Issue 71 - Article 1

Different, but how? Better aid in the city

March 27, 2018
Alyoscia D’Onofrio
International Rescue Committee
Dense housing in Port au Prince, Haiti.

In recent years, there has been a significant drive to improve aid interventions in urban settings, with investments from donors and operational agencies in improved contextual analyses and programming interventions, and to a lesser extent in deploying urban experts and shifting attitudes and approaches to engagement in urban settings. There has also been a lot of talk as to what is different about doing humanitarian assistance in an urban setting, with conferences, workshops and side events dedicated to this theme. Despite this, there remains something a little elusive about the specificity of this difference. This article offers some personal reflections as to why this is the case, and how we can bring greater clarity and purpose to the delivery of aid in cities.

Why do we struggle to define what’s different?

While there is a growing consensus that cities are an important locus of current and future humanitarian interventions, and that ‘urban’ is ‘different’, as a participant observer in many urban humanitarian conversations of late I’ve seen people struggle to articulate how the distinctiveness of urban settings should translate (or not) into different programming approaches and engagement strategies. I think there are two main reasons for this.

The rural delusion (and its companion, the camp delusion)

There are many accumulated bad habits from aid work in rural and camp settings, which might be summarised as a general blindness to local power dynamics, local authority structures and heterogeneity in community composition (social class, ethnicity, locality of origin, trajectory of migration, in addition to the more obvious, but nevertheless often neglected, characteristics of age, gender, disability and so on).

Viewed against this backdrop, ‘urban’ is held up as exhibiting all of the qualities that have been ignored and underplayed in rural or camp settings. Broad statements are then made about the importance of engaging with local authorities, understanding social schisms, etc. as if this was particular to or definitive of an urban environment. The problem here is that doing urban humanitarianism just becomes another way of saying you should do better aid, leaving us none the wiser about the specificity of urban settings and the approaches, attitudes and behaviours needed to navigate them.

A crowded aid reform agenda

There are a multitude of change agendas in aid work. The aspiration to improve and change appears to be a constant condition within the sector, even if the words used to describe reform processes themselves change every few years. Many of the aid innovations under way at the moment include initiatives which have developed in urban settings, such as the use of cash assistance or information provision through smartphones. Reflection on how to engage in an urban setting can rapidly be subsumed in discussions about the pros and cons of specific aid reforms, types of intervention and emergent best practices. For example, I’ve seen several discussions about cash transfers in urban settings rapidly get stuck on why cash is a good intervention modality and how it can be done more cost-efficiently, rather than thinking through the social and protection impact of issuing things that look like credit cards to refugees living in crowded informal settlements alongside existing, untargeted residents. Urban specificities often disappear under the weight of thematic reform discussions, perhaps unsurprisingly given the primacy accorded to sectors in the humanitarian architecture.

So what, then, is the case for paying attention to urban settings as distinct from other change initiatives and other contexts? I want to do three things in the remainder of this article, essentially outlining the case for an urban-focused humanitarianism, and helping to articulate what that actually means: first, briefly recap the importance of paying attention to urban settings for humanitarian work; second, examine what’s distinctive about those urban contexts; and third, tease out the implications for changed operational behaviours and interventions.

Why care about urban settings for humanitarian aid?

It has become commonplace to preface any discussion of urban humanitarianism with a reference to the estimated proportion of refugees residing in urban areas (60% in 2016), UNHCR, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2016, Note that this figure is based on a sub-set of 14.2 million refugees for whom information was available. coupled with the global estimated number of forcibly displaced people (65.6 million at the end of 2016). Ibid. Analysis of trends in urbanisation in general, and the urbanisation of poverty in particular, suggests that cities are likely to increasingly be both a site of conflict and a haven for those fleeing from it. Add to this the protracted conflicts in cities in Syria and beyond, the impact of gang violence in urban Latin America and the increasing frequency of climate change-induced natural hazards in urban centres in Asia and the Americas, and there appears a very compelling case to pay attention to urban settings as a major locus for humanitarian action.

But if the future is likely to be very urban, this is only half the story of why understanding the distinctiveness of urban settings is important for humanitarian aid. The other side of the coin is the origins of past humanitarian interventions in rural and camp-based settings. These settings are remarkable not for the absence of power dynamics and heterogeneity, as mentioned above, so much as for the relative ease with which aid agencies can identify and serve individuals, households and specific groups of people. So we have aid intervention strategies (water points, latrines, distributions of various sorts, primary healthcare support, livelihoods support) that are predicated on a clear identification of target ‘beneficiaries’ confronting a world in which people are increasingly mixed together in larger numbers in complex urban environments.

What is distinctive about urban settings?

There are many ways to answer this question. Here are five terms that I find useful in thinking about what’s distinctive about the economy, government and governance, built environment, population, media and social agency in cities.


As one of my urban-specialist colleagues likes to put it: ‘There’s just more. Of everything’. This applies to economic transactions, as it does to types of information flow and planning and coordination bodies. Line ministries coexist with local authorities, and in the capital with national governing bodies. Several types of informal authority can hold sway over particular areas or population groups. So we need to pay attention to the ‘more of everything’, and not settle upon first impressions or entry points and assume we’ve figured it all out.


Not only are there more people, transactions and organisations, there is a proximity between them that is a fundamental characteristic of the urban environment: people living in close quarters to one another amplifies the spread of information (correct or otherwise), disease, panic, etc. Crises can play out very differently in an urban setting, and it pays to be attentive to how quickly density or proximity can change the dynamics of the operating environment. Identifying a single partner government or civil society agency may be simple in a rural setting (through limited choice, if nothing else), but in an urban setting density layered onto quantity can mean that engaging with one partner can easily create tensions with others in a way that hinders humanitarian interventions.


There is a greater likelihood of diverse population characteristics across multiple axes: ethnicity, religion, wealth, income. Combined with density, diversity can be a conflict driver waiting for a proximate trigger, such as a sudden large influx of people or a disruption to the city infrastructure. But beyond the more obvious questions of population diversity, there are also likely to be more diverse political agendas, economic opportunities, points of view, types of infrastructure and patterns of movement. For those used to the relative consistency (again, exaggerated consistency due to poor contextual analysis) of rural or camp settings, it is all too easy to miss the importance of moving beyond first impressions and understanding how the multiple variations at play can fundamentally affect any humanitarian intervention.


All of the above is driving towards a pretty obvious point: there is a complexity to the interrelatedness of urban systems, processes, organisations and institutions that cannot be ignored if a humanitarian agency is to function effectively in an urban context. We ignore complexity at our peril, both in terms of the efficacy of interventions and in terms of staff security and reputation. There are likely to be many unintended consequences from an intervention in an urban setting, and being alert and maintaining an adaptive attitude can serve us well under such conditions. Conversely, it also means that there are many more potential pathways to achieving desired outcomes, and wider scope for creative and innovative solutions to the problems people in urban settings face.


Which brings us to another fundamental difference between urban and rural settings: the capacity and capability of individuals and organisations. Not only are there more and diverse forms of authority and agency, but they also tend to draw on better-educated, more experienced and more capable individuals and organisations. There are plans and systems, and creative, adaptive minds behind them. While a humanitarian crisis might be new, there are likely to be coping mechanisms and forms of resilience that are founded on these capabilities. Ignoring or marginalising these assets is a huge missed opportunity for better humanitarian response.

What are the implications for humanitarian work in urban settings?

The temptation, when faced with a list of how different urban settings are, is to pose a question like: how should cash programming/water provision/community healthcare/emergency education/child-friendly spaces be modified to be relevant in an urban setting? The temptation is to begin by taking what we know and asking how it should be applied in the city, possibly modifying it slightly in the process.

This is not a great starting point. Given the complexity and capacity issues referenced above, good urban humanitarianism needs to start from understanding what existing responses are being mounted by local authorities, how well these are faring, what political support there is for them and how short-term interventions tie into the longer-term development plan for the city. In general, operating in an urban area you cannot afford to under-invest in understanding the context. While this is and should be true of any humanitarian intervention, it is exponentially so in an urban setting. There are shortcuts (or ‘tools’) to assist in this, but beyond formal reflection this is also about an attitude or mindset that is both more humble and more adaptive than the application of off-the-shelf humanitarian interventions. This is, to borrow a phrase, about problem-driven iterative adaptation: M. Andrews et al., Building State Capability: Evidence, Analysis, Action (Oxford: OUP, 2017), This approach is similar to those advocated under headings such as Adaptive Management and Doing Development Differently. The label is less important than the approach. working with the right constellation of organisations and individuals to solve the specific problems faced by the people you seek to help (and, in most cases, the people that are living around them).

Cash in the city? It might be there is a social safety net that you can tap into and support, expanding coverage to displaced people new to the city; parallel structures and duplication may not be (or in some cases might have to be) the best approach. Socio-political context is everything. So too with access to services and the quality of services: what is already there, what damage have shocks done, do shocks provide an opportunity to improve quality, and are there allies for such ambitions?

If all this seems nice in theory and difficult in practice, it’s worth reflecting on what prevents us from operating in this way. Here are three commonly cited barriers that I’ve encountered, and what we can do to address them.

Time pressure

‘It’s an emergency and we have to act now. It slows us down to analyse the context and talk to people.’ There are ways around this and the potential costs of not analysing the context are huge. If you have the resources you can deploy on parallel tracks, doing some simple life-saving interventions, while others carry out more detailed assessments. But more often than not, one of the best sources of local information is ignored or under-utilised: the clients of your life-saving interventions. There is a huge opportunity to learn that is rarely tapped in an open-ended way. Don’t treat the affected population as an instrumental means to your donor-required needs assessment; instead, ask some open-ended questions and listen to the answers. Cross-check with your teams in a daily end of day debrief, and build up your knowledge base as you go.

Local capacity

Similarly, making time to build relationships with overburdened local authorities might seem like a luxury you can’t afford, but without this you will only have a very partial picture of problems and potential solutions. If the local authorities seem unresponsive, ask yourself why: is it something to do with how you have presented your intentions? Has there been a sudden arrival of tens or hundreds of international aid agencies all trying to meet with the same handful of officials because they’ve read an article like this, or because their donor is obliging them to demonstrate local collaboration? Are there things that you can do as a collective of international agencies to reduce this pressure, while still learning and problem solving collectively?

Donor constraints

When in doubt, blaming the donor is a favourite option: we’d like to do X but our donor log-frame requires us to do Y. Leaving aside that it was us that wrote the log-frame in the first place – with insufficient information due to the time pressures mentioned above – rare is the donor that is not flexible in responding to changing situations on the ground. Often it is our fear or pride that stands in the way of admitting that we made a mistake; that more information has come to light; that our commitment to adaptive programming means that we continue to carry out contextual analysis and that this has generated new insights. Most donors expect aid agencies to actively listen to their clients. Most donor agencies also expect effectiveness and efficiency in the interventions they fund. All of these are levers to do better, more context-adapted programming. There are of course transaction costs, but these pale into insignificance in relation to the human, opportunity, financial, reputational and sometimes security costs of not adapting to urban contexts.

For humanitarians, success in an urban setting begins with an attitude shift, with relationship-building and ongoing contextual analysis. From here all sorts of things are possible. Ask not what a city can do for your favourite humanitarian intervention, ask what you can do to support a city’s response.

Alyoscia D’Onofrio is Senior Director, Governance at the International Rescue Committee.


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