Rethinking the humanitarian response: Emerging approaches for engagement in urban crises

Brief Author: 
Sara Pavanello

Concerns about urbanization and the multiple risks faced by urban populations are not new. Urban planners, development and human rights experts, and economic growth institutions, for example, have long dealt with the challenges but also the opportunities offered by the urban environment. However, it is only recently that the international humanitarian community has started to pay attention to engagement in urban areas 1. In part this is linked to the number of humanitarian emergencies that have occurred in densely populated urban areas over the past decade and which have required humanitarians to step up their engagement. Some of these include the Bam (Iran) earthquake in 2003; the conflict-related displacement of Iraqis to several capitals (and other cities and towns) in the Middle East including in Amman, Beirut, and Damascus in 2005–06; Kenya’s election-related violence of 2007-08; and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. There is also a growing realization of the link between rapid urbanization and urban risk to future disasters, which means that international humanitarian actors expect to be increasingly involved in humanitarian response in cities and towns of the developing world. While urbanization and the implications for humanitarian action have received increasing attention and recognition in academic, policymaking and operational debates, there remain significant gaps in knowledge, evidence-based policy, and practice.


Introduction Continued

Drawing on think tank, academic, policy and operational sources2 detailing recent humanitarian responses in various contexts, this thematic brief explores issues related to humanitarian engagement in urban crises. It highlights key urbanization trends and challenges for humanitarian action in affected cities and towns, and outlines emerging approaches, tools, and guiding principles for response in urban settings, with a focus on urban-based natural disaster response.

This brief does not seek to provide a comprehensive and exhaustive analysis of humanitarian response in urban crises or to analyze and discuss such response across key humanitarian sectors (i.e. shelter, protection, health, and so on). Rather, it attempts to provide a general overview of some of the key challenges that humanitarian actors face when engaging in urban areas, and point to a number of emergent humanitarian approaches, distilled from recent experience in the urban environment. Furthermore, much of the current literature is focused on urban-based natural disaster preparedness and response, with far less discussion on response in conflict-affected urban areas. As such, this thematic brief is largely focused on urban response to natural disasters (although reference is also made to some conflict settings), but acknowledges that especially in urban settings, natural disasters and conflicts are often closely related and that a holistic response is ultimately required.

1. Framing the debate: urbanization and implications for humanitarian action
1.1 The fast pace of urbanization: some key facts

In recent decades many cities, towns, and suburban areas around the world have seen dramatic population growth often as a result of both a natural increase of population and significant inflows from rural areas. At the start of the 20th century, the urban population worldwide stood at only 10% of the global population; by 2008 it had reached an unprecedented 50% (UNDESA, 2010). Cities and towns in Africa and Asia in particular have witnessed rapid expansion. The population of Nairobi, for instance, has grown more than ten-fold since 1960 (Pavanello et al., 2012), and that of Kabul two-fold during the past decade (UN-HABITAT, 2003; Beall and Esser, 2005; Cordero, 2010 in Metcalfe et al., 2012).

Urbanization is an on-going trend. According to the latest estimates of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), the world urban population is expected to increase by 72% by 2050; as Figure 1 below shows from 3.6 billion in 2011 to a staggering 6.3 billion in 2050 (UNDESA, 2012).

Rapid and often uncontrolled urbanisation in a context of poor investment by governments and municipal authorities are in many cases key driving factors of the formation and growth of informal settlements and slums. Of the total 3.3 billion urban dwellers worldwide, nearly 1 billion are thought to live in these precarious, under-served and insecure urban and peri-urban areas (IASC, 2010; Tibujaika, 2010). A prominent feature of urbanisation is also forced displacement triggered by armed conflict, violence, political instability or slow or sudden-onset disasters – or a combination of these factors. Increasingly, refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) move to urban areas in search of greater security, including a degree of anonymity, better access to basic services and greater economic opportunities. According to recent estimates of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), approximately half of the world’s 10.5 million refugees and around 13 million IDPs are thought to live in urban areas (Crisp et al., 2012). Displaced populations are also very likely to take up residence in slums and other marginal neighbourhoods where they are further exposed to the risk of disasters, but also violence and abuse, and social and economic marginalisation (Pavanello et al., 2012).





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