The future of humanitarian crises is urban

It's time to urbanise crisis response. IIED research has identified three approaches to improve effectiveness

Long read by
16 November 2017
Nabaa Lebanon street scene

Cities across the world are at the forefront of responding to humanitarian crises

Humanitarian crises, manifest through displacement and disasters, are increasingly striking urban settings. And with more than 50 per cent of the world’s population now living in urban areas, there are many lives at stake.

The reality of growing cities, with existing deficits in infrastructure and services leading to marginalised populations, means that accumulated risks can easily tip into crisis. This risk is multiplied if additional pressure comes from a sudden population influx or disaster.

However, if the humanitarian sector is well prepared to respond in urban settings, and local actors are more aware of the potential offered by collaborative approaches with the humanitarian sector, this opens the door for more effective humanitarian response.

Crises of different types, from displacement to disasters, are now prevalent across the globe. The illustrative map, highlighting recent disasters, uses OCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) icons

Crises of different types, from displacement to disasters, are now prevalent across the globe. The illustrative map, highlighting recent disasters, uses OCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) icons

At the same time, city authorities themselves are confronted with challenges posed by crises, such as a sudden population influx. This includes the burden imposed on already-limited resources and infrastructure, potential social tensions between host and displaced communities, and the possibility of displacement crisis becoming protracted. In a disaster setting, the challenge becomes how to ensure services become operational again, and repairing damaged shelter and infrastructure, in a context where there may have been pre-existing deficiencies.

These challenges have to be taken into account by humanitarian agencies operating in urban settings, where there are many more stakeholders involved in a humanitarian response than a more ‘traditional’ camp setting.

Problems are particularly acute for displaced populations. In 2016, 60 per cent of refugees were living in urban areas. There remains a lack of clarity about where displaced populations are living in cities, and what they are doing to survive.

In cities, refugees and internally displaced peoples (IDPs) face additional deprivations that are not faced by other low-income populations – in particular, there are concerns around their protection, and they may face legal and language barriers. They may also face challenges in ensuring their health and livelihoods – similar concerns that would face urban populations affected by a disaster.

So what can be done to help urban and humanitarian stakeholders (including local governments) increase their knowledge and technical capacity and better be able to meet the immediate needs of cities and urban residents affected by crises?

How can crisis response in urban settings meet emergency needs, but also foster recovery and sustainable development, and strengthen preparedness for future events?

Filling the urban humanitarian knowledge gap

To address these questions, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) has funded the Urban Crises Initiative. This three-year project has researched the barriers to effective urban response and identified strategies and actions to improve effectiveness. The programme has been led by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Together, they have analysed historic responses and generated new knowledge to improve humanitarian effectiveness during urban crises, including disaster preparedness and response and forced displacement.

IIED, through its Urban Crises Learning Fund, has helped to generate new evidence and foster new ways of working in order to increase urban and humanitarian stakeholders’ knowledge, technical capacity, and commitment to working in partnership.

The Urban Crises Learning Fund has supported research projects in more than 21 countries, involving academics, practitioners and local actors. Research has documented past responses, examined ongoing interventions, and highlighted challenges – but also identified practices and approaches that work in urban settings.

Use the map to see the research focus of studies supported by the Urban Crises Learning Fund over the last three years. Click on the layers of the map for a summary of the work by theme

Full list of documents

An assessment of collaboration between local and humanitarian actors in Colombia, South Sudan and the Philippines

Local government management and response to Syrian refugees transiting in Croatian border towns

La gestion humanitaire des inondations dans une commune de Niamey, Niger (Humanitarian management of floods in a district of Niamey, Niger)

Typhoon Haiyan response in Tacloban, the Philippines

The collaboration mechanisms in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis in urban settings in Lebanon

Civilian protection in urban sieges - capacities and practices of first responders: a cross-country analysis in Aleppo, Syria

Promoting the protection of children on the move in urban contexts through including and strengthening locally-developed child protection practices in the humanitarian response – in Timbuktu and Gao, Mali

Implications of humanitarian responses in the long-term: case of Chennai

Displaced women and children in Northern Nigerian cities – the Boko Haram crisis 

Tackling gender based violence in Gaza

Surviving in Cairo as a closed-file refugee: socio-economic and protection challenges

Refugee and IDP participation in local markets in urban Uganda

Impacts of humanitarian cash and voucher aid on women's paid work and unpaid care work in Kathmandu Valley

Influences of the delivery of voucher aid in the two Syrian cities of Darkoush and Salquin

When the humanitarian response requires urban development policies: IDPs in Bangui and sustainable responses

Refugee (self-)support in the city: Exploring where humanitarian norms meet development needs. A New Delhi case study.

Humanitarian response to urban crises: a review of area-based approaches

A review of evidence of humanitarian cash transfer programming in urban areas

For my son (film)

Water programming in the MENA region

Urban planning following humanitarian crises: supporting local actors to take the lead

Towards an inclusive urban reconstruction policy development process in Nepal

No one-size-fits-all urban response

All cities and urban centres are different; they are also complex in terms of the diversity of the roles and responsibilities of various local actors. There is no such thing as a standard approach to a humanitarian response in an urban setting – understanding the local context and adapting to it is fundamental.

External agencies undertaking humanitarian interventions must engage with the multiplicity of actors present in an urban setting: local and national authorities, utilities, civil society organisations, and businesses. Without the appropriate engagement, collaboration and coordination of action between humanitarian and local actors, the risk of duplication and creating parallel structures and systems remains high. At the same time, legal and political conditions may constrain what is possible.

3:45 The Global Alliance for Urban Crises is working towards new humanitarian responses for an increasingly urban world

There is also a danger of a disconnect between immediate emergency responses and long-term development programming and ways of working. Where does an emergency end and recovery and ‘normal’ development begin?

Resolving this issue can be especially problematic in protracted crisis and fragile states – such as the current situation in Syria. In these situations, forward-looking interventions can help to facilitate the best possible future post-crisis. But this requires involvement of different types of actors who might not normally be considered typical in humanitarian responses: urban planners, architects, the local residents themselves.

Urban settings are therefore not straightforward places of intervention for the humanitarian sector.

An agenda for humanity

In 2016, the then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon convened the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit to address what he saw as unprecedented levels of humanitarian crisis. The summit brought together 9,000 people from 180 countries, including 55 Heads of State and government. Together, they agreed the Agenda For Humanity, a five-point plan for reducing suffering on a global scale. One of the five core commitments was the pressing need to “work differently to end need”. This includes reinforcing, rather than replacing, local systems.

Agenda for Humanity: Political leadership to prevent and end conflicts; Uphold the norms that safeguard humanity; Leave no one behind; Change people's lives: from delivering aid to ending need; Invest in humanity

The research we have seen emerge over the last three years demonstrates both why this is necessary and how this can be done.

Three steps to more effective urban response

An illustration of three stepsThree kinds of humanitarian response, in particular, are most suited to the complexity and variety of urban contexts.

  1. Approaches which build on local capacities, systems and structure can help to empower and strengthen them
  2. Cash-based or market-based responses are effective in an urban setting where there are more livelihood opportunities, active markets and existing supply chains, and
  3. Humanitarian interventions that take an area-based approach, focusing on meeting all the needs within a geographical area, rather than sectoral approaches dealing only with health or education, for example, can be effective in a dense urban setting.

Our research has demonstrated ways in which these approaches can work effectively in crisis response, as outlined below.

Step 1. Engagement with local actors

There is growing acceptance in the international humanitarian community of the need to engage with ‘local actors’, but there remains a lack of clarity around who constitutes a ‘local’ humanitarian actor. Many of the respondents in a crisis situation are not professional humanitarians, but by dint of their involvement in humanitarian action, should be considered humanitarians.

An added consideration is how ‘local’ a local actor actually is. Someone from the capital city may still lack the necessary localised, contextual understanding of the situation on the ground, but the truly local actors may have been affected by the crisis themselves, so capital city representatives may be the next best alternative. In any case, there is still a lack of understanding around how the local actors fit into the humanitarian response.

11:28 Lessons from a storm: the story of how the Philippines municipality of Tacloban city recovered from Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest typhoon ever to make landfall.

Local municipal authorities

While international humanitarian agencies tend to have relationships with national government, it is vital to engage with local authorities, as they will be the ones implementing policy. The Tacloban case demonstrates the challenges that can be faced even when national and local authorities are relatively well set up to deal with emergencies.

International humanitarian actors can support municipal authorities in different ways – financially, but also in terms of technical capacity, such as in assessing structural damage to buildings following an earthquake, or in urban planning for the rebuilding process, as well as in supporting coordination of interventions on the ground.

Distributing supplies in the Philippines after the typhoon

Distributing supplies in the Philippines after the typhoon in November 2013 (Photo: UNHCR/K. Eleazer, Creative Commons via Flickr)

For example, in Tacloban, UN HABITAT collaborated with local government to provide support specifically on urban planning. The advantage of this targeted support meant that the local government staff were introduced to new tools and frameworks; their activities were better coordinated; and areas needing investment and entry points for funding were clearly identified. UN HABITAT was also able to provide other planning support, such as a climate change action plan and climate change vulnerability assessment for the city.

However, due to lack of long-term finance, UN HABITAT could not ensure continuity and integration of the response plan into mainstream planning processes. Funding remains a major constraint for forward-looking responses – processes such as urban planning after disaster are complex, and need to be linked in to mainstream planning schedules, which require funding for multiple years.

Research shows that international humanitarian agencies still too often only collaborate with local actors where there is a requirement for them to do so, for example from the funding agency or the legal system locally. This suggests that international organisations don’t yet fully recognise the benefit of local collaboration, seeing local actors as a tool rather than an asset.

This also perpetuates the perception that local capacity is low, yet local actors hold exactly the local contextual understanding that international actors so need in emergency situations – there is therefore scope to reframe relationships between international and local actors to avoid this ‘instrumentalisation’ of local actors.

We here, the middle point (between donors and recipients) are becoming stronger. And we haven’t been able to strengthen the real institutions which are families and communities. Because we are here as an intermediary. And a very expensive intermediary!

– Local government actor, Medellín

Refugee communities

The Syrian crisis has led to massive inflows of refugees to neighbouring Lebanon. This country, with a population of 5.9 million, is hosting 1.5 million Syrian refugees, one million of which are registered with UNHCR.

Addressing the huge scale of need in Lebanon has served to underscore the importance of collaboration with local institutions. Research on the response in Lebanon to the Syrian refugee influx highlighted a failure by international agencies to identify institutions that could take the lead in urban areas or to set up coordination mechanisms.

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Insecure temporary housing in Tyre, south Lebanon (Photo: Marwa Boustani)

This might stem in part from a general lack of understanding by international agencies of the types of institutions active in urban areas, and their capacities – a deficit that could be resolved by developing the urban staffing of international agencies, and spending more time understanding local contexts, rather than immediately stepping in to fill perceived gaps.

Municipalities and humanitarian agencies may also be accountable to different populations: municipal authorities to their electorate, humanitarian agencies to their target group – for example, refugees.

However, there are ways of getting municipalities to consider both their electorate (the hosts) and displaced populations in certain programs, rather than always treating them separately (while recognising that displaced populations may have certain distinct needs, such as around health and language). Area-based approaches, which target a geography rather than a population group, can help improve conditions for local populations as well as the displaced, and avoid creating divisions.

Affected communities are core actors

Local municipalities are an extremely important local actor, but there are many others: local NGOs, community organisations, and businesses.

This wide variety can make it difficult for international agencies to engage with them meaningfully. For example, in Syria, the first responders in besieged urban areas include local non-governmental organisation (LNGO) staff, medical personnel, interim government staff and volunteers.

Volunteer groups

In non-conflict settings, such as following a natural disaster, first responders will include family members, neighbours, and spontaneous volunteer groups. If humanitarian agencies can engage with these actors, this can ensure the interventions are well-targeted and gain local ownership – at the same time, local actors can facilitate this process by networking as a recognised group.

Local volunteers are often best placed to offer an immediate response in an urban emergency: neighbours and relatives know the likely whereabouts of individuals, as well as the layouts of local streets and buildings.

Although the media highlights looting and antisocial activity in disasters, research consistently shows that this is not typical. Instead, groups and individuals usually become more unified and altruistic. It is also a myth that affected communities are essentially passive. Disasters put enormous strain on societies – but they also stimulate citizens to take on new roles and responsibilities in response and recovery.

The desire to help in a crisis is very strong. Yet often the emergence of volunteers in urban disaster response is seen as an implicit challenge to the “command and control” approach of official agencies, with their top-down systems and standard operating procedures. Adopting a more inclusive multi-stakeholder approach can improve the effectiveness of urban emergency response.

Step 2: Cash and livelihoods essential for urban integration

Urban settings offer a diversity of livelihood opportunities and resources – in the majority of cases, this means that affected populations (whether by disaster or displacement) can and do apply self-recovery approaches, often due to the lack of any other solution.

Refugee livelihoods: ingenuity, diversity, and risk

Many IDPs and refugees display considerable ingenuity and initiative in ensuring they can earn an income. For many, this means working in the informal economy and in public spaces – but this can create tensions with the host city authorities and populations. Like local populations, refugee traders are hampered by the erosion of public market spaces, arrests and loss of stock.

Urban interventions require a detailed understanding of context, of the displaced populations themselves, but also of the broader urban system shaping their place in the city. A more community-focused approach can take a more holistic view of the vulnerabilities of urban refugee communities.

However, legal restrictions, language barriers, and cultural and gender norms, may be limiting factors. For example, many countries do not extend the right to work to refugees. In these contexts, cash-based approaches offer recipients flexibility and agency in deciding how to meet their pressing needs.

In order for cash transfer programs to be effective though, a context-specific analysis of the urban setting and its governance is required. Cash programming should go beyond simply addressing the shortfall between income and household expenditure.

In a context like Syria, supporting the maintenance of local economic activity, particularly where micro-businesses have become vital to plugging gaps in supply, can help ensure the survival of existing value chains. And there is still scope to understand better how cash can be used to ensure longer-term self-reliance, rather than just short-term survival, for example by integrating cash with livelihoods programmes.

Finding a livelihood should not be seen as the end goal. Achieving a livelihood needs to be viewed as part of wider refugee well-being, particularly where refugees often have no choice but to enter the informal market with all the insecurity and risks of exploitation that this poses.

This may be a problem beyond the scope of humanitarian interventions, given the predominance of informal sector jobs in many low and middle-income countries. But humanitarian agencies need to be aware that low-income and marginalised households are more likely to experience the negative side of law enforcement and corruption.

Local rebuilding initiatives in Patan, Nepal (Photo: Patrick Daly)

Local rebuilding initiatives in Patan, Nepal (Photo: Patrick Daly)

Step 3: Area-based approaches are suited to urban realities

In an urban setting, it is impossible to ignore the need for integrated infrastructure, services and shelter. Area-based approaches (ABA) are characterised by being geographically targeted, participatory, and multi-sectoral and they can be particularly useful to meet intense needs in a specific location.

Although area-based approaches are being adopted in some case, many agencies still consider them too complex. However, “humanitarian action needs to embrace the complexity of programming that complex environments deserve”.

A poster of the Bungamati Action Plan, a co-production between the University of Leuven, UN-Habitat, the local relief committee, and local stakeholders, on the side of a building outlines rebuilding plans following the Nepal earthquake (Photo: Patrick Daly)

A poster on the side of a building outlines rebuilding plans following the Nepal earthquake (Photo: Patrick Daly)

This requires a recognition that recovery from crises takes time, and that actions should be driven by local actors and owned by them. This ownership is essential to ensure it’s scaled up across other areas of the city and linkages to city-wide or regional plans and policies. In practice, ABAs need to be informed by multi-sector assessments, usually driven by the humanitarian agencies, but also participatory assessments, which require time to build effective engagement with the affected communities.

The cross-sector nature of ABAs can help to foster collaboration across different types of actors, by breaking down barriers perpetuated by the cluster system – in a localised urban area such as a neighbourhood, shelter cannot be considered separately from infrastructure, for example, or access to health and education facilities.

ABAs should be integrated with any pre-existing local plans, as well as with the various informal and formal institutions active in the area, including local leaders and religious institutions, and build on any previous activities of the organisations involved – but also connect to the city at large. It is also important to collaborate with utilities – supporting rather than substituting their services.

International humanitarian actors can contribute vital technical knowledge. For example, by advising on shelter for disaster victims which also considers the environmental impact of the building materials used, the location and design of the new housing with regard potential future hazards, and the possibility for incremental improvements to the housing as and when the residents can afford them. All of these will mitigate the risk of having to deal with future crises.

In fact, area-based approaches have many similarities to organic community development processes in local neighbourhoods, where informal settlements emerge as well-organised neighbourhoods with their own governance systems and extensive investment in housing and infrastructure.

By nature this process is usually participatory and multi-sectoral. The fact that settlements may arise in areas without legal land tenure may mean that humanitarian agencies are reluctant to engage – though they could play a role in advocating for legal recognition of settlements with city authorities.

Where humanitarian agencies can support community development, they should work within local structures so that processes can continue when funding is discontinued. The value added of humanitarian agencies is that they may be able to foster inclusion of certain marginalised groups such as IDPs or refugees, by supporting their integration across a neighbourhood, hence reducing tensions and catalysing change.

Somehow getting infrastructure in place so people can move on with their lives is better. Forget the houses, let’s build retaining walls so people can build their shack safely and it's not going to flood down the hill.

– Anonymous, humanitarian involved in Port-au-Prince earthquake response

Community investments in the local area may continue beyond humanitarian project lifetimes, and incremental housing improvements are often required to fit in with household budgetary constraints. Area-based approaches should not and cannot be considered time-bound projects as development will continue organically.

Jalousie informal settlements in Pétionville, in the suburbs of Port au Prince. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti saw area-based approaches used to address the difficulties of rebuilding devastated communities already known for poor-quality housing and infrastructure. Click on the map to explore the area


Our increasingly urban world is likely to continue to face conflict-induced displacement, large-scale population movements and disasters related to the impacts of climate change. Humanitarian responses in urban settings – by international and local actors – will continue to be a necessity.

In a world in which a billion people live in informal settlements, facing deficits in service provision, housing and infrastructure, future humanitarian crises affecting these areas will amplify – and be amplified by – these existing deficits. It is therefore vital for humanitarian response mechanisms to understand the complexities of operating in an urban environment, and where possible, to apply forward looking-responses that can address both immediate emergency needs, and longer-term development challenges, be they economic, environmental, social or political.

There are existing approaches that offer entry points to humanitarian interventions, building a deeper understanding of urban risk and empowering local communities to play a key role in ensuring inclusive urban development.

Humanitarian actors consist not only of the international agencies typically associated with an emergency response, but also the local actors directly affected: local governments, local communities, local businesses. Any humanitarian intervention that fails to directly engage these actors and support the actors’ own ongoing responses risks creating further problems down the line when the crisis response is over.

Looking down through tangled cables in Lebanon (Photo: Marwa Boustani)

Looking down through tangled cables in Lebanon. Any humanitarian intervention must navigate engagement with local governments, local communities and local businesses (Photo: Marwa Boustani)

Donors have a role to play in setting the appropriate incentives and requirements to ensure collaboration, rather than simply sub-contracting. They should also ensure their funding streams are of sufficient length to address the complexity of urban needs – which often means several years. There is also scope for international actors to support local actors in identifying and accessing the variety of funding opportunities.

The international humanitarian sector has demonstrated its capacity to adapt to the specific needs of an urban response, by increasingly applying mechanisms such as cash and livelihood programming, and area-based approaches. However, there is still room for more consistency in urban crisis response, engaging more systematically with local actors from the outset, and supporting their capacity to take the lead in the response and supplementing to fill gaps.

Humanitarian agencies can also play an important role through advocacy, to address underlying drivers of vulnerability in affected populations, such as legal barriers to land titling or employment. Such interventions can pave the way for more forward-looking, sustainable interventions in the hope of, if not averting, lessening the impacts of future crises.

By Diane Archer, senior researcher, Human Settlements research group

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