Issue 58 - Article 11

Humanitarian action in urban areas: five lessons from British Red Cross programmes

August 7, 2013
Samuel Carpenter
Urban resident, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

More than half of the world’s population has been urban since 2007/2008, and this is projected to rise to 60% by 2030, when almost 5 billion people will be living in cities. This global trend is radically changing the crisis landscape, both in terms of vulnerability and humanitarian need. A host of academic studies and popular books have warned of the growing risks associated with the speed and scale of urbanisation. For example, D. Dodman et al., Understanding the Nature and Scale of Urban Risk in Low- and Middle-income Countries and Its Implications for Humanitarian Preparedness, Planning and Response, a synthesis report produced for the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), September 2012; M. Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2006).  Yet the operational implications of urbanisation for humanitarian action have been underexplored. Two exceptions are E. Lucchi, ‘Moving from the “Why” to the “How”: Reflections on Humanitarian Response in Urban Areas’, Disasters, 36 (S1), 2012; and F. Grünewald, ‘Aid in a City at War: The Case of Mogadishu, Somalia’, ibid.  This article outlines the changing nature and scale of risk and vulnerability accompanying the process of urbanisation, and presents five lessons from British Red Cross programmes addressing the practical challenges and opportunities of humanitarian action in urban areas. These lessons were identified through a scoping study conducted as part of the British Red Cross Urban Learning Project: A. Kyazze, P. Baizan and S. Carpenter, Learning from the City: British Red Cross Urban Learning Project Scoping Study (London: British Red Cross, 2012).

Urban risk and vulnerability

Cities are increasingly faced with significant risk of disasters, including extreme weather events, earthquakes and epidemics. Such natural hazards are increasingly likely to trigger additional, man-made hazards such as fire in overcrowded settlements or technological disasters, as with Japan’s ‘triple crisis’ of 2011. Compounding this urban risk, we are also witnessing increasing vulnerability in cities. Nearly 1.5bn people live in informal settlements and slums without access to adequate health care, water and sanitation. Disasters often strike in contexts marked by chronic poverty or high levels of political or criminal violence.

Vulnerability in urban areas is heightened by a lack of land and tenure rights and precarious settlement conditions in low-lying areas, hillsides and river banks. Health risks can become concentrated in densely packed cities, where populations often expand beyond the capacity of the public health system to cope. The built environment can be a major source of vulnerability, with poor design, choice of construction systems and building materials common in rapidly urbanising, unregulated environments.

Five lessons

Due to the ‘rural bias’ of humanitarian action, the sector has arguably been slow to wake up to the operational significance of urbanisation. However, many humanitarian agencies and inter-agency initiatives are now starting to grapple with the changes in approach that urban settings demand. Drawing on the experiences of our delegates and partner Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies in Haiti (Port-au-Prince), Djibouti (Djibouti-ville), Mongolia (Ulaanbaatar), Nepal (Kathmandu) and Uganda (Kampala), the British Red Cross (BRC) has identified five key lessons as part of our effort to enhance the relevance, quality and impact of our work in urban areas.

The first lesson concerns the importance of significant upfront investment, both of time and resources, in high-quality context analysis and assessments. While quality analysis and assessments are also critical in rural areas, given the relative novelty of urban operations for many staff and the complexity of urban systems an extensive and robust assessment is often vital to programme effectiveness. Satellite mapping tools can prove particularly useful here, as we have found in our earthquake preparedness work in the Kathmandu Valley. Yet given the dynamic nature of urban areas, especially relating to markets and people’s movements, it is clear that effective assessments must be iterative. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ participatory approach for safe shelter awareness (PASSA) has proved particularly useful in Port-au-Prince in ensuring a more participatory and accountable methodology. PASSA aims to raise awareness among the ‘everyday vulnerable’ of the ‘everyday risks’ related to their built environment. The PASSA manual is available at  PASSA changed the whole direction of the BRC’s recovery programme in the Delmas 19 area of the city; the community’s identification of the risks they faced led to a much broader urban reconstruction and regeneration programme, integrating water and sanitation, livelihoods and markets.

The second lesson concerns the need to better understand cash and markets in urban areas. Many evaluations of urban response and recovery operations have highlighted the importance of cash and markets, as in urban areas people generally depend more on external suppliers and the market for goods and services, rather than producing their own food or fetching their own water. Yet BRC’s experience in cash and livelihoods programmes in responses in Djibouti-ville and Port-au-Prince highlights particular challenges for cash programming in urban areas. In the peri-urban slums of Djibouti-ville, for example, identifying beneficiaries and targeting assistance to the most vulnerable was especially difficult. In urban areas people often have multiple livelihood strategies, which can make tools that prescribe the identification of geographical livelihoods zones for assessment, analysis and targeting problematic. But even when there are clear groups to direct assistance towards, such as internally displaced people or refugees, political and ethnic tensions may prevent these groups from identifying themselves, as with refugees in Jordan fleeing the crisis in Syria, for example. Gaining the trust of such groups, through a strong understanding of and sensitivity to local, national and regional political and conflict dynamics, is essential to ensure that the most vulnerable are not missed.

The third lesson is that, whatever the nature of the programme, understanding complex urban communities and engaging with a representative range of stakeholders in a sophisticated and sensitive way is vital to success. Such engagement is also essential to ensuring that beneficiary accountability standards are met. However, urban communities can be difficult to engage with. A review of the IFRC’s vulnerability and capacity assessment approach carried out in 2011 found that the most significant problem in applying it in urban areas was the lack of an obvious ‘community’ to work with. Indeed, residents may live in one neighbourhood but commute as daily labourers into another part of the city. Furthermore, the way in which people use their time may be less uniform than in rural areas. As Red Cross staff in Kathmandu noted, most people are tied formally or informally to the market economy, and thus the daily rhythm of jobs, commuting and juggling priorities will generally take precedence over a risk reduction workshop, say. Yet this should not be an excuse for neglecting community engagement, as local people are always first on the scene in the event of a disaster, and can thus greatly benefit from preparedness measures, such as training in first aid and search and rescue.

In Port-au-Prince, the BRC delegation has invested substantial time and resources in developing a Community Mobilisation Team. These professional facilitators act as interlocutors between the community and BRC staff, ensuring that messages from the BRC are consistent and clear, and collecting, consolidating and appropriately acting upon feedback from the community. Creating a single point of contact between the community and the delegation has improved communication and ensured consistent messaging. This gain has been supported by moving the delegation to the heart of Delmas 19, helping to build trust and familiarity and removing the barriers that can separate Western aid agencies from the local population. Yet the level of scrutiny and pressure placed on staff when operating in the heart of a congested urban area inevitably brings with it greater intensity and associated stress.

Investment in information technology can also be of significant importance in taking effective communication with urban communities to scale. In Haiti, the National Society and the IFRC, in partnership with telecommunications firm Trilogy International, have created an interactive, two-way communication platform using SMS and interactive voice response technology to enhance accountability to communities and help reach women and other underrepresented groups. For more information see

The fourth lesson is that land tenure issues often undermine reconstruction efforts in urban areas, The IFRC has sought to highlight the need for a more sustainable approach to shelter reconstruction in urban areas. See, for example, S. Schneider et al., Sustainable Reconstruction in Urban Areas: A Handbook (Geneva: Swiss Resource Centre and Consultancies for Development International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2011).  meaning that navigating legal and political systems is often central to ensuring the success of an urban shelter programme. Indeed, land tenure issues have been among the biggest challenges faced by the BRC team in Port-au- Prince, where only 40% of plots were registered with an owner. Agencies will inevitably find themselves in difficult discussions about land rights, the role of landlords and legal protection for landless people. Local land tenure arrangements are typically informal, complex and fluid, and thus require a similarly nuanced response. To this end, within the IFRC’s disaster law programme, See  Red Cross legal experts have been examining regulatory barriers to post-disaster shelter and exploring potential solutions in different contexts.

The fifth lesson is the need to better understand and engage with urban systems, and form partnerships with local groups and institutions. Recognising the likely scale of future urban disasters and the range of skills required to engage with issues such as urban violence and climate change, partnerships will be increasingly important in ensuring effective responses in urban areas. For the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement it is vital that engagement with those outside the humanitarian sector does not undermine adherence to the Movement’s fundamental principles, or perceptions thereof. However, it cannot be ignored that municipal authorities, mayors, local governments and national disaster management authorities have a particularly important role in urban disaster management, and should be a key point of contact.

In response to the challenges facing humanitarian action in urban areas, some have called for a new, area-based – rather than sector-based – method of coordination. For example, see Grünewald, ‘Aid in a City at War’.  This is appealing given the general absence of many potential public and private sector partners from the cluster system convened by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Indeed, this approach is one which the BRC has taken in Haiti – what the Federation has dubbed the ‘Integrated Neighbourhood Approach’. However, such a geographically delimited approach is not without its problems, not least identifying where the humanitarian mandate ends and that of government or development agencies begins. Yet if well managed, such an approach provides a significant opportunity for a more joined-up response, harnessing the capacities of government agencies (including civil defence, emergency services and line ministries), the private sector and civil society.

The scope and limits of humanitarian action in urban areas

Urbanisation is changing the nature and scale of risk at an unprecedented rate. All humanitarian agencies must adapt to meet the challenges of working in urban areas. There is, however, also a need to recognise the limits of what can be achieved through humanitarian action in these settings. While humanitarian action can be lifesaving and critical to people in need, it is important to be humble about its capacity to truly transform situations, particularly given the short timeframes of most programmes.

In light of the range of programmes the BRC supports, the question of when to engage, when to exit and how to support vulnerable communities in urban areas often involves very difficult decisions. This challenge is also faced by other agencies. For example, how should agencies engage in situations of urban violence that seem to have no beginning or end, or where health indicators in slums continually rise above emergency thresholds? There are no easy answers to these questions, and the sector is only now beginning to address them in a strategic manner. For example, Concern Worldwide, Kenya is leading a USAID Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA)-funded programme to develop Indicators of slow-onset Urban Emergencies (IDSUE).  What is clear, however, is that ensuring that our programmes, at whatever stage of the disaster management cycle, ultimately contribute to strengthening individual, community or national resilience should be central in guiding decisions around the activities of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in urban areas.

Samuel Carpenter is a humanitarian policy adviser at the British Red Cross.


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