Friday, May 22, 2015

Nepal Deployment: Clusters

There are some unique things when it comes to to deployments internationally that come into the fray and take on a bit of prominence that may seem foreign to those of us from the states.  Thankfully, recent international disaster training has helped prepare me for such changes, not the least of which is the Cluster model.

(OK, now be honest.... You thought this entry was going to be about something else when you read that title)

For those that are reading this that are domestically trained in the FEMA model, the closest thing to clusters is the ESF model (Emergency Support Function).  The key difference is in the domestic model ESF's remain largely behind the scenes and often times within the EOC (Emergency Operations Center), Cluster are very much at the fore front. 

Cluster Diagram from UN
There are numerous clusters ranging from Food Security, to Health to Logistics to Protection, etc.  The Salvation Army is involved in numerous clusters and attends numerous cluster meetings in order to better coordinate our relief operations.  I believe we are currently attending: Food Security; Health; WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene); Logistics; Education; CCCM (Camp Coordination and Camp Management); and Shelter. 

It is interesting also to see how each cluster is organized and conducts their business.  For instance...

I had the opportunity thus far to attend two separate cluster meetings.  The first was the WASH cluster.  The meeting took place at the Nepali Water Authority facility.  After arriving there and wondering through the very large 4 story building which appeared to be relatively vacant in terms of people occupying the place, we finally realized the cluster was actually meeting outside in what was a courtyard of sorts. 

We thought we had arrived late as it was already five minutes beyond the start time, but you learn quick that there is universal time and what is kindly referred to as Nepali time (which usually means "there about").  Clearly many in this cluster were operating in the Nepali time format as things didn't get going until about 15 minutes after the scheduled start.

We sat through a very long (and honestly quite brutally boring) one hour and 25 minute meeting that
discussed everything from water issues, to number of toilets required, to hygiene distribution in very long drawn out format. Luckily it wasn't terribly hot out that day the uncomfortability was only due to the long drawn out reports mixed with the lousy ability to hear thanks to the crappy portable microphone system.

The large part of the meeting was taken up by a discussion of materials produced by a working group of the WASH cluster designed to educate folks on sanitary practices such a washing hands, etc.  The materials were very professionally done up and will serve communities well once distributed.  The only issue was what had turned into a rather lengthy conversation that we in the states would say well "in the weeds"....but I won't get into those details here.

The next day I attended a Logistics Cluster meeting.  This was the complete opposite of my prior days experience.  Both meetings were well attended, but the Logistics cluster operated in a much more structured and efficient manner (as I suppose one should expect from logistics, but if I have learned anything thus far it is to manage one's expectations!).  This is in addition to the immediate difference that we were not in the hot outside under a makeshift tarp tent, but rather in a portable, air conditioned conference room structure!
Photo via

Logistics is coordinated by a Frenchman from the WFP (World Food Programme) who does an excellent job not only running the meetings, but commanding the room.  It is clear who is in charge here and he runs the cluster meeting with efficiency and arguably unlike anyone else I have seen thus far. We roll through the agenda very expeditiously, but all the while dedicating the time necessary to discuss issues without getting too deep as to either fall of track or be bogged down into the finite details. 

There is also involvement from many in the room, with the expectation that everyone has the same "straight to the point" manner and that issues and concerns are clearly stated.  A very refreshing perspective from someone who is now operating in this specific circle....which is not to say this particularly cluster doesn't have its own cumbersome ways (believe me it does), only that its clear meetings will not be one of them!  The bottom line was moving items through the chain efficiently and effectively, while identifying road blocks as soon as the arise to help navigate them accordingly.

Clusters provide the backbone for the aid efforts here and most every disaster internationally, and do a good job of facilitating communication.  Each and every subject matter is important, and even though some may be a bit more efficient or orderly in their process, all play a key role in the ongoing coordination and support of both NGO and Government relief operations.

Without the cluster system and the bringing together of the necessary partners, it is hard to imagine just how inefficient and dysfunction relief operations would otherwise be!

Bobby Myers

EDS Director
Pendel Division

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