A view of Beirut, Lebanon, home to 300,000 Syrian refugees. A view of Beirut, Lebanon, home to 300,000 Syrian refugees. Photo credit: Jacob Russell/IRC
The urban context analysis toolkit
by Wale Osofisan March 2018

How can humanitarian actors better support the people they serve in complex and diverse urban settings? How can they transition from short-term emergency response to resilience-focused programming primarily driven and led by affected people and the legitimate municipal authorities? What is required to identify and build partnerships, support networks and nurture coalitions in an interconnected and interdependent urban setting? How can humanitarians better understand accountability and social relationships, and stakeholders’ interests, motivations and incentives to make positive change happen? What does it take to design effective strategies and project interventions that take into account the political, economic, social and spatial relationships in an urban setting?

These are all legitimate and pertinent questions, and they implicitly confront humanitarian actors working in cities and urban areas affected by displacement crises. Needs assessment tools to support urban humanitarian response tell us what the current situation is, i.e. the visible effects of the problem, but their depth and analytical focus vary depending on the purpose for which they were designed. While these tools have intrinsic value in helping humanitarian actors identify needs, they are limited in their ability to produce information on the underlying political, economic, social and spatial factors that may limit the impact of interventions.

It is often the case in urban humanitarian responses for humanitarian actors to focus, and rightly so, on interventions tailored to supporting and getting relief to affected people. However, the results of many of these interventions are not sustainable. Humanitarian agencies often find themselves working on the same problems and issues year after year, with very little progress and few concrete outcomes. The failure to consider the central role of politics, economics, social relationships, spatial considerations and motivations and incentives is bound to lead to ineffective programme interventions.

To illustrate, consider two urban municipalities, both with strong capacities to deliver services but varying levels of accountability and motivation/incentive structures that affect the behaviour of their leaders. Municipality A is a city government with a democratically elected mayor, where people have access to information and their voices are heard, and leaders are monitored and kept accountable for promises made during election campaigns. Municipality B is a city government where the president and an elite minority determine who becomes mayor, and where people have little or no access to information regarding their rights and entitlements.

In Municipality A, it is very likely that the motivation/incentive for the re-election of the mayor will be aligned with voters’ demands for policy changes or improved services. In Municipality B, the mayor’s incentives to respond to people’s needs, such as allocating adequate resources to health and education, are likely to be quite weak. It pays off politically to listen solely to the president and keep the handful of local urban elites happy through favourable local government contracts and subsidies and building patronage networks.

This misalignment between a leader’s motivation/incentives to pursue good policies, provide services and be accountable, as opposed to serving the interests of a small elite, underscores the importance of understanding local political economies and social networks. This does not mean that humanitarian actors should get involved in municipal or city politics, the economy and social networks. Instead, it means that a stronger understanding of the urban context will enable more focused interventions that better serve the interests of the displaced and affected host communities, including the local authorities.

Urban Context Analysis Toolkit

Given the dearth of easy-to-use tools to help humanitarian actors quickly assess an urban area’s pre-existing structures, systems and actors, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has developed an Urban Context Analysis Toolkit +The development of the toolkit was supported by the UK Department for International Development (DFID)-funded Urban Crises Learning Fund and the European Union (ECHO)-funded Improving Humanitarian Actors’ Capacity to Respond to Urban Crises. to help us better understand these underlying factors. It was designed specifically to provide an assessment mechanism that is more user-friendly, quicker and more adaptable than the macro-level context analysis tools often used to inform policy reform or development projects. It is designed to enable user modification to specific contexts, and to connect community-level actions with city, state and national-level issues. It consists of ten user-friendly tools (Table 1).


The analysis has an area-based approach following ten steps in three consecutive phases (Table 2). The tools, particularly focus group discussion and interview guides, are meant to be adapted to each particular context based on relevance and local sensitivities. The analytical framework is based on the key areas of urban systems (see Figure 1 in Leah Campbell’s article on page 11), with key themes to guide the analysis. These themes are:

  1. Politics and governance: who holds power, influence and decision-making authority, and whether this corresponds to official policies, regulations and laws.
  2. Social and cultural: the social structure, identities (e.g. language, ethnicity or religion) and individual factors that may support or hinder social relationships and cohesion.
  3. Economic: income-generating opportunities, wage rates, commodity prices, issues that have a close connection to the opportunities and vulnerabilities of affected people.
  4. Service delivery and infrastructure: access to quality services for affected people.
  5. Space and settlements: the space in which the crisis is taking place (physical organisation, risks and access).

The framework also incorporates ‘Do No Harm’ and gender equality. ‘Do No Harm’ analysis helps to ensure that programmes do not increase tension or undermine existing local systems (e.g. existing service providers or local government support). Gender equality refers to the disparities between women and men as a result of the responsibilities assigned, activities undertaken, access to and control over resources and decision-making opportunities. These cross-cutting themes are integrated throughout the toolkit, including in the questionnaires and analysis steps. The output is a report containing a stakeholder analysis; key contextual findings by theme; entry-points and risk mitigation strategies for programming; and opportunities for strengthening existing or future programming. Depending on the context, this can either be a longer narrative document or simply filled in Excel and Word templates in the toolkit focusing on the findings for programmatic decision-making. This can be shared with internal and external stakeholders, though in some political or conflict contexts external sharing can be limited.


The tool has been piloted and utilised in Bangkok, Dar es Salaam, Maiduguri, Juba, Amman, Kampala, Arua and Yola. It has enabled IRC to identify entry-points for collaboration, as well as adopt new approaches to programming. For instance, the Maiduguri pilot, which took place between November and December 2016, helped to inform IRC Nigeria’s transition from emergency response to recovery activities working with local authorities, including the state Ministry of Health. The pilot in Amman in February–March 2017 was also used to design an assessment on behalf of the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) Resilient Amman Team, which fed into the Amman Resilience Strategy.


As with most programmatic tools, the toolkit has limitations. First, there is the inherent trade-off and challenge in striking a balance between being specific and concrete enough to be useful, while remaining general enough that it can be applied in varied contexts. The toolkit is based on standard project and qualitative research tools, with the expectation that it will be adapted by users to the specifics of the urban context being examined, and according to the rationale behind the analysis. In addition to adapting the tools for specific contexts, the toolkit encourages users to periodically update the analysis as the dynamics of the context evolve – new governments take office; new policies are enacted; there are new waves of displacement.

Second, the toolkit is not designed to provide a prescriptive guide to programme design. Rather, the analysis constructs a backdrop of key cross-cutting issues such as political economy and potential conflict tensions, and other risk factors that should be taken into consideration when developing a strategy or programmes/projects.

Third, the toolkit and the steps outlined above describe a qualitative exercise. If users have the time and resources, they may also want to consider quantitative research, for instance a household or individual survey, and the toolkit could certainly complement these efforts. This may include either turning qualitative data into quantitative data or employing counting methods in focus group discussions to yield data that can be turned into charts and graphs, to analyse trends numerically.

Merely conducting an urban context analysis is not a magic bullet. It cannot provide quick fixes or ready-made answers to what are complex humanitarian and development problems, but it does provide better insights on what influences the types of decisions made by local authorities, bureaucrats and frontline service providers (state and non-state), and how displaced populations may affect their perspectives and decision-making. It also helps identify practical and realistic entry-points when designing interventions that contribute to an effective response, while remaining true to humanitarian principles and values.


We are increasingly seeing calls for proposals expecting humanitarian agencies to design interventions, including in urban settings, that explicitly consider contextual dynamics. However, bureaucratic and organisational incentives – external and internal – can hinder uptake and reduce the ability to invest in such analysis.

First, pressures to secure funding within a very short turn-round between calls for proposals and submission often restrict humanitarian actors’ ability to better understand the context beforehand. The short time-frame within which donors expect implementing agencies to deliver ambitious outcomes creates another set of constraints. This promotes a narrow concern for quick and visible results that do not always provide the foundations to engage with contextual realities on the ground, and instead tends to encourage a focus on short-term outputs that are least likely to be transformational or substantive.

Second, the prescriptive nature of many donor requests for proposals, with predetermined outputs and outcomes that neither rely on adequate understanding of the context nor are informed by social theory, reinforce the internal constraints humanitarian agencies face in conducting a nuanced urban context analysis.

Third, contextual understanding may exist in one part of a humanitarian organisation, particularly among national staff, but may not be systematically documented and linked to ground-level operations. Alternatively, individual staff and partners at field level may have a very good understanding of the context in which they are working, but this is not shared within the wider organisation, and is therefore easily overlooked and not documented amid rapid mobility and staff turnover.

Despite the above, there is increasing interest and an acknowledgement within the sector that we must have a better understanding of the context in the cities where we work. Humanitarian actors should work in genuine and equal partnership with municipal/city authorities, local civil society and, most importantly, the people we serve, who themselves have greater local knowledge than we as outsiders do. Understanding the hidden causes of problems, as opposed to limiting ourselves to their visible effects, will help us gain insights to improve our responses to urban humanitarian crises.

Wale Osofisan is Senior Technical Adviser – Governance at the International Rescue Committee UK.