Does humanitarian coordination exclude local actors and weaken their capacity?
Many reasons have been given to justify the exclusion of local actors from the humanitarian response in Haiti, such as the weakness of local institutions, human losses caused by the earthquake, the Presidential election, the cholera crisis and the partisan nature of Haitian organisations. The idea here is not to deny the importance of these factors, but there is a danger that, by concentrating on these, other essential issues are being overlooked which could explain why Haitians were marginalized during the emergency phase and why there have been difficulties in making the transition to reconstruction.
One of the principal areas to look at in evaluating the participation and involvement of Haitian actors in this humanitarian response, which involved so many international actors, is that of coordination. Two years on from the devastating earthquake of January 2010, the transferral of coordination from the United Nations’ coordination mechanism, the clusters, to the Haitian authorities has become a burning issue. For more than a year now the UN authorities, led by OCHA, have been trying to develop exit strategies to instigate the transition from the clusters to sectoral tables, national coordination bodies which include institutional and community actors as well as the donors from a sector. This transition is proving to be somewhat stormy.
This article attempts to shed some light on this burning issue. First, it looks at why the clusters have the potential to increase the gap between the international and local humanitarian communities (Stoddard, Harmer et coll., 2007). It then argues that exclusion from coordination during the emergency phase has a long-term effect on the ability to move out of an emergency set up to begin the reconstruction. Clusters are seen as political and decision-making bodies in the sense that they allow the actors who are included in them to harmonise their practices, develop shared norms and create partnerships. As such, they reinforce an international community of humanitarian experts to the detriment of local actors, who are often dispossessed of “their emergency”. In reference to the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the massive influx of organizations which took place, Christine Knudsen of UNICEF points out that the absence of partnerships from the beginning of a crisis can exclude essential partners from the coordination mechanism and that this exclusion threatens to weaken the response by depriving us of information, knowledge and resources (Knudsen, 2011, p.7).
The issue of coordination in Haiti, and more specifically that of the clusters mechanism, is too often seen only in terms of efficiency (the speed of decision-making, the exchange of information, the mapping of needs, the capacity of actors, etc.) rather than in terms of the quality and the source of the information exchanged, the actors who take part in the coordination or the existence of strategies to hand back control to the beneficiary state over one of its essential prerogatives: that of coordinating the influx of aid and actors on its territory.