Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Learning from the city: humanitarian action in urban areas

Time (GMT +01) 12:30 14:30
Hero image description: Urban resident, Port-au-Prince, Haiti Image credit:British Red Cross Society Image license:ODI given rights

Wendy Fenton – Coordinator, Humanitarian Practice Network


Samuel Carpenter – Humanitarian Policy Adviser, British Red Cross and co-author of the study

François Grünewald – Executive and Scientific Director, Groupe URD

Elena Lucchi – Independent Consultant and former Operational Advisor, Médecins Sans Frontières – Spain

On 19 April, the Humanitarian Practice Network (HPN) hosted the launch of ‘Learning from the City’, a new report from the British Red Cross (BRC) which focuses on the operational implications of urban risk and vulnerability. The report highlights five priorities the British Red Cross and the wider humanitarian community should address to improve response in urban areas. ‘Learning from the City’ draws on BRC’s experience in Haiti (Port-au-Prince), Uganda (Kampala and other cities), Djibouti (Djibouti-ville), Mongolia (Ulaanbataar) and Nepal (Kathmandu) as well as building on research undertaken by Groupe URD, the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG), ALNAP and many others.

Chaired by HPN’s Coordinator Wendy Fenton, speakers included Samuel Carpenter, Humanitarian Policy Adviser, British Red Cross and co-author of the study, François Grünewald, Executive and Scientific Director, Groupe URD, and Elena Lucchi, independent consultant and former Operational Advisor, Médecins Sans Frontières – Spain. Speakers shared their experiences of responding to ‘natural’ and manmade disasters in urban settings.

Carpenter described urbanisation as  radically changing the humanitarian landscape. Risk in urban areas is on the rise as cities are increasingly exposed to disasters, manmade technological hazards and small and medium scale disasters or ‘everyday’ risks. ‘Learning from the City’ identifies urban communities as often more concerned with small to medium scale disasters, such as poor sanitation and lack of health care, than ‘natural’ disasters; a finding to be considered by humanitarian actors when developing responses in urban areas.

Alongside increasing risk in urban areas is growing vulnerability Carpenter stated. Poverty and inequality statistics suggest that 1.5 billion people live in informal settlements globally, that is without health services, education, or improved sanitation. Vulnerability in urban areas is heightened by high levels of unemployment, limited cash for basic needs, health risks associated with living in densely packed cities and population expansion that goes beyond the capacity of local health systems. The unsafe built environment is a major source of vulnerability as well as violence and conflict fostered by drug trafficking, gangs, political instability and contested election results.

The British Red Cross’ scoping study set out five priorities relevant to all humanitarian actors operating in the urban environment:
1. Sharpening context analysis assessments
The Participatory Approach for Safe Shelters Awareness (PASSA) was provided as an example of successfully working closely with communities, being accountable and responding to community needs.
2. Understanding cash and markets better
This is particularly important in urban areas as cities are monetised environments with residents relying on goods and services more than in rural contexts. As urban dwellers can also often have multiple livelihood strategies, humanitarians must re-consider the use of geographical livelihood zones and consider human mobility.
3. Engaging and communicating with complex communities
To ensure accountability, it is important to understand all stakeholders within a community. This engagement can be difficult as there can be a lack of obvious community to work with in an urban setting. Communities can overlap and be more complex in structure than in rural areas as urban residents often commute to other areas of the city. Carpenter emphasised that investing in innovative telecommunications solutions can be a strategy to communicate with a broad range of groups, such as vulnerable women.
4. Adapting to the challenges of land and the built environment
When dealing with emergencies, land tenure often undermines humanitarian responses in urban areas. Carpenter gave the example of Haiti, where negotiating land tenure posed a challenge as only 40 per cent of plots were registered with an owner. Alongside land rights, are the issues of governance, patrimonial arrangements and even the vulnerabilities of landlords themselves.
 5. Engaging and partnering with local groups and institutions
Partnerships are essential in understanding the capacities of different actors and their challenges. Partnerships can be with municipal authorities, national disaster response authorities, civil society and the private sector. It is important to understand the value of an integrated neighbourhood approach.

Lucchi noted that cities are the new operating space for humanitarian organisations. Cities are rapidly changing places of power and media hubs, with residents facing human trafficking, kidnapping, marginalisation and exclusion. Humanitarians do not need to change the way they operate completely, but they must adapt to this new environment.

Agreeing with the recommendation from ‘Learning from the City’, Lucci stressed the importance of conducting a context analysis, including a security analysis, of each community and/or neighbourhood. The context analysis maps existing violence and instability occurring within an area, which is essential in understanding the risks faced by residents and by humanitarians themselves. The context analysis also highlights whether there is a local understanding of the ‘humanitarian space’ and/or an awareness of the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) framework. As power dynamics can often change in an urban setting, the analysis helps to gain an understanding of who is in power and when and who should be present when humanitarian organisations discuss why they are trying to enter an area, and what they are planning to do.

Humanitarian organisations, said Lucchi, often face the dilemma of how humanitarian aid can feed into or assist longer-term development aid, as in many cases these two activities, such as health care and water and sanitation, are not independent from one another. Lucchi recommends that humanitarian response planning horizons be longer than three to six months. This allows response programs to identify and work closely with local authorities, including civil society, private sector and health care workers, to understand local needs and strengthen local existing services.

As there are many actors present in the urban setting, Lucchi recommends humanitarian work should not be undertaken in isolation; humanitarian responses should operate within a network. This inclusive approach creates increased opportunities for advocacy, as local partnering organisations and individuals can lobby for longer-term change, encourage partners to spread messages and mobilise communities.

Identifying beneficiaries - the most vulnerable, who are at risk or systematically excluded - is often difficult in urban environments, said Lucchi. This challenge arises when people are unwilling to identify themselves because they fear an increase in the risk of harassment or violence as a result.  This is particularly the case for internally displaced people (IDP), refugees, and new migrants who may be resented by host communities and for victims of sexual violence as it is likely the perpetrator resides close by.

Grünewald described the complexities of working within cities affected by war. War-affected urban environments are extremely dangerous for the civilians struggling to survive and the humanitarian workers attempting to help them. While there are humanitarian agencies trying to negotiate and operate within cities in war, many humanitarian organisations are hesitant to allow their workers into these insecure environments. The long-term impact on people living in cities in war was also raised by Grünewald, as danger – such as unexploded ammunition - does not necessarily end when a war does.

Mobile technology, particularly satellite mapping, can be helpful to understanding how cities are impacted by disasters and how responses can be planned.  Even old maps can be very important sources of information but are seldom used. Cities, according to Grünewald, are about networks - networks that can assist humanitarian organisations in finding services. Unlike rural settings, most cities have had water and sewerage systems put in place, and these systems all have maps. Humanitarian organisations should seek out these maps and other existing data when undertaking a context analysis. 

What are the blockages to preventing further land tenure progress?
Land tenure is a highly complex issue, Carpenter noted, which humanitarian organisations need to engage with governments and other stakeholders on. Land tenure arrangements can be informal, complex and fluid, and thus require a similarly nuanced response. Grünewald believes the challenge to land tenure lies with us, as humanitarian actors grapple with understanding historical contexts of cities and local land tenure practices. Humanitarian actors must be imaginative and not expect ‘traditional’ land arrangements to conform to our needs and expectations.

Are there implications on how much money is spent? Should programs be designed to help communities rebuild beyond a response?
According to Lucchi, there is much debate over how much money should be spent, over what timeframe and with what objectives in urban disasters. For example, should less money be spent more quickly to save lives or should more money be spent over a longer time period to achieve long-term results? Using health as an example, Lucchi suggested that humanitarian response should focus on patient care, not necessarily on building health systems. Longer-term responses should be led by international government aid programs or by local governments. However, humanitarian responses should always support the local capacity needed to address longer-term issues.

With responses to urban violence – if there are clear humanitarian consequences - at what point do we draw a line? When do we implement an exit strategy and get out as humanitarian workers?
There are limits to what we can do as humanitarians, Carpenter responded. We should not go beyond our core mandate of meeting humanitarian need in such situations and our work must be in-line with our Fundamental Principles. Lucchi explained that humanitarians have no mandate or capacity to resolve or prevent violence. Preventing violence requires a holistic multi-dimensional approach including law enforcement bodies, cooperation with local communities and a functioning legal system.

What is most urgent with urban responses? Should we map cities or should we try to have a better understanding of where elections violence may become inflammatory?
All speakers agreed that basic skills training for local people would improve urban responses. Local people are always the first on the scene in the event of a disaster, and it’s these people that would greatly benefit from first aid and basic search and rescue training.


With rapid urbanisation taking place on a global scale, urban areas are increasingly affected by humanitarian emergencies. Amid the growing recognition of the need to address the operational implications of urban risk and vulnerability in the humanitarian sector, this event will launch the British Red Cross’ recent study on humanitarian action in urban areas: Learning from the city.

Every day, more than 100,000 people move to urban slums in the developing world – the equivalent of one person every second. With over 50 per cent of the world’s seven billion people living in urban areas, the face of human vulnerability is changing globally. It is, therefore, clear that urban areas should be a significant and growing centre of humanitarian concern. Humanitarian action, however, has traditionally had a rural focus, and while significant research has emerged on urban risk and vulnerability, the humanitarian sector has been slower to understand what this means operationally.

Drawing on its work in Port-au-Prince, Kathmandu, Kampala, Djibouti-ville and Ulaanbaatar, Learning from the city assesses the operational implications of urban risk and vulnerability and highlights five priorities for the British Red Cross and the wider humanitarian community in improving its response in urban areas.

Speakers will discuss the key findings of the study, assess how the humanitarian community is responding to humanitarian needs in different urban settings and address lessons learned in moving from the ‘why’ to the ‘how’ of humanitarian action in urban areas.

A light lunch will be provided from 12:30-13:00, providing a networking opportunity for those with an interest in humanitarian action in urban areas. The panel discussion will then run from 13:00-14:30.