One Way To Make Humanitarian Coordination More Inclusive: Area-Based Approaches

Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the multilateral aid system continues to face a vexing challenge: how best to align international support with locally-driven expertise, capacity, and priorities?

Pandemics response requires a more locally tailored approach to reaching communities, assessing need, and delivering services than the current aid coordination model can muster. In a new CGD policy paper, we propose reorienting the coordination architecture to a hybrid area-based model, that localizes planning, and is adaptable to harmonize the multisectoral needs that are present in most crises. Lessons from localized responses to the West Africa Ebola response and examples of area-based programming illustrate how the principles of inclusive, area-based programming could enhance coordination at scale.

Coordination structures are exclusive and inflexible

The cluster system, introduced in 2005, organized humanitarian operations, planning, and fundraising around the major humanitarian technical sectors. This has yielded progress in clarifying accountability and roles, information-sharing, and technical best practices. But in practice, this approach also enshrined sectorally-fragmented operations, and incentivized the UN agencies that lead cluster to position themselves as the principal funding recipients for the clusters they lead.  

Area-based coordination: a practical solution

Principles of area-based coordination—that aid delivery be participatory, multisectoral, and organized around geography rather than sector—hold the potential some of the longstanding deficiencies in the cluster approach

The West African Ebola response provides an example of why area-based principles are important for effective outbreak response. In Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, nationally led responses entailed co-ownership of the coordination structure between local leaders and international partners. Responses were coordinated through an Incident Management System model that placed NGOs, UN agencies, technical experts, and community leaders into a single comprehensive planning process, overcoming the need to referee between multiple discrete sectoral plans. In each case, local Emergency Operations Centers (EOC) operating within specific geographic areas organized a diverse set of functions integral to successful pandemic management, from identifying cases to contact-tracing, promoting safe burial practices, and crucially, sustaining community engagement. 

Area-based approaches are already being successfully deployed, not only in pandemic response, but also across a number of humanitarian contexts. In Afghanistan, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s “Urban Displacement Out of Camps” program included affected people in mapping local needs and capacities, without limitation based on their status as returnees, IDPs and members of the host community. Area-based approaches have proven useful in prevention activities such as community-mapping to improve infrastructure and increase resilience. They also promote the identification of holistic needs and capacities, to facilitate prioritization and planning in rapid onset crises where locals possess immediate knowledge of changing contexts. As well as in longer term responses where social cohesion is an important consideration to dispel inter-group tension and build community trust.

The next reform agenda

Looking ahead to the post-Grand Bargain era, humanitarian actors have a new opportunity to align efforts with national leadership, agencies and local structures, to “let go,” and support frontline organizations more directly.

The next generation of reform must confront the imbalance of power by bringing local actors into coordination and decision-making roles, with access to flexible and predictable funding through mechanisms like pooled funds. COVID-19 has created window for change, but there’s no guarantee it will last. The next reform agenda will require concerted effort to ensure that it can.  


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

Image credit for social media/web: UN Women/Ryan Brown/Flickr