Issue 71 - Article 6

Ten principles for area-based approaches in urban post-disaster recovery

March 27, 2018
David Sanderson and Pamela Sitko
Neighbourhood meeting, Bang Bua Canal, Bangkok

Area-based approaches (ABAs) to urban post-disaster recovery have attracted increasing attention in recent years. ABAs – defined as actions that ‘support people after a disaster in a specific location to transition effectively from relief to recovery’ – have been used in some recent disaster recovery operations to good effect, and a number of organisations have backed the approach. The Global Alliance for Urban Crises (GAUC)’s submission to HABITAT III in October 2016 advocated the need to ‘[a]dopt area-based approaches to programming and coordination’ in recognition of the scale, nature and complexity of urban crises (GAUC, 2016). The US Agency for International Development (USAID) (2011) argues that ABAs help to improve clarity and understanding in programming by providing a clear location and set of actors to engage with. USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance has promoted the idea of shelter and settlements, arguing that it is necessary to consider the wider spatial needs of ‘settlement-based assistance’ and a ‘neighbourhood approach’ to engaging with communities, as opposed to being driven by sectoral priorities such as shelter (USAID/OFDA, 2013). A World Bank review of ABAs following the 2010 Haiti earthquake concludes that ‘area-based interventions led by local authorities or communities can have wideranging benefits, and should be encouraged’ (IRC, 2015).

This article presents ten principles for area-based recovery programmes following disasters in urban areas. The principles are drawn from research undertaken as part of the Stronger Cities Initiative ( involving World Vision, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the International Rescue Committee and the University of New South Wales (Sydney). It was funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and administered by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). The principles first appeared in the guidance note ‘Urban area-based approaches in post-disaster contexts’, available at

Ten principles

Findings from the research used for the basis of this paper. Comprising a literature review of development and emergency literature, key informant interviews with 11 experienced practitioners and one focus group discussion. were organised into ten principles, according to the project cycle. This is illustrated in Figure 1.

Principle One, concerning multi-agency and multi-sector assessments, draws on recent literature reviews, not least Patel et al.’s 2017 systematic review of urban targeting approaches, which recommends taking a multi-sectoral approach rather than ‘sector-based vulnerability analyses and targeting approaches’ which are ‘ill-suited to complex urban crises, where needs are interrelated. A population’s needs for shelter, WASH, health, food security, and livelihoods do not exist in isolation from one another. Rather, needs interact to shape vulnerability, and must thus be met with a multi-sectoral approach to guide targeting’. R. Patel et al., What Are the Practices to Identify and Prioritize Vulnerable Populations Affected by Urban Humanitarian Emergencies? Systematic Review, Humanitarian Evidence Programme, Tufts University, 2017, Concerning participatory assessment, the study found that ‘community participation can range in format, and integrating community insights – even for complex vulnerability assessments – is critical’.

The next two principles focus on location (Principle Two) and timeframes (Principle Three). One study looking at people’s experiences of humanitarian assistance found that what they needed was less speed and more consideration: ‘many feel that “too much” is given “too fast”. The study found that ‘very few people call for more aid: virtually everyone says they want “smarter aid”. M. Anderson, D. Brown and J. Isabella, Time to Listen: Hearing People on the Receiving End of International Aid, CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, 2012. A similar point is made by IMPACT and United Cities and Local Governments, which note that ‘The current humanitarian architecture is built around sector-specific planning and short-term funding and programme cycles. This is not appropriate in the highly complex and dynamic environments witnessed in urban crises, where humanitarian best practices point instead to holistic, longer-term action and higher levels of engagement with sub-national actors’. IMPACT and UCLG, ‘Consultation on Humanitarian Responses in Urban Areas: Perspectives from Cities in Crisis’, 2016, Relief and recovery should not be rushed – a conclusion that runs counter to the tight timeframes that aid organisations, donors and sometimes national governments may impose, and which may be at odds with the actual pace of recovery.

The need to be people-centred is a central theme throughout the principles, and is embodied in Principle Four, which poses Robert Chambers’ seminal developmental question, ‘whose reality counts?’ – is it the needs of aid agencies and donors, or rather of affected populations? R. Chambers, ‘Poverty and Livelihoods: Whose Reality Counts?’, Environment and Urbanization, 7(1), 1995. Another key point, adapting Chambers’ question, is to ask ‘whose disaster is it?’, meaning that recovery works best when it works through and strengthens existing structures. Recognising the complex realities agencies engage in, Principle Five argues that activities must engage with existing structures, even if they are weak. Leadership needs to be local, and at a variety of levels, with international actors playing a supporting role. As an example, following the 2015 Nepal earthquakes ‘local government structures provided a strong lead (in the early relief stages) … in coordinating the response efforts of local and international NGOs, through regular meetings with senior government officials, as well at local level’. D. Sanderson et al., Nepal Earthquake Emergency Response Review, Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and Humanitarian Coalition (HC), 2015.

A common criticism of humanitarian response and recovery programming is the creation of parallel structures. For instance, setting up medical services that ignore existing structures may undermine pre-existing health care supply services. C. Clermont et al., Urban Disasters: Lessons from Haiti. Study of Member Agencies’ Responses to the Earthquake in Port au Prince, Haiti, January 2010, DEC, 2011. The role of agencies therefore is to support local structures and approaches, even if this takes longer and is, in some instances, more difficult. This view is shared in the Sphere Project’s recently revised urban guidelines: ‘Depending on the capacity of the local authorities, the humanitarians’ role may be more about facilitation and enabling than direct service provision’. B. Mountfield, ‘Using the Sphere Standards in Urban Settings’, Sphere Project, 2016,

Several of the principles challenge traditional project management tools and approaches. Principle Seven, concerning flexible programming, provides tools and approaches to fit this, including the correct use of logframes and new approaches such as adaptive management, ‘a programming approach that combines appropriate analysis, structured flexibility, and iterative improvements in the face of contextual and causal complexity’. R. Chambers and B. Ramalingam, Adapting Aid: Lessons from Six Case Studies, IRC and Mercy Corps, 2016, In a pilot by IRC and Mercy Corps applying adaptive management across six locations in Africa and Asia, the key components were dynamic and collaborative teams; agile and integrated operations; appropriate data and reflective analysis; trusting and flexible partnerships; and responsive decision-making and action.

Principle Seven also refers to action planning, a set of approaches and tools for engaging neighbourhood-level decision-making in slum upgrading projects. N. Hamdi and R. Goethert, Action Planning for Cities: A Guide to Community Practice (Rugby: IT Publications, 1997). Derived from urban development, approaches include being ‘problem based and opportunity driven’; ‘embracing serendipity’; ‘being non-reliant on complete information’; and ‘focusing on starting points, rather than end states’. While such an approach may seem at odds with traditional methods of project implementation, the research on which this paper is based concludes that these are the kinds of approaches that are required if ABAs are to be successful.

Principle Eight, on using nimble internal systems, argues that effective ABAs require organisations themselves, and their systems, to align with the complexities of the task at hand. For example, concerning finance, one key informant stressed the need to ensure that ‘the finance manager is not a book keeper, but rather understands what the [programme’s] intent is’. Recommendations include engaging human resource functions as early as possible and developing open-ended and flexible job descriptions. The need for organisations to consider the complexity of ABAs was underscored by a number of interviewees. As one stated, ‘the humanitarian aid system likes simplicity…urban life however is not [simple]!’. Another said, ‘If there was a simpler approach we’d be doing it!’. Principle Nine emphasises the importance of planning for scaling up, without which ABAs risk becoming isolated projects with little strategic intent to assist other, affected neighbourhoods. One key informant interviewed for the research on which this paper is based called this ‘the area problem’, where, for example, ‘the issue may be a rich agency in one area, and a poorer one leading another’.

Finally, Principle Ten, concerning evaluation and learning, is intended to overcome the fixation with short-term individual project outputs, which can act against the intent of an ABA approach. The principle refers to the publication Contribution to Change, R. Few at al., Contribution to Change. An Approach to Evaluating the Role of Intervention in Disaster Recovery (Rugby: IT Publications, 2014), which provides the steps for implementing this approach, and notes how this can overcome the challenge that ‘Existing impact evaluations often focus on outputs achieved…they tend not to look at the contribution of interventions towards the overall process of recovery’.

David Sanderson is the Inaugural Judith Neilson Chair at the University of New South Wales (Sydney). Pamela Sitko is Urban Technical Advisor, Disaster Management, at World Vision International.


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