This article on ways to tackle humanitarian crises in cities and urban environments (generally due to armed conflicts and natural disasters) is based on a report published by ALNAP, for the RedR Shelter in Urban Emergencies Training Pilot.
It looks at examples worldwide to determine the best approaches to build effective humanitarian interventions and assistance programmes.
Context is everything (or the importance of localised solutions)
Shelter and settlements are core aspects of response to urban crises. The report highlights the importance of having a thorough understanding of the urban environment and system specific to each humanitarian crisis.
When dealing with shelters and settlements of refugees or displaced populations, donors and organisations must bear in mind the many repercussions of the humanitarian crisis generated, such as:
Violence against women (known as “GBV prevention” for Gender-Based Violence)
“WASH”: water, hygiene and sanitation issues
Disaster relief and preparedness
In this sense, shelters can become a key area of economic recovery as reconstruction stimulates the growth of local jobs.
Preventing flaws in humanitarian aid
Urban development: a fragile and chaotic enterprise
As urban areas grow, so do slums – in many areas slums account for up to a third of the urban population. Slums frequently accommodate more vulnerable displaced populations, with no family ties or financial capital with which to seek alternatives.
Slums are often located on land vulnerable to hazards, with insecure tenure. Defining slums can be tricky and they may be more easily understood as a list of characteristics, such as:
Lack of basic services (running water, electricity, public transport)
Insecure land tenure
Populations often move between urban and rural areas, as well as within an urban area. Those who arrived most recently, whether displaced or pre-disaster migrants, often have the greatest ties between them.
While it is important for humanitarian organisations to recognise the different types of urban areas, the focus should be on understanding and adapting to the complexity of urban areas, rather than attempting to define and categorise.
Urban areas make humanitarian assistance more difficult because of their large overall infrastructure, complex land tenure and ownership systems as well as administrative structures. Urban environments rely on a variety of factors and networks.
They are adaptable and flexible, but also more fragile, which has a huge impact on response and recovery to disasters – whether man-made (e.g. armed conflicts) or natural.
Post-disaster strategies and opportunities
Over time, humanitarian organisations have developed a wide range of strategies to help setting up temporary urban shelters and settlements, including
Cash for work
Working with the private sector
Urban areas often provide more opportunities to work with the private sector. Partnering with private sector organisations can improve the speed and scale of the response, the cost effectiveness, access to technology and technical know-how.
Humanitarian experts should also be aware of the drivers for private sector actors, and consider the potential benefits and risks of these partnerships. For example, private sector actors may wish to engage in disaster response to get access to new markets, gain policy-making influence, to improve their image and to give back to the community.
Successful recovery and reconstruction is often dependent on decisions made early in a response, making it important to consider long-term and permanent solutions as early as possible. Without a pre-established process for families affected by humanitarian crises to return to safe and permanent homes, emergency shelter could end up as permanent slums.
Shelter at the centre…
Shelter is an important aspect of economic recovery; safe and decent housing boosts the recovery of most other sectors as it stimulates the economy and regenerates the local job market. Shelter should be at the centre of humanitarian interventions in cities.
Post-disaster shelter recovery is also an opportunity to reduce risks and vulnerability, reinforce security of tenure and to better include vulnerable people such as renters, squatters, and women in housing programmes.
… alongside communities
Communities should be at the centre of recovery policies from the beginning, in order to help determine priorities and identify solutions that address community and cultural needs.
The community can be involved through ‘community contracting’, whereby funds are placed in the hands of the participating and engaged community, who develop skills that can later be used to generate income.
In urban areas, it is more effective to work neighbourhood by neighbourhood due to the high density and diversity of neighbourhoods in a city. Urban recovery programming requires a solid context analysis, which includes an understanding of the economy (including cash and markets), its complexity, diversity, informality and fluidity.
Humanitarian aid organisations should optimise opportunities for communication, participation and inclusive urban governance by establishing a systemic and strategic approach.
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