The U.N. “Cluster System” Is as Bad as It Sounds

Criticism has plagued the United Nations ever since it sent a peacekeeping force to Haiti in 2004. Past scandals include accusations of child sex abuse and political bias, but it’s safe to say the United Nations’ standing has reached a new low as far as Haitians are concerned. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicinein December, the strain of cholera that has killed more than 3,300 and infected nearly 150,000 people in Haiti originated in South Asia. This gave new credence to the already widespread belief that a Nepalese unit with United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (known as MINUSTAH) was the source of the outbreak. Adding more fuel to local anger and resentment was the response of MINUSTAH forces to election-related protests in recent weeks, which included rocketing tear gas into Port-au-Prince’s tent camps.

Now, as the one-year anniversary of the earthquake approaches, the U.N. humanitarian response, particularly an organizational mechanism known as the cluster system, is generating still more anger. Intended to organize, coordinate, and integrate the work of the hundreds of humanitarian groups in Haiti, the system splits aspects of the relief and recovery effort into a dozen sectors such as “shelter,” “food,” “education,” and “health,” each one overseen by the relevant U.N. agency. These clusters hold regular meetings attended by representatives of the United Nations and participating NGOs. Despite its aims, the system has been described as incomprehensible and dysfunctional. “I barely understand the cluster system,” said Sabrina Carlson, project manager for the Ushahidi Haiti Project, in the Fletcher Journal of Human Security. “No one has bothered to explain the humanitarian system to the Haitians and this is their government, effectively. They’re doing everything a state would be doing—providing services, security and managing the country.”

Mark Schuller, an assistant professor of anthropology and African American studies at the City University of New York, is currently working on a book about NGOs in Haiti. “Pardon the expression, but [the cluster system] is a circle jerk,” he said. The system gives all the power to the United Nations and allied groups, excluding average citizens and even the Haitian government, Schuller says. Compounding this dynamic is the fact that some cluster meetings are held in French, others in English, and none in Haitian Creole. The result, according to an October report by Refugees International, is that local civil-society groups are no longer attempting to coordinate within the system, because they believe it is disconnected from the “reality outside of the U.N. compound.”

But even inside “log base,” the United Nations’ logistical compound in Port-au-Prince, there is frustration with the system. Just mentioning clusters can prompt people to simulate the act of hanging themselves. “I don’t want to go to any more clusters,” moaned one American aid worker during a cluster meeting when the creation of another working group was proposed. Over the last year, the number of these ad-hoc working groups or “sub-clusters” has grown exponentially. One aid worker described going to a sub-cluster meeting focused on mobilizing cholera-education campaigns in the city, only to be directed to yet another sub-level of groups, referred to as “baby clusters.”

According to Jolanda van Dijk, coordinator of the “inter-cluster” cluster group that meets to organize the crossover issues among clusters, the system was meant to be scaling down at this stage and handing management of recovery operations to the Haitian government. Instead, it is currently expanding in order to try to deal with the cholera epidemic. “The earthquake was just in a few places, but cholera is now nationwide,” she said. Of these new cholera meetings, one aid worker who was in Zimbabwe during that country’s cholera epidemic in 2008 said, “I seriously despair of humanity in these groups. You’ve got 60 of the world’s so-called experts on cholera in a room, and no one can agree whether it’s half a tablespoon or one tablespoon of salt in a glass of water [to make an oral rehydration solution].”

The cluster system is not new to the United Nations, nor is it untested. It was created five years ago in reaction to criticism of the international humanitarian response to Darfur, and since then it has been implemented in at least a dozen countries, including Pakistan during the 2007 floods and Burma after Cyclone Nargis, to varying degrees of success. Haiti, however, is without question the largest trial of the system to date, according to Imogen Wall, a communications officer for the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Haiti. “The management involved in a response like this is phenomenally complex,” said Wall, who worked in Aceh, Indonesia, after the 2004 tsunami. “A major event that causes such devastation, the government is weak, and there are underlying endemic problems. And you have the whole humanitarian world descending on the country.”

Particularly challenging, said Wall, is that cluster groups have no formal decision-making mechanisms or mandates. This becomes problematic in the extreme at a shelter cluster meeting, for example, where there can be as many as 400 participants. The effectiveness of any given cluster often comes down to the personality or leadership skills of a single individual. “It’s the collective action problem, which is a classic philosophical dilemma,” Wall said. “How do you get organizations with wildly different mandates, funding mechanisms, skill sets, experience in the country, relationships with the government—how do you get all of them to work together when you have no power to make them do so?”

Interestingly, the problems within the cluster system might be better explained by mathematics than philosophy. Yaneer Bar-Yam is a physicist and president of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Mass., and has spent his career developing scientific methods to understand the behavior of organizations. According to Bar-Yam, the shortcomings of the U.N. humanitarian-response system in Haiti have a lot to do with a 50-year-old mathematical theorem known as Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety, which essentially says that a system has to have as many states of response as conditions that are presented by an environment. In the context of Haiti, where the conditions and disasters are rapidly evolving, hierarchical organizations that depend on a central control mechanism cannot cope. And a cluster group is basically a U.N. hierarchy broken into smaller pieces. “There’s no problem with relief agencies going in and setting up emergency facilities with central control to deal with the first rapid-response process,” said Bar Yam. “The longer-term part, when you have to deal with local problems and solve all of the complex problems of rebuilding the social framework, those cannot be done centrally.”

An improved organization model, says Bar-Yam, who has lectured at U.N. headquarters in New York City, is one that understands that duplication and competition among NGOs is not a bad thing, so long as organizations are rewarded with donor money for delivering effective solutions. And those solutions can only be determined by Haitians themselves. “To the extent that these problems are local, they should be dealt with locally,” said Bar-Yam. “To the extent that the problems are systemic in a global sense, local variation can still cause them to benefit.”

Thus far, Haitians’ participation in the cluster system remains extremely low. “Everyone’s aware that it’s a problem and has been for a long time, and it comes up in every evaluation,” Imogen Wall said of the communication gap between Haitians and the international humanitarian community in Haiti. “It’s one of the things the cluster structure fails to address.”

Click here to see a slideshow on Haiti one year after the earthquake.

Like  Slate on Facebook. Follow  us on Twitter.