Food,Trucks and Radios: WFP's Role In The 'Cluster' System

When emergencies strike, dozens of different UN agencies and partner organizations are called on to respond. They work together in “humanitarian clusters”, allow agencies to work together on areas of the response where they have the most capacity and experience. WFP leads the logistics and emergency telecommunications clusters, and co-leads the food security cluster with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

by Mariko Hall and Colin Hourihan.

ROME—When responding to emergencies, effective coordination can mean the difference between failure and success. That’s why the UN developed the “Cluster System” in 2005, allowing UN agencies and their partners to focus their strengths on specific areas of the response.

There are a total of 11 clusters addressing everything from the coordination and management of refugee camps to providing water, sanitation and hygiene services to people affected by the emergency. Each of the clusters is led by the agency or organization with greatest amount of experience or capacity in that area.

WFP, for example, leads the logistics and emergency telecommunications clusters, and is a co-lead agency for food security together with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Here’s what that means.

Aid workers setting up satelliteEmergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC)

Aid workers can’t do their jobs effectively if they can’t communicate. That’s why teams working with the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC) are often the first ones on the ground. Within 48 hours of a disaster, the ETC establishes security communications services, telephone and internet access for the entire humanitarian community. 

Being able to do that requires extensive training, which is another of the ETC’s main functions. Since its first deployment in 2012, the solution has assisted over 3500 humanitarian workers in emergencies in South Sudan and Mali

Logistics Cluster

As the world’s largest supplier of food assistance, WFP has a lot of experience managing the flow of people and resources from one place to another. That’s why it leads the Logistics Cluster, which works to deliver humanitarian relief during an emergency. That includes food and basic necessities to tents, medicine and humanitarian workers themselves.  
Collage of cargo transportation process

The Logistics Cluster has been activated in over 40 emergencies so far, transporting cargo on behalf of some 210 different agencies and organisations responding to emergencies in countries like Haiti, Somalia and Syria.

Food Security Cluster (gFSC)

The global Food Security Cluster (gFSC) works with partners to ensure that people affected by a humanitarian emergency have access to enough, safe and nutritious food to meet their needs. It’s led by WFP and FAO and comprises some 35 other UN agencies, NGOs and other organizations.

The gFSC works closely with partners, affected populations, governments, donors and other stakeholders to determine the best way to meet food needs in emergencies, as well as how to recover afterwards and what can be done to prevent it in the future.

Activating the Clusters

Clusters are ‘activated’ in emergencies as part of the humanitarian response, based on an analysis of humanitarian need and coordination capacity on the ground, and in consultation with national partners.

In practice, the humanitarian coordinator for a given emergency will recommend activating the necessary clusters, a decision which requires the approval of the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordination Valerie Amos.