Issue 71 - Article 3

Understanding context to improve urban humanitarian response

March 27, 2018
Leah Campbell
Haitians set up impromptu tent cities through the capital after an earthquake rocked Port-au-Prince, 2010.

Over the past several years, recognition of the need for humanitarian response to be ‘context-relevant’ has grown in prominence. It featured in conversations around the World Humanitarian Summit, comes up in discussions around coordination, accountability, localisation and effectiveness and is now broadly accepted as something humanitarian response should be striving towards. Context-relevant response has emerged particularly in initiatives to improve humanitarian action in urban areas, such as the Global Alliance for Urban Crises, and has been referenced in countless evaluations and evidence reviews.

Despite its prominence in discussion, there is little clarity about what context relevance looks like, or how it can be achieved. For urban humanitarian response, context relevance suggests a need to grapple with particularly complex, interconnected environments. Despite the increasing number of crises in urban areas over the past decade, urban humanitarian response is still criticised for a lack of context relevance, just as it was in Haiti in 2010. Drawing on research by ALNAP, this article explores the evidence base for using context tools, and practical challenges such as deciding scope, methodologies and outputs, roles and responsibilities and what organisational and individual attributes and resources are needed for context tools to effectively inform urban humanitarian response.

What is context?

Before getting into why we need to understand context, it’s important to make sure we’re on the same page about what ‘context’ actually is. Despite what has become widespread discourse about the need for ‘context-relevant’ or ‘context-sensitive’ humanitarian response, there are surprisingly few definitions of what ‘context’ means in the humanitarian sector. ‘Context’ is used inconsistently to mean a variety of different things.

‘Context’ is the environment and circumstances within which something happens, and which can help to explain it. Often, ‘context’ is used to refer to a specific situation, but it is broader than any one incident, and longer-lasting than the experience of any individual or group. In urban environments, context includes politics and governance, economy and livelihoods, services and infrastructure, social and cultural space and settlements, as well as a wide range of stakeholders.

Do we need to improve our understanding of context?

Improving our understanding of context would enable us to respond better to crises in urban contexts in a number of ways, including:

  • Helping us design effective, evidence-based humanitarian programmes which are relevant to the context.
  • Supporting ongoing development and planning within the city, and raising awareness of urban issues.
  • Providing a holistic view of the situation in complex urban environments.
  • Facilitating effective and appropriate engagement with urban stakeholders.
  • Supporting flexibility and adaptiveness.
  • Helping ensure we ‘do no harm’.

The article by Wale Osofisan on page 14 explores in more depth how understanding these issues is important in urban humanitarian response.

Over the past decade or two reports and evaluations of urban humanitarian crises have consistently described humanitarians as having little understanding of context. The fact that we struggle to understand urban contexts is part of a broader trend within the humanitarian sector as a whole. There are a variety of reasons why we find it hard to understand context – our focus on individuals and households affected by crisis and siloed approaches dividing response into sectoral ‘component parts’ limits our ability to take in contextual issues. The humanitarian time frame, too, can hold us back. In many cases, we don’t have the time to think about being relevant to context, and haven’t been using the right tools. While efforts in recent years have focused on adapting various humanitarian tools originally designed for urban contexts, most are sectoral or needs-based, rather than tools for understanding context.

What are ‘context tools’? Can they help?

During the early phases of ALNAP’s research it was not clear which, if any, tools could help humanitarians to understand the urban context. It took some time to find what we were looking for, in part due to a lack of consistent understanding about what ‘context’ is, and because, unlike more established tools such as needs assessments or market analysis, there are no consistent terms for what this article refers to as ‘context tools’. Over time, the research identified more and more tools which, in whole or in part, could fall under the ‘context tools’ umbrella. As part of the research process, ALNAP organised a learning exchange in April 2017, inviting colleagues who had worked with several tools being explored in the study. Recognising differences in the scope, scale, methodologies, ownership and focus areas of each of their tools when compared to the others, participants at the learning exchange wondered whether they had anything in common at all. Could these tools all be grouped under the same umbrella?

This research identified a number of ‘context’ tools which, in whole or in part, all focus on context. Despite many differences, they can be identified as a group and can collectively be distinguished from other sorts of tools. They use a variety of names – including context analysis, situation analysis, urban profiles/profiling, governance analysis and stakeholder analysis. Twenty-five tools were studied for this research, sixteen of which were found to fit into the ‘context tools’ category. They include:

  • City and Neighbourhood Profiles (UN Habitat).
  • Urban Context Analysis (IRC – see the article by Osofisan for more information).
  • City Wide Assessment (World Vision).
  • Displacement Profiling (JIPS).
  • City-Wide Risk Assessment: Do it Together Toolkit for Building Urban Community Resilience (American Red Cross).
  • Local Authority Profiling Tool (Oxfam Italia).

Despite differences (in time frame, methodology, depth, etc.), ‘context tools’ can be grouped together as they all:

  • Focus on the context (rather than on a specific situation or vulnerability).
  • Explore interconnectedness (rather than focusing on single or multiple sectors).
  • Utilise a variety of approaches (rather than being one specific tool).
  • Explore the neighbourhood/city scale (rather than individual/household scale).

For some, ‘tool’ is a problematic or loaded word. It can be interpreted in different ways. When some people think ‘tool’, they think only of a 300-page manual to add to the stack already gathering dust on the shelf. For others, a tool is anything that can be used to help achieve a goal – it could be a one-page spreadsheet, a software programme, a ladder or a bicycle, depending on the job. Other interviewees for the research warned that tools sometimes risk trying to be all things to all people. Tools themselves are just one possible solution to the problem of understanding context. Tools can be useful, but there are other ways to improve understanding of context and, as found in the research, just having the tool is not enough to make best use of the analysis.

The importance of continuous analysis

The argument for better understanding of context is really about a cultural shift throughout a response. There is no one moment when it would be most appropriate to use tools to understand the urban context. Several tools have guidance which suggests that analysis is reviewed ‘when necessary’, though this will depend on the context itself – how complex it is, how much it’s changing over time and what depth of understanding may now be required and what resources have become available. There are, however, some common themes in the literature, and the tools reviewed for this paper, which suggest that context tools can/should be used:

  • At key moments in the programme cycle (at the start of a response, part of M&E processes, etc.).
  • Whenever there is a major event/change.
  • To align with strategic and planning processes and with other analysis processes.
  • To align with the context itself.
  • In a modified way, on a continuous basis.
  • Pre-crisis, as a preparedness activity.

In reality, analysis will be used at all or most of these moments. Understanding the context is not a one-off activity; tools are useful in helping us gather information at a point in time, but this analysis can quickly become out of date. For this reason, literature and guidance overwhelmingly support continuous analysis, which could also be described as context monitoring. Continuous analysis of context is important because both humanitarian and urban contexts change rapidly. Continuously monitoring the context also enables more flexible and iterative humanitarian programming. Where organisations are able to make programmatic decisions based on an understanding of context, and then monitor both changes to the context and the impact of their programming decisions, they can make choices that are more appropriate to the context, and that will have the most impact. Some form of continuous analysis also makes it possible for organisations to keep in mind the other timing considerations mentioned in this section, such as when major changes occur, and to align with planning processes and contextual realities.

What else is needed to make analysis effective?

No matter how much time or effort is put into any tool or process of analysis, other factors shape how effective this analysis can be. These include:

  • Relationships between, and buy-in from, a diverse range of stakeholders.
  • Institutional support in the form of leadership buy-in, adequate time and resources and a supportive environment that is flexible, promotes learning and self-reflection, is open to failure and seeks diverse perspectives.
  • The ability of individuals to understand and embrace complexity, and employ their skills and capacities.
  • Financial resources to carry out analysis, and a policy role for donors that changes incentives for organisations and promotes an understanding of context throughout the sector.

How else can humanitarians understand context?

Tools are just one way to understand urban contexts. Humanitarians are likely to pick up relevant contextual information piece by piece over time, particularly where they spend time getting to know the people and institutions they interact with. Hiring and engaging with local staff and partners, crisis-affected people, authorities and civil society will also provide valuable insights. These longer-term opportunities in all likelihood can provide deeper knowledge and understanding of aspects of the context. However, this can take a significant amount of time, will not be gathered and evidenced in one place for practical use in response planning and is likely to be patchy. Both international and national staff interviewed for this research, many of whom had strong existing knowledge of the cities being analysed, found that using a tool both helped to confirm and evidence things that they knew, brought to the surface assumptions and ideas and provided new insights. Along these lines, guidance for one of the tools explains that it is ‘not meant to replace the deep local knowledge that those who are working in the country concerned already have – it is only a method to help extract that knowledge so it can support policy implementation and programming in a structured manner’. C. Melim-McLeod, Institutional and Context Analysis for the Sustainable Development Goals, Guidance Note (New York: Strategic Policy Unit of the UNDP Bureau for Policy and Programme Support, 2017), p. 9.

Leah Campbell is a Senior Research Officer with ALNAP. In March 2018, ALNAP will publish a research paper exploring the use of context tools. For more information, see


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