A vendor in a low-income Palestinian neighborhood of East Amman shows his ‘key’ to his home in Palestine. Many Palestinian refugees keep a symbolic key to their homeland despite having resided in Jordan for decades. A vendor in a low-income Palestinian neighborhood of East Amman shows his ‘key’ to his home in Palestine. Many Palestinian refugees keep a symbolic key to their homeland despite having resided in Jordan for decades. Photo credit: Samer Saliba/IRC
Say hello to your local municipality: lessons from Amman for humanitarians in the city
by Samer Saliba March 2018

‘Humanitarians manage a crisis in a city; municipalities manage a city in crisis.’ In the two years since I first heard this quote, attributed to a UN Habitat representative during a conference on urban humanitarian response in 2015, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has tried to make urban humanitarian response a collaborative effort. Our best partners in this have proven to be municipalities.

There are two primary reasons why. First, while national governments must grapple with the legal and political differences between labels such as ‘citizen’, ‘asylum-seeker’ or ‘refugee’, municipalities are typically concerned with only one label: ‘resident’. In stable contexts overseen by legitimate governments, municipalities often prove willing partners looking for expertise or support to manage an influx of new residents while maintaining continuity of public services. While there are counter-examples, including restrictive national policies or harmful and/or inappropriate municipal partners, in the majority of cities where the IRC works the lack of meaningful partnerships with municipalities (beyond simply registering or receiving programme approval) is not due to restraint on the part of the municipality, but on the part of the NGO.

Second, municipalities are primarily concerned with developmental endeavours. Cities differ from rural areas in many ways, but one of the clearest distinctions is that cities are constantly changing. This is particularly true of large and growing cities such as Amman and Kampala. The main remit of effective municipalities is to steer this change in a positive direction. This is never easy, and so engaged partners who can help them achieve their vision for all of their residents are often welcome and sometimes even necessary. In this way, humanitarians can help local municipalities improve their understanding of the needs and preferences of displaced residents in relation to the overall population, and use this understanding to ensure the inclusion of displaced and marginalised residents in municipal services.

Take Amman for example. Jordan is one of the top ten refugee hosting countries in the world and has the second highest ratio of refugees to host population.+UNHCR, Mid-Year Trends, February 2017, http://www.unhcr.org/statistics/unhcrstats/58aa8f247/mid-year-trends-june-2016.html. The Jordanian government estimates that there are more than 220,000 Iraqi refugees, some 1.7 million Palestinian refugees and over 1.2m Syrian refugees, in addition to smaller communities of other nationalities including Sudanese and Somalis. Over 80% of the more than 685,000 Syrian refugees officially registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are living in urban areas, while the remaining are in Za’atari, Azraq and other smaller refugee camps.+UNHCR Jordan country page, http://reporting.unhcr.org/node/2549. Given that some Syrian refugees have been displaced for over seven years, many families have exhausted their savings. Currently, over 85% of Syrian households live under the Jordanian poverty line.[Ibid.]

An estimated 28% of Syrian refugees are living within the Amman metropolitan area.+Syria Regional Refugee Response, Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal, http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/country.php?id=107. While the international response has long been concentrated in the northern cities of Mafraq, Irbid and Ramtha and nearby refugee camps and settlements, recent data and assessments show the growing need to expand programming in the central cities of Amman and Zarqa. UNHCR estimates that over 185,000 persons of concern are living in Amman Governorate, though the general consensus is that the actual number is significantly higher.+UNHCR Inter-agency information sharing portal. Information updated as of 16 November 2017, http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/region.php?country=107&id=75.

Since opening Za’atari camp, the Jordanian government has generally screened and transferred refugees from Syria directly there, and later to Azraq camp. Despite that, many refugees have chosen to leave the camps and settle in urban areas and host communities. Many cite feelings of indignity around life in the camps as a reason for leaving, while believing that they will have more opportunities to earn a living and reach some measure of normal life in cities such as Amman.+CARE Jordan baseline assessment of community identified vulnerabilities among Syrian refugees living in Amman. 2012, http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/download.php?id=1177. This has resulted in the heavy concentration of refugees in the capital, often in the low-income neighbourhoods in the east of the city, where they may live alongside neighbours of similar economic or cultural backgrounds, and share the challenges faced by all residents of these areas, including limited access to public and municipal services, higher living costs and crowded and/or unsafe living conditions.

While the response to the refugee crisis within Jordan is now unified by the Jordan Response Plan and the Jordan Compact – with varying levels of success+See, for example, IRC, In Search of Work – Finding Jobs for Syrian Refugees: A Case Study on the Jordan Compact, February 2017, https://www.rescue.org/sites/default/files/document/1343/insearchofworkweb.pdf. – this has not translated to the city level in Amman, particularly when it comes to coordinated service delivery and the establishment of a common database on the demographics and characteristics of refugees, including their mobility patterns or place of residence. The 2018–2020 version of the Jordan Response Plan highlights some successes at the municipal level, but at the time of writing was still in draft form.

As a member of 100 Resilient Cities (100RC), pioneered by The Rockefeller Foundation, the Greater Amman Municipality was responsible for its own City Resilience Strategy, which is meant to outline how it will address shocks and stresses, including unemployment, earthquakes, aging infrastructure and refugee influxes. The IRC is a 100RC platform partner supporting cities taking in displaced people with better integrated assistance and policies to strengthen overall resilience. As such, Amman’s Chief Resilience Officer (who reports to the Mayor) solicited IRC’s input on how to include the needs of displaced and marginalised people in the Resilience Strategy. In partnership with the Chief Resilience Officer and his team, the IRC, using the new Urban Context Analysis Toolkit,+The Urban Context Analysis Toolkit analyses the underlying political, social, economic, service delivery and spatial dynamics for displaced people and host communities in Amman and Kampala. The toolkit follows a ten-step process and includes a desk review, key informant interviews and focus group discussions with both refugee and host communities. It is available at http://pubs.iied.org/10819IIED/. worked with municipal social workers and others to conduct an assessment of how best to meet the needs of Amman’s displaced and marginalised residents. The goal was to hear from as many key stakeholders and community members as possible, while focusing on the city’s main concerns of youth unemployment and community engagement. The result was the development of specific actions for the Greater Amman Municipality to include in the Resilience Strategy, as well as potential areas for further collaboration around implementation. Examples include:

  • Ensure that 10% of business and social sector startups promoted through Amman’s entrepreneurship programmes are refugee-owned and registered businesses, particularly those run by women, and promote the presence of refugee-owned businesses in non-refugee areas to encourage integration and social cohesion.
  • Work with civil society organisations to identify and support women-run businesses in marginalised neighbourhoods and invite them to utilise daycare centres, while providing safe transport services for them and their children.
  • Solicit partnerships with civil society organisations in meeting the needs of vulnerable youth and supporting the safe and equal participation of women and girls in municipal youth centres.

With the support and input of Amman’s officials and stakeholders, the IRC worked to include actions on inclusivity, human rights and the empowerment of displaced and marginalised communities in the Resilience Strategy. The strategy, launched by the Mayor at a press conference on 18 May 2017, serves as a road-map for the next ten-plus years, and will receive a significant portion of the city’s annual budget. It informs what projects the city will pursue, how it will solicit funding for those projects and who it hopes to partner with on implementation.

Our assessment found that displaced and marginalised people were not accessing existing services, either because they were unaware of them or were unwilling to use them. The IRC also found considerable coordination problems among actors working on this issue, including government agencies and international NGOs maintaining community centres in the same neighbourhood. To promote better collaboration, the IRC hosted a workshop in Amman bringing together aid agencies, the UN, local organisations and members of the national government to discuss the refugee crisis and the different ways in which stakeholders can work together to integrate refugee and displaced populations in the city. In part due to the strength and unique nature of this partnership, the IRC has secured funding to deliver humanitarian programmes through the municipality’s social centres in Amman. One example is a livelihoods programme giving refugees and vulnerable youth from the host community support to help them generate a reliable income and contribute to the local economy through financial training and grant funding. The programme is aimed at supporting the financial independence and entrepreneurship of refugees and Jordanians in low-income neighbourhoods.

I’m often asked how the IRC has managed to develop successful partnerships with so many municipalities dealing with urban displacement, including Kampala, Athens and Amman. The question surprises me. While toolkits and prescriptive approaches are useful and should be used when the time is right, the IRC has found success by simply following this process: find out who the best person to talk to is (hint: it’s probably not the Mayor), say hello, start a conversation and see if there is mutual benefit to a partnership. This approach has helped the IRC start municipal partnerships in places like Lesvos, where at one point 81 NGOs were responding to the refugee influx, only a handful of which were registered with the municipality. Just as importantly, it has helped us identify unhelpful or conflict-complicit municipalities in conflict-affected areas of West and East Africa, and how best to navigate these urban governance structures. In these cities, taking time to understand the local context and engage in dialogue with local municipalities helped us conclude that a partnership was inappropriate and would not help us better serve the needs of displaced residents.

In Kampala, dialogue with the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) has improved our understanding of the city’s development goals and how to link our programmes to their existing service delivery channels. Despite hosting over 100,000 refugees, KCCA had no plans or programmes specifically addressing their needs, but welcomed further insight on how to tailor their plans to make them more inclusive of displaced residents. As in Amman, following exposure to the humanitarian sector the KCCA is taking the lead in coordinating humanitarian services, the inclusion of displaced and marginalised residents in city plans and actions and the achievement of UNHCR’s Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework for Uganda.

You do not need a toolkit to say hello to your local municipality, yet surprisingly few humanitarian NGOs are willing to reach out, often assuming that municipalities are unsuitable partners. This is a tremendous missed opportunity to link humanitarian response to long-term city plans. At a time when the humanitarian–development nexus is endlessly discussed and debated, this is a simple, practical approach of practicing what we preach:

  1. Engage in dialogue with the local municipal authority or authorities, where appropriate, to determine if there are any opportunities for meaningful collaboration around shared outcome areas.
  2. Determine whether the city or town in which you work has a pre-existing master plan or documented development goals, and determine whether these goals are in line with programmatic outcomes.
  3. Strive to better understand the interests and incentives of local authorities and stakeholders. While some interests may diverge, there will almost always be ways to approach and engage potential partners that are aligned with both humanitarian and local stakeholders’ interests.
  4. Share information with other response actors and local authorities in order to ensure that all actors are operating based on the same information and may coordinate or collaborate accordingly. Support municipal authorities to coordinate responses and support local actors less familiar with humanitarian and human rights-based approaches, but which are still able and willing to provide services to displaced populations.
  5. Strive to achieve effective coordination among the diversity of urban stakeholders, including local authorities, NGOs, community- and faith-based organisations and the private sector. Effective coordination between local, international and state actors is key, particularly in ensuring the effective implementation of international/ national frameworks at the local level.
  6. Take every opportunity to link humanitarian interventions with on-going development goals to invest in long-term sustainable change and progress towards the lasting outcomes of health, education, economic wellbeing, safety and empowerment.

Urban displacement cuts across city and humanitarian sectors. As such, governments, NGOs and private and public stakeholders must rethink their roles in addressing displacement, and their relationships with one another. For humanitarian actors, relationship-building and providing technical assistance to local authorities can create pathways for more inclusive community engagement, systems strengthening and city planning through a humanitarian lens. In Amman, the approach led to a more inclusive resilience strategy that gives humanitarians a role in realising the city’s vision of becoming a ‘welcoming, young, and diverse city [that promotes] a culture of sharing and inclusivity, pioneering regional change’.

Samer Saliba is Urban Technical Specialist at the International Rescue Committee (IRC). This article is adapted from the report From Response to Resilience: Working with Cities and City Plans to Address Urban Displacement, published by the author for the IRC in February 2018. The report is available at: https://www.rescue.org/report/response-resilience-working-cities-and-city-plans-address-urban-displacement.