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Confl Health. 2015 Jan 7;9:1. doi: 10.1186/1752-1505-9-1. eCollection 2015.

Lessons learnt from coordinating emergency health response during humanitarian crises: a case study of implementation of the health cluster in northern Uganda.

Author information

World Health Organization (WHO) Inter country Support Team for Eastern and Southern Africa, Belvedere, PO Box BE 773, Harare, Zimbabwe.
WHO, Asmara, Eritrea.
WHO, Kampala, Uganda.
UNICEF, New York, USA.
Ibadan, Nigeria.



Between the late 1980s and 2000s, Northern Uganda experienced over twenty years of armed conflict between the Government of Uganda and Lord's Resistance Army. The resulting humanitarian crisis led to displacement of a large percentage of the population and disruption of the health care system of the area. To better coordinate the emergency health response to the crisis, the humanitarian cluster approach was rolled out in Uganda in October 2005. The health, nutrition and HIV/AIDS cluster became fully operational at the national level and in all the conflict affected districts of Acholi and Lango in April 2006. It was phased out in 2011 following the return of the internally displaced persons to their original homelands.


The implementation of the health cluster approach in the northern Uganda and other humanitarian crises in Africa highlights a few issues which are important for strengthening health coordination in similar settings. While health clusters are often welcome during humanitarian crises because they have the possibility to improve health coordination, their potential to create an additional layer of bureaucracy into already complex and bureaucratic humanitarian response architecture is a real concern. Although anecdotal evidence has showed that implementation of the humanitarian reforms and the roll out of the cluster approach did improve humanitarian response in northern Uganda; it is critical to establish a mechanism for measuring the direct impact of health clusters on improving health outcomes, and in reducing morbidity and mortality during humanitarian crisis. Successful implementation of health clusters requires availability of other components of the humanitarian reforms such as predictable funding, strong humanitarian coordination system and strong partnerships. Importantly, successful health clusters require political commitment of national humanitarian and government stakeholders.


Although leaving health coordination entirely to governments (in crises where they exist) may result in political interference and ineffectiveness of the aid response efforts, the role of government in health coordination cannot be overemphasized. Health clusters must respond to the rapidly changing humanitarian environment and the changing needs of populations affected by humanitarian crises as they evolve from emergency towards transition, early recovery and development.


Coordination; Emergency; Health; Response

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