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Chapter 1.4 Context



Humanitarian operations that seek to help crisis-affected people usually try to identify the most vulnerable and/or those most in need of assistance. In urban areas the most vulnerable individuals or groups may be hidden and difficult to identify, and may defy assumptions and expectations. Who is most vulnerable may also be subject to flux depending on the timing and nature of a crisis. In many rapidly growing cities, the most vulnerable are often the urban poor, who may not have been affected by a disaster directly, but may be more in need than those who are.

This section discusses the most vulnerable in relation to the concept of ‘leave no one behind’. It presents an assets-based understanding of vulnerability. It discusses vulnerability and poverty, urban marginalisation and displacement. How to engage those most vulnerable, and the programming implications, are covered in relevant sections of this Good Practice Review. For example, Sections 3.5, 3.6 and 3.7 cover context analysis, assessments and profiling and targeting. Sections on protection (4.7) and shelter (4.2) also refer to approaches for ensuring that assistance reaches the most marginalised.

1.4.1 Leave no one behind

Humanitarian action focuses on providing assistance to those who need it most. As the IFRC’s 2018 World Disasters Report puts it, ‘Neglecting to make humanitarian assistance available and accessible to those in most acute need not only fails to abide by humanitarian principles but also increases the vulnerability of those same populations – leaving them even poorer, more at risk in the face of future shocks, and even further behind’.+IFRC, World Disasters Report: Leaving No One Behind (Geneva: IFRC, 2018) (, p. 85.

The 2016 New Urban Agenda asserts as its first core principle to ‘leave no one behind’+UN-Habitat, ‘New Urban Agenda’ (, 2016, p. 7. (see Section 3.1 on frameworks). This is also a central theme of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In these contexts, ‘leaving no one behind’ means ending extreme poverty in all its forms, and reducing inequalities among both individuals (vertical) and groups (horizontal).+S. Stuart and E. Samman, Defining ‘Leave No One Behind’, ODI Briefing Note (London: ODI, 2017) (, p. 1. This in turn means addressing the underlying drivers of vulnerability. Humanitarian actors can contribute to this, for example through improving preparedness to disasters, ensuring that their interventions also consider long-term impacts and working with governments to change policies, in particular to reduce future risks, and in settings of conflict and violence contributing to peace-building. According to OCHA, leave no one behind ‘calls on humanitarians locally, nationally, and internationally to work differently with one another and with counterparts in development, peace operations, climate change, and gender equality to move people out of crisis: reducing vulnerability, doubling down on risk management, and tackling root causes of crises and conflict’.+OCHA and CDA, Leaving No One Behind: Humanitarian Effectiveness in the Age of the Sustainable Development Goals, 2016, p. 5 (

1.4.2 An assets-based understanding of vulnerability

Vulnerability may be obvious, such as being made homeless from a disaster.+See Section 1.1 on ways of seeing the city for a further discussion of assets and vulnerability. It may also be hidden, such as trauma or depression stemming from experiences of crises or their consequences, for instance being forcibly displaced. Common forms of vulnerability include:

  • Being unable to meet basic needs, such as shelter, water and food.
  • Having little or no social capital, such as friends, family or social networks (see the example from Dhaka in Box 1.13).
  • Being unable to access goods and services, often through lack of money but also as a result of disability or social or legal exclusion.
  • Being discriminated against, for example being denied access to a particular building for belonging to the ‘wrong’ social grouping.

In cities, the groups most vulnerable to crises include those that are unable to access goods, services and opportunities due to their age, ability/disability or from social and/or legal exclusion:

  • Those alienated by wider society, for instance convicted criminals, people who are mentally ill, people with a sexually-transmitted disease such as HIV or people facing stigma, such as LGBTQ+ people.
  • Children (see Section 4.7 on protection).
  • The physically frail, including older and infirm people, and those living with disabilities (see the example in Box 1.14 and later examples in this section).
  • Irregular migrants, including those who have been trafficked or held in modern slavery.
  • Members of social or religious groups despised or victimised by more powerful groups (although there is evidence of reduced vulnerability when belonging to a group).
  • Those whose asylum status has been denied, and who as a consequence end up in a state of limbo and thus open to exploitation by employers and landlords, or who lack the paperwork to access services such as healthcare.

Box 1.12 Older people and disaster risk

Disasters disproportionately affect older people. For example, while people over 60 made up just 8% of the population, they accounted for 29% of fatalities in the 2015 Nepal earthquakes. In Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, 38% of fatalities were over 60, while the over-60s accounted for only 7% of the population. Globally, the situation is expected to get worse: by 2100, 22% of the world’s population – around 2.5 billion people – are expected to be over 60, compared to 7% currently.

Source: IFRC, World Disasters Report: Leaving No One Behind (Geneva: IFRC, 2018) (, p. 92.

 1.4.3 Vulnerability and poverty

There is an established correlation between poverty and vulnerability – the poorest are almost always the most vulnerable. This challenge is set to grow: by 2030, an estimated 325 million people classed as extreme poor will be living in the 49 countries most prone to disasters.+Andrew Shepherd et al., The Geography of Poverty, Disasters and Climate Extremes in 2030 (London: ODI, 2013).

Box 1.13 Who are the most vulnerable in urban Bangladesh? Dhaka’s ‘hated poor’

‘A 2005 World Bank participatory study of slums in Dhaka asked poorer people to rank their perceptions of poverty. They identified three groups: less poor, more poor, and poorest.+World Bank, Dhaka: Improving Living Conditions for the Urban Poor (Washington DC: World Bank, 2006), p. 10 ( The latter was defined as those who “do not have regular income and are extremely vulnerable”. Characteristics include: beggars, widows, elderly and the disabled; female-headed households with small children without any male support; no secure income (e.g. erratic employment, daily labourers, begging); have one meal a day (if lucky); and, are more dependent on others.

‘In several communities, poor people are further divided+D. Narayan et al., Voices of the Poor: Crying Out for a Change (Washington DC: World Bank, 2000) (, pp. 120–21. into three subcategories that describe their ill-being: the social poor, the helpless poor, and the hated or bottom poor. The helpless poor are identifiable by their old clothes and pained faces. They can afford neither health care nor education for their children. In urban contexts, this group is referred to as the “hard-core poor”. “Most of them are widows, separated, or have husbands with ill health”, say women. The women also say that the hard-core poor often beg, have no reliable income, and live in sublet rooms and tin shacks. Disabled people are also among the hated poor. Members of these households often starve. Lacking land and other assets, they do not have access to loans, even from family or friends. In addition, they are not accepted as members of local organizations, and thus cannot benefit from group assistance as a last resort.’

Source: D. Sanderson, ‘Building Livelihoods of the Most Marginalised in Urban Areas: Strategic Approaches from Dhaka’, Environmental Hazards, 11(2), January 2012 (

Not all vulnerable people are poor – those caught up in ethnic conflict may find little protection from being well-off, while violent crime may specifically target wealthier people. A number of those killed in Ahmedabad during the Gujarat earthquake+World Bank, Dhaka: Improving Living Conditions for the Urban Poor (Washington DC: World Bank, 2006), p. 10 ( in 2001 were wealthy people+D. Narayan et al., Voices of the Poor: Crying Out for a Change (Washington DC: World Bank, 2000) (, pp. 120–21. living in a modern building that collapsed.+Saeed Khan, ‘2001 Gujarat Earthquake: Builder and Architect Acquitted in Paldi Building Collapse Case’, Times of India, 1 October 2014 ( Conversely, people and households may have forms of compensation through social networks or other means that make them less vulnerable than their seemingly equally poor neighbours.

Box 1.14 Extract from ‘Gender, Disability and Displacement: Reflections from Research on Syrian Refugees in Jordan’, by Bushra Rehman

‘I’m introduced to a 60 year old Syrian refugee, who welcomes me into her fourth storey home. There’s no lift so I climb up the stairs, with some difficulty, to her apartment where I’m introduced to her children – three daughters and three sons, all of whom have physical and intellectual impairments. A range of environmental barriers in their local community, such as steep hills and staircases, restrict their capacity to move around, to easily access humanitarian services, to form communal relationships and as such, reinforce the sense of isolation that refugees are already facing.

‘These women face discrimination not only because of the negative social attitudes and stigma attached to disability, but also because of the pernicious inequalities associated with being a woman, adding further susceptibility to violence and discrimination which inhibits their access to education, work, community spaces and activities. At the same time, they felt as though the “de-gendering” effects of disability prevented them from fulfilling socially-important gender roles, such as being a mother or a wife. Indeed, historically, disabled women have been subjected to cultural stereotypes which view them as asexual, unfit to reproduce and dependent.’


For further discussion of poverty and vulnerability, see T. Fujii, Concepts and Measurement of Vulnerability to Poverty and Other Issues: A Review of Literature, ADBI Working Paper 611 (Tokyo: Asian Development Bank Institute, 2016) (