Children playing at a child-friendly space at a DRC urban centre in Herat. Children playing at a child-friendly space at a DRC urban centre in Herat. Photo credit: Mathias Devi Nielsen and Shakib Heryazad
Piloting urban responses to long-term displacement in Afghanistan
by Ruta Nimkar and Mathias Devi Nielsen March 2018

Conflict has been a key driver of displacement in Afghanistan for more than 35 years. By the end of 2016, there were more than 1.5 million displaced people in the country.+Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), Global Report, Table 1 (Geneva: IDMC, 2017), In recent years, displacement dynamics have evolved in response to rapid urbanisation, intensifying conflict, resulting in increased rural–urban movement, and regional political changes, which have seen the large-scale return of Afghans from Pakistan, many of whom have settled in urban areas. This article reflects on the Danish Refugee Council (DRC)’s experience of piloting a new approach to responding to humanitarian needs in urban settings in Afghanistan, focusing on successes, challenges and lessons for future urban programmes, in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

DRC’s urban response in Afghanistan

Urban areas of Afghanistan have changed enormously in recent years. In Kabul, the population grew by 4.5% annually between 2010 and 2015.+Peter Ellis and Mark Roberts, Leveraging Urbanisation in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Livability (Washington DC: World Bank Group, 2016), While much of this increase, both in Kabul and in other urban areas, has been attributed to natural growth, there has also been a steady influx of people from rural areas, due in part to conflict. This expansion has put pressure on urban infrastructure and employment, prompting a significant outflow of wealthier, more educated Afghans.

Humanitarian actors have not fully adapted to these changes. OCHA’s Humanitarian Response Plan explicitly recognises the urban nature of displacement in Afghanistan,+OCHA Afghanistan, Humanitarian Needs Overview 2017 (Geneva: OCHA, 2017), p. 14, but few tailored approaches have been developed to better meet the needs of the urban displaced. The current response modality consists primarily of outreach – teams go to communities of displaced people and provide assistance and awareness-raising classes on rights and national laws. This approach leaves two critical gaps: those who arrive in a displaced community after assistance has been provided do not receive services; and immediately upon arrival, or in times of crisis, displaced people have nowhere to turn apart from family or ethnic networks.

To address these issues, DRC developed an urban programming approach consisting of a network of community centres. The ‘hub’ site is located close to the office of the Ministry/Department of Refugees and Repatriation (DoRR). DRC currently runs four hub sites: Herat and Kabul opened in January 2017, and Jalalabad and Kandahar the following August. All displaced people and returnees need to register with the DoRR to access assistance, documentation and public services. DRC uses this opportunity to establish contact, either through direct physical presence at the DoRR office or through referrals by the DoRR to the DRC hub. In coordination with IOM, DRC provides cash support to undocumented returnees, as well as legal and psychosocial services, child-friendly spaces and job centres supporting business startups, work placements and links to markets. Services are available to any Afghan who walks in, assuming they meet the eligibility criteria for the particular assistance they seek.

In addition to the ‘hub’ centres, ‘spoke’ sites act as community centres in areas of high displacement, offering support including legal advice, psychosocial counselling and vocational and business training. There are two spoke sites in Herat and two in Kabul, with additional sites scheduled to open in Jalalabad and Kandahar in early 2018.

Successes and challenges

The pilot phase for the Kabul and Herat hub centres ran from 1 January to 10 May 2017. This pilot phase was ‘lean’, in that the centres offered only legal advice, psychosocial counselling and child-friendly spaces, not cash and livelihoods support. Data collected during the pilot phase was intended to inform the location of the spoke sites.


Demand was high: during the seven-month pilot period, an average of 208 case files a month were opened in the Kabul hub, and 233 in Herat. There was unexpectedly heavy demand for psychosocial support, accounting for 81% of the services provided in Kabul in May and June, and 48% in Herat. Demand for child-friendly spaces was also very high: in Herat, 47% of hub clients either requested recreational services for children or were supporting children in receiving targeted psychosocial counselling. Women used child-friendly spaces at the hub for childcare, enabling them to run errands and do household chores.

The centres also helped people to transition into programmes they may not otherwise have accessed. Some adults requested legal counselling services on their first visit, and psychosocial support on their second. Children needing psychosocial support were identified through the child-friendly spaces, and parents were also open to their children receiving this support as they had gained trust in the hubs and the services provided through them.


The vast majority (over 80%) of visitors to the hub sites were from host communities. Although the hubs were located close to DoRR offices in order to provide displaced people with immediate assistance upon registration, the link between the DoRR and the hubs was weak, and there were few direct referrals. Displaced people were aware of the hubs through DRC’s community mobilisers, but accessing them proved challenging as many returnees and IDPs live in peri-urban areas, and the cost of transport to the centre of town is significant. The project did not originally intend to target host communities, but the high level of interest from this group indicates a serious gap in the provision of legal and psychosocial services in urban areas in Afghanistan. DRC attempted to reach out to displaced communities by setting up a shuttle service to the hubs, while the spoke sites, which provide direct access to communities, were established in community locations identified through the hubs.

In order to strengthen links with the MoRR/DoRR, DRC signed MoUs before establishing the hubs. DRC intended this collaboration to create a strong referral mechanism from the MoRR/DoRR to DRC, and between DRC and other service providers. However, this has not materialised. Government engagement is complicated by issues to do with decentralisation, lack of resources and lack of understanding among government officials about the services that the hubs can provide, leading to inappropriate referrals. DRC is working to engage more with government actors to make them aware of services at the hubs.

Community centres are common in the Syria displacement response, operated by DRC and other agencies, and UNHCR and the CCCM cluster have conducted desk reviews specifically about the use of community centres in urban response. This material has not been adapted to other contexts, or rolled out to other urban areas. As such, DRC missed opportunities to build on best practices, and to learn from previous experience. Much organisational learning takes place within a particular region or geographic context, and there is often limited scope for sharing between regions in a way that allows for appropriate contextualisation.

Finally, given the combination of walk-in services available to everybody and services where stricter eligibility criteria are enforced, it is essential to provide very clear communication about the availability of hub services. While anyone is eligible for psychosocial counselling, not everybody can walk in and receive a small business grant. Although anyone can access all protection activities (legal support, psychosocial services and child-friendly spaces), eligibility criteria are strict for cash and livelihoods support. For cash, beneficiaries need to undergo a standardised assessment, aligned with IOM and OCHA’s HEAT assessment, and have a ‘Poor’ food consumption score, in order to receive assistance. For livelihoods support, tailored beneficiary selection criteria, standardised throughout DRC’s Afghanistan programming, are used. For small business grants, the criteria assess the viability of the business concept, the degree to which the applicant is able to co-invest, the ability of the business to employ displaced people in the future, the business skills of the applicant and other relevant criteria. This requires a high degree of coordination and training of DRC community mobilisers, as well as training for the government officials expected to refer beneficiaries to the hub.

Lessons learned

DRC has learned several lessons from the pilot phase which will inform future programming in urban areas with large numbers of people living in protracted displacement. First, the importance of contextualisation. The hubs DRC opened in Kabul and Herat were tailored to the local context; this included the physical layout of the hub, in which men and women shared a waiting room and conference areas.

However, when opening centres in Jalalabad and Kandahar, DRC found that the model that had previously been used needed significant adjustment. Cultural norms in Jalalabad and Kandahar concerning women are much stricter and more conservative, and the physical layout of the hub therefore needed to be adjusted. Gender-segregated conference rooms were necessary in both Jalalabad and Kandahar. In Jalalabad, even waiting rooms needed to be segregated in order to gain community acceptance. The services that attract people to the hubs are also likely to be different in the four locations. In initial operations, DRC has found that there is less demand for male psychosocial support in Jalalabad. The data on these differences is currently too weak to conduct a full analysis about why these variations occur, but DRC will do this as the hubs progress.

Second, the importance of integrating different types of services, and targeted services. The hubs in Kabul and Herat are only now starting to offer livelihoods activities, and this may enable more beneficiaries to access supplementary legal and psychosocial services. Similarly, counsellors in the Kabul and Herat hubs have noted the need for other services, including community health and hygiene awareness-raising, that could be provided through the community centres; by integrating these services, the centres could both meet an immediate need and build a basis for stronger long-term engagement with communities. This is particularly important in protracted displacement settings, where modalities of distributing aid are already established and the effectiveness of new urban programming approaches not yet proven.

Third, both DRC and its donors demonstrated adaptability and flexibility through the project. For example, the centres were designed to target displaced people, but the pilot phase shows heavy use of the centres by host communities. DRC, with support from donors, adapted its modalities to provide transport from displacement sites to the hubs, while ensuring that the hubs remained open to host communities given the heavy demand for their services. DRC is also considering other operational modalities to improve outreach, including systematising mobile outreach between the hub and spoke sites, establishing ‘hub buses’ with space for legal and psychosocial clinics, which travel among given communities according to a set schedule, and finally community engagement measures, such as adjusting opening hours, holding community events and giving communities more direct control over the centres.

Ruta Nimkar is Regional Head of Programs, DRC Central and South West Asia. Mathias Devi Nielsen is CIMS Program Manager, DRC Afghanistan.