Collaborations in urban humanitarian response – introducing the Global Alliance for Urban Crises

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31 May 2016

The way we prepare for and react to humanitarian crises in towns and cities will be enhanced by a more collaborative approach.

An image of a crowd of members of the USaid Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) team rescue a teen in the Gongabu, Kathmandu District, five days after the Nepal earthquake in April 2015 (Photo: USaid, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

The first World Humanitarian Summit, which I attended in Istanbul last week, brought together more than 9,000 participants, including heads of state and government, civil society and NGOs, to consider how the humanitarian system can best respond to crises arising from natural disasters, conflict and protracted displacement.

The summit saw the launch of the Global Alliance for Urban Crises, which prioritises a more collaborative approach that will change the way we prepare for and react to humanitarian crises in towns and cities.

Lessons from Nepal

When the 2015 earthquake hit Nepal, the country saw a surge of humanitarian support and resources. In certain places this created conflicts in local government agencies and local communities, who were not prepared to manage these levels of support.

However, in the town of Kirtipur in the Kathmandu valley, a team of local trained volunteers played an active role in the response, and co-ordinated effectively with the municipality.

In Kirtipur, local communities have been working with the municipality since 2012 to put in place a disaster risk management plan. A team of more than 4,000 volunteers were trained and mobilised for disaster response. Additionally, equipment for search and rescue, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) was available at municipal and community level.

Structures had been established to deal with the different phases of a disaster, from preparedness to response and recovery. These processes had been put in place with the assistance of Lumanti Support Group for Shelter, a Nepali NGO with a long history of working to support organised urban communities, in partnership with Oxfam Nepal.

Supporting and working with locals

Local stakeholders are usually best placed to offer an immediate response in an urban emergency. The case of Kirtipur shows that when local people have the capacity to work collaboratively, and have the necessary technical knowledge and plans in place, a humanitarian response can be effective at quickly assessing and meeting local needs. 

Yet all too often humanitarian response in urban areas remains a challenge – for the humanitarian agencies surging in to provide emergency assistance, for the local municipality (which may be under-resourced and struggling with everyday challenges of meeting basic needs and providing services), and for the local communities.

This often leads to divergent paths between local and international actions in the immediate response, as highlighted in a recent study on Perspectives from Cities in Crisis

Working together

Fostering collaboration in urban humanitarian response is a key driver of the new Global Alliance for Urban Crises, as last week's summit saw a commitment to locally-driven response.

Two of the alliance's key policy commitments directly support local collaboration and partnership in urban response by:

  • Prioritising local municipal leadership in determining response to urban crisis that is aligned with development trajectories and promoting the active participation of affected people – with special attention to the participation of women – and other key urban stakeholders, and
  • Building partnerships between city, national, regional and global levels, across disciplines and professions and ensure involvement of local government and professional associations.

In addition the alliance advocates for resilience as a framework to align humanitarian and development goals. This is important in many urban contexts in middle and low-income countries, where a lack of municipal resources and capacity mean that small-scale crises occur on a daily basis due to deficiencies in risk-reducing infrastructure.

These challenges need to be addressed alongside, and in anticipation of, acute, emergency responses, and can help to mitigate the effect of larger crises.

The Global Alliance for Urban Crises prioritises collaboration for effective urban response. It received commitments from 68 organisations in advance of the World Humanitarian Summit, including IIED, to "enable urban communities, in particular those most at risk, to prepare for, cope with and recover more quickly from the effects of humanitarian crises".

Building knowledge and expertise

IIED is working with researchers and practitioners through the Urban Crises Learning Fund to facilitate knowledge development and learning from past experiences, including by funding original research, to help achieve this commitment.

The multi-stakeholder approach which the alliance advocates, bringing in expertise from the humanitarian, development, academic and other sectors, is an entry point to a more inclusive process of preparedness and response, which opens the door for local knowledge.

When local actors have the opportunity to be understood and supported by external actors, then evolution in urban humanitarian response through capacity building and learning is possible.

This is critical for inclusive, equitable and accountable local partnerships in urban humanitarian response – and this is what the Global Alliance for Urban Crises seeks to support, all the more important in a world that will see 70 per cent of its population living in urban areas by 2050.

Diane Archer (diane.archer@iied.org) is a researcher with IIED's Human Settlements Group.

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