Typhoon Yolanda flattened thousands of houses in the eastern city of Tacloban, Philippines, 2013. Typhoon Yolanda flattened thousands of houses in the eastern city of Tacloban, Philippines, 2013. Photo credit: Ben White/CAFOD
Informality in urban crisis response
by John Twigg and Irina Mosel March 2018

Disasters stimulate informal activity, often on a very large scale. Informal actors and activity can be a significant feature of urban crisis response, in disasters, conflict or violent urban settings. The term ‘informality’ is used in different ways, often implying a lack of political and legal status and recognition, in relation to actors, networks, social and organisational arrangements, settlements and economic practices, and relationships and transactions. It has been applied to many aspects of urban life, particularly planning systems and structures; housing construction and human settlement; economy, employment and livelihoods; forms of organisation or association; governance; regulatory systems; types of knowledge and practice; planning and the use of urban space; and supply of services and transport. The boundaries and relationships between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ are not always clear-cut; they are often complementary or interconnected. It is generally accepted that aid providers should work with existing institutions, local structures and civil society, but international agencies are often unsure about who these local actors are and how they can contribute to humanitarian action. By understanding these actors and their activities better, humanitarian practitioners and policy-makers should be able
to identify when and how to support them more effectively.

Urban contexts and actors

Recent urban disasters have drawn attention to humanitarian actors’ limited understanding of urban contexts. Urban communities are usually far more complex than rural ones: often not neatly definable geographical entities, but more dispersed networks or groups. Vulnerability is diffused across a town or city, making it harder to identify those most in need and target interventions. Urban populations contain diverse social, economic, ethnic, religious, age and economic groups, with different histories, capacities, vulnerabilities and needs. Urban communities are more closely tied into the cash economy and markets; people may commute long distances daily to work or trade; and migration in and out of urban areas can make it difficult to measure population size and composition. Informal renting, hosting and sharing housing arrangements make displaced and marginalised people hard to locate. Official organisations’ mandates, authority and legitimacy may not be acknowledged by urban communities, who may instead look to local leaders, kinship networks and other associational structures for support. Where governance and leadership structures are unclear or in transition, competition can arise between formal and informal leaders, or parallel governance structures can emerge.

Social capital and emergent groups

In crises, social capital and networks provide mutual assistance and access to support and resources. After the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, for example, urban Newar communities were active in search and rescue, setting up temporary shelters, bringing and sharing food, organising communal meals, distributing relief and running clean-up campaigns. Communities or neighbourhoods with strong social capital and networks recover from disasters more quickly and effectively, as shown by research in Kobe, Japan, after the 1995 earthquake; Gujarat following the 2001 earthquake; and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Disaster-affected people generally join together in crises, and repeated disaster events may reinforce social capital and social organisation.

Disasters commonly stimulate spontaneous responses by selforganising, voluntary groups and individuals, helping with search and rescue, collecting, transporting and distributing relief supplies and providing food and drink to victims and emergency workers. Such emergent activity can take place on a huge scale, often involving thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of people. Pre-existing social relationships (family, neighbourhood, workplace) influence how these groups are created and organised. Involvement can also have a transformative effect on volunteers, stimulating greater and longer-term volunteering.

Informality, displacement and urban violence

More than half of the world’s refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) live in urban areas, often in under-developed informal settlements without adequate access to basic services and infrastructure, and reliant on informal protection and governance arrangements, service providers and employment opportunities. Displaced people lacking legal status or permits are more prone to entering into insecure tenure agreements, leaving them open to exploitation and eviction by landlords seeking higher rents, or government upgrading schemes. These populations may lack visibility, or choose to be invisible for security and personal reasons, and thus are difficult for humanitarian actors to identify and target.

In the absence of more formal structures, informal mechanisms and service providers play important roles for displaced people, particularly in dispute resolution, community and security support and service provision. In Peshawar, communities rely on social and kinship networks for social and moral support. In Nairobi, community-based organisations, committees and groups provide essential services such as waste management and livelihood support. In Kabul, ethnic links to powerful actors provide communities with access to aid and protection against forced evictions.

In many contexts, ‘formal’ institutions such as the police are not considered legitimate or effective, and informal arrangements are put in place to address security concerns or resolve disputes. In Nairobi, criminal gangs provide de facto rule of law and security at the request of residents. In Juba, young, disenfranchised men join gangs for camaraderie and support as an alternative to a family unit, as well as for social and economic security. In urban conflict zones, engagement with informal local actors and security providers can be crucial for aid delivery, access and security: in Mogadishu, for example, informal actors, landlords or groups controlling public and private plots often act as ‘gatekeepers’ for aid delivery to IDP camps.

Urban violence

Many urban areas are affected by high – and sometimes endemic – levels of violence. In many cases, violence is not perpetrated by easily identifiable belligerents or official armies, but by a complex web of often informally assembled, interconnected groups and individuals with diverse backgrounds and agendas. Humanitarian actors operating in violent urban environments need to engage with many of these informal groups to gain access to vulnerable populations. While humanitarian organisations routinely engage with non-state armed groups in conflicts, they have been more reluctant to engage in contexts of criminal and other related violence. It may be more difficult for humanitarians to find entry-points and identify armed or criminal groups in such settings, but they can work with development counterparts and local organisations with deeper contextual knowledge to understand the drivers of violence, the make-up of the groups involved and their relationships with communities.

Informal economies

Urban economies are largely cash-based, with significant market activity. Urban markets may suffer short-term disruption in disasters, but can resume quickly and provide most of what local people need to recover. Urban areas also offer more options for transferring funds through local financial institutions. Poor and vulnerable people use a range of financial tools to manage cash flow, cope with emergencies and build up assets. Often, these are semi-formal or informal, such as rotating funds, savings clubs and loan groups, or loans from family and friends.

Informal material and financial support is important in many disasters. In one study in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, 40% of respondents received some form of informal assistance after the disaster, nearly always cash. In the aftermath of Typhoon Yolande in the Philippines in 2013, almost 40% of households surveyed received informal support from neighbours and the local community, including temporary lodging, food, cash and help with rebuilding. Households with access to informal savings and lending from sources such as employers, shops and local moneylenders recovered faster and were more confident about coping with future shocks.

Diasporas, transnational social networks and foreign remittances support crisis response and recovery. Remittance inflows increase steeply after disasters, though this tends to be short-lived. Remittances can be delivered through formal channels (banks and money transfer agencies) and informally, via individuals travelling overseas and returning with money or goods as a favour for friends and family, or in return for a payment. These flows are hard to track – they are not monitored by central banks or other government authorities, and other forms of in-kind support from diasporas are largely invisible.

Humanitarian agencies are increasingly trying to align emergency responses with local market systems to protect livelihoods after a disaster. Market assessment tools look at the entire market system, including local market actors, market chains, infrastructure and support services, nonmonetary forms of exchange, market access, formal policies and regulations and the informal social norms that guide the system, and which may exclude some groups from the market. They look at formal and informal stakeholders and their roles in the system as workers, producers, traders, consumers and regulators, and the economic and power relationships between them. They also consider the impacts of humanitarian interventions on markets.

Digital humanitarianism and informality

Recent advances in information and communications technologies are enabling new forms of informal, spontaneous and self-organised volunteerism. Crowdsourcing, volunteered geographic information tools and social media platforms are now widely used in disasters and crises to assess damage, identify needs and sources of assistance, mobilise informal responses and connect affected families with service providers and suppliers. Such technologies help to overcome the problem of identifying and reaching spatially dispersed, diverse and invisible urban communities. High population density and relatively high levels of mobile phone use and Internet connectivity in urban areas enable information to spread rapidly.

Crowdsourcing and social media encourage volunteerism and give a voice to disaster-affected people, empowering them as actors in response and recovery. This offers an opportunity to change the relationship between aid givers and recipients and support emergent activity. However, many formal agencies appear to see new media technologies and practices primarily as a means of obtaining or disseminating information more effectively, rather than a means of entering into dialogue with affected communities or transforming relationships with crisis-affected people.


Engaging with informality is key to achieving greater accountability to disaster-affected communities. Humanitarian actors need to work more closely with the full range of existing structures – informal as well as formal – that are crucial to the way urban dwellers, including displaced people, live their lives. It is important to enhance collaboration and synergies between formal and informal actors, networks and institutions through humanitarian interventions, rather than replacing or duplicating existing structures that work well or play important roles in people’s lives and livelihoods.

There is a need for more comprehensive and systematic understanding of the wide variety of local and informal actors in urban contexts, their ways of organising, activities, legitimacy and accountability, and ways of engaging with them. Urban environments, with their diversity, dynamism and complexity, present many challenges to humanitarian assessments; traditional methods do not capture the interrelationships between formal and informal systems or the division of roles and responsibilities between formal and informal actors, and formal humanitarian actors often do not see informality or misunderstand it. As a result, there is a shortage of policy and practice guidance on how to identify and engage with informality.

Agencies are beginning to adapt their needs, context, vulnerability and stakeholder assessments and associated targeting tools to urban conditions. New assessment approaches and tools designed for urban contexts are appearing, including a group of new tools developed by the Stronger Cities Initiative. There is growing interest in area-based approaches (ABAs) that focus on whole communities in defined spatial contexts. ABAs are a way of overcoming sectoral divisions, looking at interrelated needs and basing interventions on local people, relationships, systems and capacities.

Humanitarian organisations should also consider ways of supporting informal actors and their actions directly, for example by engaging emergent groups and volunteers in response activities, or providing resources, facilities and technical assistance to community support groups and social networks involved in data-gathering and aid delivery. There is also scope for thinking of alternative ways of framing organisational responses to disasters and crises, and thinking differently about stakeholders in crisis response, less in terms of organisational form and more in terms of the different roles they can play.

John Twigg is a Principal Research Fellow with the Risk and Resilience Programme at ODI. Irina Mosel is a Senior Research Fellow in the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI. This article draws on two longer papers by the authors: Informality in Urban Crisis Response (London: ODI, 2018) and ‘Emergent Groups and Spontaneous Volunteers in Urban Disaster Response’, Environment & Urbanization 29(2), 2017.