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Opening the Black Box: An outline of a framework to understand, promote and evaluate humanitarian coordination

Research reports

The coordination of international intervention in conflicts is an old sore.  Although nobody is in principle against coordination, in practice efforts to achieve coordinated action lead to irritation and frustration. Coordination efforts can quickly provoke institutional 'turf' wars. The discussion about coordination then degenerates into one of power and authority. Nothing quite reveals the 'international humanitarian system' as the opposite of a 'system', as a study of the coordination between humanitarian actors intervening in conflict. ' Humanitarian action' tends to appear as a rather bewildering array of institutional actors running around in an 'arena' with shifting alliances and competing interests that sometimes closely resemble the 'clanic factionalism' that aid workers so deplore in some societies they operate in.

There are powerful 'market incentives' to make institutional survival and self-interest a dominant preoccupation in the humanitarian world. It is possible for institutional donors to influence that trend by rewarding agencies that collaborate and coordinate. That would help overcome one problem in practically fostering cooperation i.e. that hardly any aid agency has a policy on inter-agency cooperation and collaboration (1). As a consequence the actual stance of an agency, certainly at field-level, is left to the 'discretion' of the resident representative. A second practical problem is that few aid workers, even with careers of many years, know much about the rich history of collaboration in the humanitarian world. That is all the more problematic in that the ingredients that analysts and evaluators most systematically identify as a key factor where some successful coordination occurs, are 'personal chemistry' and 'leadership' (eg. Donini et al. 1996:45). Recently there is a renewed interest in coordination. This has led to a growing number of studies of coordination experiences and lesson learning exercises (e.g. Donini 1996; Ball and Campbell 1998). Helpful as these are, many discussions about and reviews of coordination remain frustrating because it is often not very clear what is understood by 'coordination' (eg. Donini 1996:97; Court of Auditors 1997:9). In the absence of a common reference, it is also difficult to evaluate coordination efforts (eg. Borton 1996:17).

This paper starts out with a cursory overview of coordination experiences by major players in the humanitarian world (Section 2). The aim is only to indicate the wealth of experience there, not to offer a critical analysis of it all. The review indicates that coordination in and by host governments and coordination in and by donor administrations are understudied. It also points at the important role donors could play in fostering better collaboration and coordination among operational agencies. Section3 provides the substance of the paper. It outlines a framework for understanding, promoting and evaluating coordination. That framework is a tool. Like any tool, it is a means to an end, and it can be refined, improved or discarded. It has at least three potential uses:

a. The framework may help us understand better what we refer to when we talk about 'coordination'.

b. It may serve as a tactical guide for those wanting to strengthen the coordination efforts. In that sense it is a tool to facilitate focused discussion, not for guaranteed outcomes.

c. And it could be a reference for those wanting to evaluate coordination practices.

The framework needs testing in practice. The paper finally concludes with a discussion of strategic coordination (Section 4).

Koenraad Van Brabant