Urban crises conference: time to put learning into practice

An international conference on how to respond to humanitarian crises in urban areas concluded with calls to put research into practice – and to improve engagement with local communities.

News, 23 November 2017
David Dodman, director of IIED's Human Settlements research group, addresses the conference on urban crises (Photo: Matt Wright/IIED)

David Dodman, director of IIED's Human Settlements research group, addresses the conference on urban crises (Photo: Matt Wright/IIED)

The conference on 15-16 November 2017 brought together more than 100 participants from government, humanitarian agencies, urban researchers and practitioners. Participants also included local and national government representatives from Uganda, Sierra Leone and Somalia.

The high-profile event was organised by IIED and the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and was titled 'From cities in crisis to crises in cities: towards a collaborative urban humanitarian response'.

It was the culmination of a three-year project funded by the UK's Department of International Development (DFID) examining how best to respond to crises in urban areas. Experts, researchers and practitioners from around the globe shared the latest evidence and experience on effective action.  

The conference ended with a strong message that it was time to get out into the field and engage with affected populations and also work to influence policy at all levels.

Speaking at the closing session, IIED's David Dodman said a recurrent theme of the discussions had been the question of how to move from research evidence to practical action. He said it was important to recognise that there were different pathways through which evidence could be translated into learning, and translated into changes in the legal and policy environment, and also affect the ways individuals take action. 

Key themes

Many conference speakers stressed the importance of humanitarian organisations actively partnering with local actors and external agencies to go beyond seeing local people as simply 'implementers'. This approach would also help to sustain programs beyond project lifespans.  

Researchers also suggested that central governments could implement policies to facilitate local action – since local municipalities often lack formal powers or resources.

The conference also noted that collaboration involved harnessing the skills and capacities of the populations affected by crises. There were opportunities to do this in creative ways – for example by giving cash transfers to organised community groups, for them to use and manage collectively. Humanitarian agencies could also promote inclusive markets to foster integration.

As well as partnering and collaboration, conference participants identified the need to encourage local empowerment and participatory governance. This would enable more effective – and enduring – local action. For humanitarian agencies, this could mean working through existing committees, rather than creating new parallel structures.

Another theme that emerged from the discussions was the tendency of humanitarian and development agencies to address the symptoms of underlying problems. Instead there was a need to spend more time addressing the root causes, such as malfunctioning institutions, legal barriers or broken systems.

Researchers identified areas where there remain gaps in understanding, particularly in relation to how the experiences of one urban context could be transferable to others, and in relation to responding urban conflict settings.

The future: influencing the global agenda

The conference aimed to generate a range of clear policy messages to be taken forward under international frameworks.

Speakers noted the numerous international frameworks that recognised the importance of taking action in urban areas – including the Sustainable Development Goals, the Sendai Agreement and the New Urban Agenda agreed at the 2016 UN Habitat meeting, as well as the Grand Bargain agreed at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, and the UNHCR's Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework.

Speakers agreed that these frameworks could be a key opportunity for integrating work on urban crises preparedness and response into ongoing development planning and action around the world.

Full coverage

IIED provided detailed coverage of the conference, including almost three hours of video coverage of the key speakers and sessions in the playlist below, or via IIED's YouTube channel.

There was detailed coverage of the conference as it happened: 

The first day of the event ended with the launch of a special issue of the journal Environment & Urbanisation focusing on urban crises response.

Day two of the conference also saw the launch of a longread by IIED's Diane Archer, describing the work of the urban crises programme, and the research being discussed at the conference. This includes an interactive map showing the geographical spread and focus of studies supported by the Urban Crises Learning Fund over the last three years.

About the urban crises programme

The urban crises programme was a response to a growing awareness among humanitarian and development agencies that there is a strong need to improve humanitarian action when crises hit urban settings. 

IIED managed the Urban Crises Learning Fund, which supported research and fostered new ways of working for urban and humanitarian stakeholders. The fund supported the development of 32 discrete pieces of research and documentation, focusing on urban crises in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. It has also helped to establish two learning partnerships for humanitarian and research organisations to develop and test new tools and approaches, and to document past responses. 

The IRC worked to improve the understanding of humanitarian and development stakeholders in urban crises to enhance policy and operational commitments for more appropriate responses. It developed advocacy messages and practitioner recommendations through in-depth research. The IRC also played a key role in setting up the Global Alliance for Urban Crises, a multi-disciplinary and collaborative community of practice working to prevent, prepare for and effectively respond to humanitarian crises in urban settings.