Cluster Coordination, a field perspective with Ines Lezama (Cluster Coordinator in Ethiopia)

"The Cluster Coordination role helped me to be more strategic, to have a much more holistic vision and to have no limits on new initiatives" 
Ines Lezama, Nutrition Cluster Coordinator,  Ethiopia

Clusters are pivotal in improving both UNICEF’s and the overall humanitarian responses. This driving force is possible when clusters are able to bring local and international partners to join forces in support to government response efforts. Together, they drive innovation, harness the role of local actors and bridge the gap between humanitarian and development work to achieve sustainable impact.

UNICEF’s Humanitarian Review and the second evaluation of the UNICEF role as cluster lead/co-lead agency (CLARE II) both highlight the potential that comes from UNICEF’s position as a cluster leader. Having a fit-for-purpose cluster workforce is underscored as essential to realize it.

Through a series of interviews, EMOPS’ Global Cluster Coordination Section and DHR bring the voices of colleagues in coordination roles to reflect on how we can collectively support and leverage UNICEF’s leading role in humanitarian coordination.

To inaugurate this series, we spoke to Ines Lezama, Nutrition Cluster Coordinator in Ethiopia. She previously worked as UNICEF’s Chief of Nutrition in Democratic Republic of Congo.

What was your motivation to take on a job in cluster coordination?

Many people ask me why a Chief of Section would choose to become a cluster coordinator and my answer has always been the same: I like challenges. Contributing to changing people's lives as a nutrition worker is a great incentive. In addition, I believe that strategic coordination and leadership are synonymous with adding, multiplying, and unifying for change and common purpose with the other members of the sector. It is for these reasons that I established the following keys to success: trust in all partners capacity, autonomy of all partners, professionalism, sense of community and efficiency.

When you arrived, what was the situation in Ethiopia?

The situation in Ethiopia has evolved since I arrived. The crisis in the north of the country has eased and the rain forecasts are better than last season, with less areas affected by drought. Yet, the risk of flooding persists, and epidemic outbreaks like cholera, malaria, measles have gotten much worse, and any shock could further deteriorate the situation of the most vulnerable. With more than 28 humanitarian partners, including UN agencies, International and national NGO, government ministries and six subnational coordination structures, we coordinate the nutritional emergency response for 4.9 million children and women with an annual budget 
of $360 million.

What are the key cluster priorities?

The nutrition cluster, which works in hybrid with the government has as a priority to save as many lives as possible by responding to needs timely and efficiently. For years the country has prioritized food aid, which is insufficient to address malnutrition. We have been able to bring nutrition to the top of the agenda, breaking down silos and working together with other sectors rather than apart to provide joint responses to address all drivers of malnutrition, which is multidimensional. We are also promoting more local solutions as well as having more data and nutrition surveys to get a better grasp on the situation so we can save more lives.

What does a typical day look like for a cluster coordinator? 

A typical day for me will depend on the period of the year and the humanitarian cycle. My agenda ordinarily contains time for conversations and group or bilateral meetings. Whether it is around a table, during a field visit or having a good Ethiopian coffee, keeping up to date with what is happening and exchanging information and experiences with teams and partners is a major task. At all times, I have with me a list of topics that are essential to each conversation, aiming to mobilize awareness, provide analysis and evidence, identify needs and call for changes and actions that require resources.

In your opinion, what are the main achievements of the cluster since you started in your role in Ethiopia?

It has been hard work, but we have had some great achievements since I started my role in Ethiopia. I am particularly proud of our collaboration with other clusters and development partners on a common agenda and response. In this regard, we are waiting for the results from a Pool funded effective pilot for intersectoral collaboration. Pulling off this type of initiatives is a great progress, but it is also labour intensive. Working on these initiatives is only possible because I am dedicated full-time to coordination.

Other key achievements are the enhanced and increased number of nutrition surveys and assessments as well as areas covered, including gender analysis and leading advocacy efforts for the scaled-up nutrition response in 2022. The level of dependence in Ethiopia for humanitarian assistance is quite high and a scale down of any response will need strong advocacy and work with civil society organizations. I think that something that stands out above all and where the clusters can make a big difference is the constant advocacy work and the communication with the government and the humanitarian coordination fora on behalf of the entire sector on technical, strategic and political matters.

… And what are the main challenges you have faced to deliver results?

Speaking on behalf of an entire sector, sharing common concerns, and proposing consensual solutions is very powerful. We need the trust of our partners for this and our neutrality as a cluster and our independence from UNICEF help us to build this trust. That is why I would say 
that the biggest challenge facing a coordinator is building a true community among cluster partners so we can see progress on key topics.

In your experience, how can UNICEF best support the work of cluster coordinators?

Empowering Cluster coordinators is part of the engine to achieve goals for the organization and for Cluster members. Sometimes it is not easy, but if all “Cluster lead agency” staff have the same understanding of the cluster coordination role, and if the senior management take ownership of certain organisational commitments, it will be easier to achieve the objectives set. A sense of belonging and a culture in which everyone's work is valued is essential. Continuous dialogue and clear communication, sufficient capacity and resources for core functions, and collaboration are essential to support the work of cluster coordinators. The independence of the role can be maintained by involving cluster coordinators more in strategic and programmatic actions and platforms of the organization, UNICEF as CLA.

What message would you give a colleague who is considering this career option?

I think the cluster coordination role helped me to be more strategic, to have a much more holistic vision and to have no limits on new initiatives. It promotes creativity. In my case, moving from programme to cluster has been a unique growing experience. One learns to see the big picture and understands the artificial boundaries to what we create.

What do you see as the next step in your career?

After this chapter, I see myself in something that involves collaboration, teamwork, and leadership and I would be inspired to work on making big changes.

“Coordination is a central but hidden force. It links all management 
functions. It is essential for the engine to function. It is essential to respond 
to the needs of affected people timely and efficiently. Coordination is 
essential to save lives."

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