Just before the beginning of this decade, in around 2007, for the first time over half the planet’s population became urban. Today – at the end of the world’s first ‘urban decade’ – there are over 4.2 billion urban dwellers. By 2045, the prediction is that there will be six billion,2 with most growth taking place in Asia and Africa.

Read the Good Practice Review – Urban Humanitarian Response

There has also been a sharp rise in crises affecting cities over the past decade. Large-scale flooding has become a regular feature of many Asian cities, including Bangkok, Chennai and numerous towns in Pakistan. In 2010, the Haiti earthquake caused widespread damage in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and the following year a devastating tsunami struck coastal towns in Japan. Typhoon Haiyan, which tore through towns and cities in the Philippines in 2013, caused widespread devastation. Flooding and windstorms are being worsened by climate change, which is also increasing the severity of urban heatwaves, affecting cities’ poorest urban residents worst of all.

After a period of decline, the number and severity of conflicts began to rise in 2011, causing widespread destruction and loss of life, notably in cities in Syria and Iraq. Elsewhere, in Mexico, Central America and sub-Saharan Africa, urban violence is on such a scale that its effects can be equivalent to – or even exceed – deaths caused by conflict.

One major consequence of these crises has been large-scale forced migration. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a record 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced in 2017. Displacement is increasingly an urban phenomenon, with more and more displaced people seeking shelter and employment in towns and cities rather than camps.

Against this backdrop, the humanitarian sector is grappling with the challenges and opportunities of working in urban spaces. The Haiti earthquake was a wake-up call on the need to rethink humanitarian response to urban crises. Since then, a number of aid organisations (including UN agencies, donors, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, NGOs, think tanks and consultants) have sought to ‘urbanise’ their approaches, recognising that many traditional ways of working derived largely from programming in rural areas need revising, rethinking or replacing with tools better suited to urban contexts. However, for agencies used to working in rural environments, the dynamism of the city, with its reliance on markets and intricate logistics, can be a daunting challenge. Huge, diverse and mobile populations complicate needs assessments, and close coordination is necessary with other, often unfamiliar, actors. Extreme inequality makes sophisticated targeting essential. A patchwork of authorities and alternate, potentially predatory forms of urban governance require constant negotiation, which can disintegrate rapidly in the face of recurrent violence. These actors are not merely barriers to overcome, but key partners for engagement during any humanitarian response – whether neighbourhood committees, municipal governments or local community groups, they are often part of wider city ‘systems’, with extensive local knowledge and contacts, and often act as first responders long before the international community arrives.

The humanitarian sector is beginning to recognise the scale and complexity of this challenge. Many organisations have taken steps to adapt their approaches to urban contexts, piloting new approaches and documenting and applying lessons learned, complementing a number of literature and policy reviews. But despite increasing recognition of the need to improve humanitarian responses in urban areas, most practitioners still lack practical guidance. To meet this need, the Humanitarian Practice Network (HPN) at ODI and the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) commissioned this Good Practice Review (GPR) on responding to humanitarian needs in urban contexts. Reference guides for field-based practitioners, GPRs review operational experience of good practice in key areas, providing practical guidance for managers in designing, implementing and monitoring programmes.


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