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Urban humanitarian response: challenges and opportunities

Time (GMT +01) 13:00 14:30

Contributing chair:

Wendy Fenton @WendyFenton1 - Coordinator, Humanitarian Practice Network 


Diane Archer @BangkokDi - Senior Researcher and Team Leader, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

Daniel Deichert - Hubs project coordinator, Danish Refugee Council (via videoconference)

Alyoscia D’Onofrio @AlyosciaD - Senior Director (Governance Technical Unit) and Head of Office in Geneva, International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Professor David Sanderson @raan1000 -  Professor and Inaugural Judith Neilson Chair, University of New South Wales (UNSW)


Humanitarian crises are increasingly affecting urban areas.  This is happening both directly; through civil conflict, hazards such as flooding or earthquakes, urban violence or outbreaks of disease, and indirectly; through hosting those fleeing such threats. 75% of all displaced people now live in urban settings. Despite this, humanitarian agencies, used to working in rural contexts, have been slow to understand how the challenges and opportunities of working in urban spaces necessitate changes in how they operate. The dynamism of the city, with its reliance on markets, and the size, diversity and mobility of urban populations, can be daunting challenges.  

The need to coordinate closely with often unfamiliar actors is another key challenge. Relief efforts in urban areas can fall short when humanitarians fail to recognise and work with municipal governments and service providers, local community groups and neighbourhood committees who are part of wider city ‘systems’ and usually the ‘first responders’. 

Drawing on articles in the latest Humanitarian Exchange and their own research and experience, our panellists discuss what is different about providing humanitarian assistance in urban areas and which tools and approaches can help to make responding to crises in urban environments more effective.  


Wendy Fenton is the Coordinator of the Humanitarian Practice Network. She has over 25 years of operational, management and advisory experience in humanitarian and development programming across a wide range of sectors primarily in Sudan and Ethiopia. She has extensive experience of working with both donors (USAID/OFDA and CIDA) and NGOs (Save the Children UK). Most recently, as an independent consultant, she has focused on fragile states, specifically issues related to NGO programming, funding mechanism performance and safety nets.

Diane Archer is Senior Researcher in the Human Settlements Group, and Team Leader of cities and climate change at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). She managed the Urban Crises Learning Fund at IIED from 2015-2017. Her other areas of focus include urban climate change resilience, community-driven development, and inclusive urban development. Prior to joining IIED, she worked at the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) in Bangkok. Diane has a PhD in Land Economy from the University of Cambridge.

Daniel Deichert is the Danish Refugee Council’s Hub Program Coordinator based in Afghanistan. He has worked in the Middle East and Asia designing interventions addressing the global displacement crisis. He has technical expertise in areas of Education in Emergencies, Disaster Risk Reduction, and Climate Change Adaptation. More recently his attention has turned to the issue of service provision to displaced populations in the highly volatile environments of Syria and Afghanistan. He holds a MSc in Environmental and Natural Resource Economics from Copenhagen University and a BSc in Business Management from St. John’s University, New York.

Alyoscia D’Onofrio is the Senior Director of the International Rescue Committee’s Governance Technical Unit, where he oversees a team of technical advisors supporting IRC and partner programs in conflict-affected and fragile settings around the world. He has worked with the IRC since 1997, joining the agency in Bosnia as Program Manager for a network of information and legal assistance centres for returning refugees. Between 1998 and 2000, he worked on facilitating the first return movements to hard-line municipalities in south-eastern Bosnia. From 2000 to 2004, he was the Executive Director of IRC-UK, steering the British arm of the IRC from start-up to a fast-growing program support office. In 2004, he moved to the Democratic Republic of Congo as Country Director overseeing a major period of growth and programmatic innovation. From 2008 to 2011, he held the post of Regional Director for the Africa Great Lakes programs, and then Program Development Director for Africa, supporting program development across the continent.

Professor David Sanderson has over 25 years experience working across the world in development and emergencies. From 1994-98 David was a Project Manager at the Oxford Centre for Disaster Studies. David worked for eight years for the NGO CARE International UK, as head of policy and subsequently Regional Manager for Southern and West Africa. From 2006-2013 David was Director of CENDEP, a centre at Oxford Brookes University focusing on development and emergencies. Between 2013-14 he was a full time Visiting Professor at Harvard University, where he taught a course, 'Design for urban disaster', and from 2014-2015 was a Professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). David was appointed the Inaugural Judith Neilson Chair of Architecture at UNSW in February 2016.

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