Dominic Chavez / World Bank

Urban Humanitarian Response

Written by David Sanderson

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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.+UNDESA, The 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects (New York: UN, 2018) ( By 2045, the prediction is that there will be six billion,+World Bank, ‘Urban Development’ ( with most growth taking place in Asia and Africa.

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.+UCCRN, The Future We Don’t Want: How Climate Change Could Impact the World’s Greatest Cities, UCCRN Technical Report (’t_Want_Report_1.4_hi-res_120618.original.pdf).

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.+IDMC, 2019 Global Report on Internal Displacement (Geneva: IDMC, forthcoming).

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.


This GPR is structured into four chapters. Chapter 1, on context, sets the scene. It first describes ways of seeing the city (there are many; this section presents three). The chapter then discusses four particular urban threats: conflict, violence, naturally-triggered disasters and climate change. The next sections look at urban displacement and vulnerability – cities are homes to extremes of wealth and poverty, and the poorest are almost always the most vulnerable. The chapter ends with a discussion of actors in the urban space associated with the humanitarian ecosystem.

Chapter 2, on themes and issues, comprises three sections. The first covers the complexities and challenges of coordination in urban areas. The next looks at corruption risks, both within urban institutions and structures and in aid programming itself. The chapter ends with a section on resilience, which is included given its importance in humanitarian efforts to reduce future risk, as well as figuring prominently in global agreements such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Chapter 3 focuses on tools and approaches. It begins by identifying key frameworks, standards and alliances relevant to urban humanitarian action. The next sections look at area-based approaches (ABAs), which have become popular in recent years as a people- and neighbourhood-centred approach to post-crisis recovery, and cash and markets, another increasingly common tool with obvious resonance and application in cities. The next section is on mapping and the geospatial visualisation of information. While maps have always been used in humanitarian planning and programming, recent developments in technology have made it a powerful instrument in fast-changing situations.

The following six sections follow the project management cycle, identifying and discussing urban-centric tools according to each stage. The first four sections relate to different forms of assessment. Context analysis refers to wider understandings of cities outside of the immediate crisis (for a better, more contextualised response); assessments and profiling gather information on which programming decisions are made, with profiling relating in particular to displacement as a result of conflict; targeting tools identify the most vulner- able in a crisis, which in cities can be fraught with complexity; and response analysis concerns reviewing assessment information, and from that formulating the best response. The next section, on design and management, presents a range of approaches to navi-gating the complex and fast-changing nature of many cities. The final section discusses the challenges of monitoring and evaluation in complex urban environments.

Chapter 4, on sectors, is organised according to the current humanitarian architecture embodied in the Cluster approach. There are nine sections. The first, covering housing, land and property (HLP) rights, discusses the difficulties involved in addressing this issue in conflict, disaster and returnee situations, and the importance of land disputes as a common cause of conflict. Following this, the section on shelter and settlements emphasises the need to explore approaches beyond the provision of temporary structures. The section on debris and disaster waste management includes good practice in post-disaster clearance, explosive remnants of war and mine clearance.

Research approach

The research for this GPR drew on reports, journals and academic papers for each section, as well as cross-cutting reports. Online searches were made using existing databases, online libraries and dedicated journals, and expert organisations and individuals were also contacted for sources and inputs, alongside an advisory committee of 16 members comprising experienced practitioners, consultants and academics. Each section was reviewed by between two to five reviewers, as well as ALNAP and ODI, and in some cases by subject experts.

In an endeavour of this size there are inevitably challenges and limitations. The first challenge, and limitation, was the scope of the task: each section in this GPR could have been an entire publication in itself, and as much has been left out as has been included. The GPR has tried to cover what is essential and important, identifying and presenting principles, practices, evidence and examples of what has worked, while providing links to further reading.

A second, related, challenge was identifying what to include within the scope of humanitarian action. For example, this GPR does not cover pre-crisis mitigation and preparedness actions (other GPRs, such as the one on disaster risk reduction (DRR), address this).+J. Twigg, Disaster Risk Reduction, GPR 9 (revised edition) (London: ODI, 2015).

A third challenge lies in defining what we mean by ‘city’, and what distinguishes ‘urban’ from ‘rural’. As discussed later, for some urban researchers the very notion that there is an urban/rural divide is problematic, and comparisons provide little value – both are equally important areas of engagement, with their own equally important complexities. Finally, the pace of learning in urban humanitarian action is its own challenge, albeit a welcome one, with a number of major reports and research outputs due to be published during 2019.