical Guidance”. Overall, 82% of respondents were satisfied with the Global WASH Cluster Covid-19 resources webpage.
Adapting to a changing humanitarian landscape is achieved by:
– maintaining and increasing the availability of deployment support (ideally in-person), which remains the most valued item in the FST services toolbox;
– encouraging the FST members to be highly flexible in their deployments as well as working closely with the traditional standby partners agencies to ensure that staffing gaps in coordination are filled smoothly and rapidly;
– increasing and adapting the remote support. There is a need to multiply, review, simplify and update the resources available, putting an emphasis on online workshops defined by theme and calendar, supplying contextualised field-based examples from the field and resources delivered in several languages and providing support to national TWIG. The fact that nearly half of NHWCP create their own tools is encouraging but requires an effort in global capitalisation and possibly harmonisation. An online Coordination Tool Kit (CTK) is precisely the global tool needed to answer these recommendations, providing for each issue: generic information, useful resources and guidance and finally field examples. Updating the CTK should remain a continuous process;
– focusing on capacity-building hand in hand with the GWC’s dedicated position and regional support;
– improving its own competency and developing guidance material, capacity-building and support on structural or emerging themes such as quality assurance monitoring, accountability to affected populations, coordination platform performance monitoring, response monitoring plan, gap analysis, needs analysis assessment and assessment strategy and advocacy.
To sustain the project in the medium term, the immediate recommendation would be to seek a larger consortium of (humanitarian) donors to finance the FST and commit to longer-term financing. In parallel, a sustainable and structural strategy would be to promote a “user-payer” economic model, with a full, or at least partial, bottom-up (from the national level to the global level) refund mechanism. The project must, through targeted communication and advocacy actions, highlight the fact that (humanitarian) coordination is, to date, not sufficiently funded.
Finally, due to the constant evolution and increasing complexity of the humanitarian environmentIASC, “IASC Humanitarian System-Wide Scale-Up Protocols Released”, 2018, … Continue reading, the project also needs to reinvent itself by becoming closer to his “clients” (the coordination platforms), maybe adopting a regional setup, connecting with existing standby rapid response mechanisms, adopting a more agile planning and management structure, for example by considering hiring consultants for dedicated technical support on the major themes discussed above. But above all, the project will reinvent itself by consolidating, sustaining and building capacity of NHWPC.
The final stage of validation and adjustment of the French and English versions of this article was carried out under the responsibility of the authors.
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