ATHA: Humanitarian Coordination: An Overview

Jan 2008

A vital component of humanitarian action is the coordination among all actors involved in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Coordination within this field allows for the most efficient, cost effective, and successful operations possible. Groups seeking access to beneficiary populations often share the same objectives in regards to addressing human need and allaying suffering, but wide variance in such principle elements as organizational structure, technical and/or geographic expertise, mission, mandate, and political interest may hinder or prevent natural coordination on the field. This brief focuses on the dynamics of humanitarian coordination in the context of humanitarian assistance, and the main elements of coordination in the field. For the purposes of this paper, coordination is defined as a “systematic utilization of policy instruments to deliver humanitarian assistance in a cohesive and effective manner.” A leading scholar in the field identifies three basic types of coordination: coordination by command, coordination through consensus and coordination by default; and the distinction between the three is important in discerning both the benefits and challenges offered by different approaches to coordination. While United Nations agencies played a central role in the systemization and institutionalization of the idea of coordination, effective coordination requires multi-sectoral and multifaceted perspectives, as well as a dual approach in which the importance of both operational and strategic coordination are recognized. The principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality are central to the provision of humanitarian assistance, and as such, warrant consideration in coordination strategies and policies. Other basic principles and elements of humanitarian coordination include strengthening the capacity of local actors, transparency and accountability, and mutual commitment and cooperation between the different actors. There are a variety of existing mechanisms designed to enhance and facilitate coordination between organizations providing assistance in a given context. These mechanisms range in function from enhancing coordination within and among groups to identifying gaps in responses as well as addressing important concerns relating to funding. While there are many challenges to implementation of coordination strategies, as well as concerns regarding the potential for increased bureaucracy in an already complex system, the benefits to coordination can be tremendous. Not only are humanitarian operations improved through the development and implementation of coordination strategies and mechanisms, but, more critically, the beneficiary population also gains from better coordinated activities.