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Chapter 3.1 Tools and approaches

Frameworks, standards and alliances


A number of frameworks, standards and alliances relate to humanitarian response in urban areas. The following seeks to highlight the urban-specific content of particular documents, while acknowledging that wider aspects of each document may also be applicable. Many of the following examples are of internationally agreed standards, often reflecting where the lenses of humanitarian practitioners are focused. These should be referred to alongside the national regulatory frameworks, standards and codes (for example building codes) that emergency response operations must adhere to.

3.1.1 Frameworks and global agreements

These include:

The Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)+See were agreed by world leaders in 2015 as part of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. While all 17 are relevant to urban issues (for example ending poverty and hunger and gender equality), SDG11 – ‘Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ – is known as ‘the urban SDG’. Indicators for this goal include:+‘SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities’ – Indicators by Targets’ (

  • Access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services; upgrade slums.
  • Access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety, notably by expanding public transport, with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, persons with disabilities and older people.
  • Inclusive and sustainable urbanisation and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management.
  • Protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.
  • Reduce the number of deaths and the number of people affected and substantially decrease the direct economic losses caused by disasters, including water-related disasters, with a focus on protecting the poor and people in vulnerable situations.
  • Reduce the adverse environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management.
  • Universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and people with disabilities.
  • Positive economic, social and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning.
  • Increase the number of cities and human settlements adopting and implementing integrated policies and plans for inclusion, resource efficiency, mitigation and adaptation to climate change and resilience to disasters, and develop and implement them, in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 (see below).
  • Support least developed countries, including through financial and technical assistance, in building sustainable and resilient buildings utilising local materials.

The New Urban Agenda

The New Urban Agenda (NUA)+See was agreed at the Habitat III conference hosted by UN-Habitat in Quito, Ecuador, in 2016. The NUA ‘lays out standards and principles for the planning, construction, development, management, and improvement of urban areas along its five main pillars of implementation: national urban policies, urban legislation and regulations, urban planning and design, local economy and municipal finance, and local implementation’.

Concerning humanitarian crises, the NUA refers to: the need for better coordination and investments; the need to adopt and implement disaster risk reduction and management; the need to build urban resilience; better management of natural resources; and building the capacities of local authorities to develop and implement disaster risk reduction and response plans.

The Grand Bargain

The Grand Bargain+See that resulted from the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit makes no specific reference to ‘urban’ or ‘cities’. Its commitments are nonetheless highly relevant to urban practice. They include:

  • More support and funding for local and national responders.
  • Increased use and coordination of cash-based programming (see Section 3.3).
  • Improved joint and impartial needs assessments (see Section 3.6).
  • More emphasis on people receiving aid making decisions that affect their lives (a ‘participation revolution’).
  • Better engagement between humanitarian and development actors.

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030+See comprises seven targets and four priorities for reducing risk to disaster. In relation to urban issues in particular, the framework emphasises the need to consider land use, urban planning and building codes, and the promotion of disaster risk transfer and insurance mechanisms.

3.1.2 Standards

These include:

The Sphere Project

Perhaps the best known set of standards is the Sphere Project’s Sphere Handbook: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response.+Sphere Project, Sphere Handbook: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response (Geneva: Sphere Association, 2018) (, p. 90. While there is no dedicated urban chapter, the 2018 revision comprises guidance relating to urban areas within each section, including food, health, shelter and WASH (for sector-specific information see relevant sections of this review). For example, Sphere’s guidance on WASH states that ‘Community engagement can be harder in urban areas, where the population density is higher and at-risk groups are less visible. However, in urban areas, public spaces, media and technology can provide the opportunity for broader and more efficient dialogue. Diverse ownership of assets (households in rural areas, public–private mix in urban areas) affects the choice of response options and methods of delivery’. The guidance suggests a mixed approach to WASH, including using markets, cash and vouchers, technical assistance and community engagement.

Sphere’s 2016 guide Using the Sphere Standards in Urban Settings comprises urban case studies and ‘a checklist guiding practitioners in their choice of standards and adaptation of the supporting indicators and actions’.+Sphere Project, Using the Sphere Standards in Urban Settings (Geneva: The Sphere Project, 2016) ( Issues covered by the guide include:

  • Community representation and leadership.
  • Recognising and minimising marginalisation.
  • Communication, outreach, feedback and accountability.
  • Protection concerns in urban situations.
  • Working in unplanned settlements with poor land use.
  • Minimising the negative effects of humanitarian assistance.
  • Awareness and prevention of gender-based violence.
  • Working in areas controlled by gangs or where rule of law is limited.
  • Working with a wider range of stakeholders.
  • Coordination of urban humanitarian responses.
  • Working in illegal and unrecognised settlements.

The guide ends with a checklist for considering standards in urban contexts, covering applicability (for instance, are rurally derived standards applicable to urban contexts?), protection, communications (which standards need communicating?) and opportunities (for example using local markets).

The Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability

The Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS)+See comprises nine commitments that aim to improve the quality and effectiveness of humanitarian programmes, in particular relating to improved accountability to communities. Although the CHS makes only one reference to ‘urban’, the commitments, concerning for example improved programme quality and participation, are relevant to programming in urban areas.

One report on accountability to urban communities in crises found that it had not been ‘sufficiently embedded in the culture and practice of the humanitarian system to make a meaningful impact on the manner in which the humanitarian programme cycle is managed’.+A. Brouder, Accountability to Affected Populations in Urban Crises: Who Cares? (Urban Crises Learning Partnership (UCLP), 2017) (, p. 1. The paper presents ten reasons why this is so, among them weak governance, the humanitarian–development divide and a lack of incentives for affected people to meaningfully engage.

UNHCR’s 2009 policy on refugee protection and solutions in urban areas

UNHCR’s 2009 policy on refugee protection and solutions in urban areas ‘is based on the principle that the rights of refugees and UNHCR’s mandated responsibilities towards them are not affected by their location, the means whereby they arrived in an urban area or their status (or lack thereof) in national legislation. The Office considers urban areas to be a legitimate place for refugees to [exercise] their rights, including those stemming from their status as refugees as well as those that they hold in common with all other human beings’.+UNHCR Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas, September 2009 (, p. 3. The policy outlines rights and responsibilities, and offers guidance on:

  • Providing reception facilities.
  • Registration and data collection.
  • Ensuring that refugees are documented.
  • Determining refugee status.
  • Reaching out to the community.
  • Fostering constructive relations with urban refugees.
  • Maintaining security.
  • Promoting livelihoods and self-reliance.
  • Ensuring access to healthcare, education and other services.
  • Meeting material needs.
  • Promoting durable solutions.

UNHCR’s subsequent 2014 Policy on Alternatives to Camps ‘refocuses attention on refugees living in camps and extends the principal objectives of the urban refugee policy to all operational contexts’.+UNHCR, Policy on Alternatives to Camps, 2014 (, p. 6. The policy identifies several ‘lines of action’ for successful implementation, which includes ‘consulting with refugees and host communities’, ‘achieving synergies with national development planning’ and ‘engaging with national authorities’.

For further discussion of these policies see Section 1.3 on displacement.

3.1.3 Alliances and networks

These include:

The Global Alliance for Urban Crises

The Global Alliance for Urban Crises (GAUC)+ ‘promotes a vision of inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable cities and towns in which urban communities, their leaders and members have the power, capacities and resources to address the risks and reality of humanitarian crises, to mitigate crisis impacts on the most vulnerable, including the displaced, and to enable affected people to determine, with dignity, the course of their lives and their futures’. Its aim is ‘to develop and connect global, regional and national rosters of urban and local government experts specializing in humanitarian crisis response and resilience building’. GAUC’s members are drawn from academia, aid agencies, municipalities and business.

GAUC’s Urban Crises Charter is intended to be used as ‘a basis for both policy and operational level engagement, in order to be more effective in preventing, preparing for, and responding to humanitarian crises in urban environments’. The charter comprises the following commitments:

  • Prioritise local municipal leadership in determining responses to urban crises that are aligned with development trajectories and promote the active participation of affected people.
  • Adopt urban resilience as a common framework to align human rights, humanitarian and development goals.
  • Manage urban displacement as a combined human rights, development and humanitarian concern.
  • Build partnerships between city, national, regional and global levels, across disciplines and professions.

As an example of the first commitment, ‘prioritising local leadership’, IRC’s work in Amman (see Section 2.3) has focused on engaging with the local municipality to ensure long-term strategic planning for integrating Syrian refugees into city life. Greater Amman Municipality’s Resilience Strategy contains a commitment to: 10% refugee ownership of business start-ups (in particular those run by women); enhancing social cohesion; supporting refugee businesses start-ups in non-refugee areas; and strengthening the engagement of women and girls in municipal youth centres.

Uniting Cities and Local Governments (UCLG)

UCLG+See is a network of local governments. Its aim is ‘To be the united voice and world advocate of democratic local self-government, promoting its values, objectives and interests, through cooperation between local governments, and within the wider international community’. UCLG’s Taskforce for Territorial prevention and management of crisis, formed in 2008, focuses primarily on preparedness. Its 2016 report Urban Consultations: Perspectives from Cities in Crisis+IMPACT and UCLG, Consultations on Humanitarian Responses in Urban Areas: Perspectives from Cities in Crisis, World
Humanitarian Summit 2016 (
identified three key challenges in urban humanitarian response:

  • Lack of pre-crisis preparedness.
  • Divergence in the responses of local and international actors, ‘fuelled by lack of coordination mechanisms between them’.
  • The consequences of diverging trends between international and local actors, i.e. ‘the loss in effectiveness, efficiency and relevance of the humanitarian response because of the failure to promote synergies between international and local actors’.

The Cities Alliance

The Cities Alliance,+See a partnership between the World Bank and UN-Habitat, ‘promotes long-term programmatic approaches that are focused on strengthening local skills and capacity, developing national urban policies, investing in infrastructure, enabling strategic city planning, and engaging citizens’. Among other things, the website provides guidance and advice to local municipalities concerning improved city management.