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Humanitarian action in urban contexts


By 2007, more than half the world’s population will be living in cities; as urbanisation gathers pace, this proportion will only grow. For humanitarian actors, urbanisation will increasingly shape old and new vulnerabilities and risks, and will increasingly define disasters in the future. Chronic poverty and lack of basic infrastructure – including in core humanitarian areas such as water and sanitation – often characterise how people live in urban settlements. This should not be perceived only as a developmental challenge. There is a role for humanitarian actors in responding to the needs of vulnerable and excluded urban populations. Humanitarian action in urban contexts is the feature of this issue of Humanitarian Exchange.  

Over the last 50 years, Africa has consistently had the highest rate of urban growth. However, as the article on the African Urban Risk Analysis Network (AURAN) highlights, there is a critical need for governments, civil society and international actors to recognise and address urban risks and vulnerabilities. As the following article on street traders in Durban, South Africa, highlights, these vulnerabilities include HIV/AIDS.

Focusing on Nairobi, another article illustrates how refugees are often doubly displaced: forced to flee their countries due to conflict, and then denied legal status and excluded from social support services in host countries. The article explores how humanitarian agencies can work with communities living outside official camps in Nairobi to support their own livelihood strategies, and stresses the importance of host governments creating enabling policy environments.

The devastating impact of natural disasters on cities has been graphically illustrated in recent years by the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the earthquake in Pakistan. Contributors to this edition of Humanitarian Exchange explore issues relating to natural disasters in urban contexts, with articles on responding to Tropical Storm Jean in Haiti, the relationship between climate change and disaster risk in urban environments, and the effectiveness of cash programming in response to the earthquake in Bam, Iran.

The citizens of cities are likewise the victims of war and political crises. This facet of urban vulnerability is also covered here, with an article exploring the lessons humanitarian actors should draw from the significant crisis caused by military operations conducted by American and Iraqi troops against Fallujah in April and November 2004.

Finally, this edition of Humanitarian Exchange also includes a range of general policy and practice articles, beginning with a piece by IRC on what mortality surveys in the Democratic Republic of Congo tell us about the human costs of war. Other articles focus on sexual exploitation and food distribution in Burundi, drought programming in Kenya, lessons learned from a consortium approach to relief in Sudan, and the role of Japanese NGOs in Afghanistan. As always, we hope you enjoy this edition of Humanitarian Exchange, and we welcome your feedback.