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The new buzzword in aid – and why agencies are slow to act

Youths in Kibera slums carry crude weapons ready to fight youths from the rival side, Nairobi, Kenya January 2008. Three people were killed as a result of the confrontation before police could calm the situation. Julius Mwelu/IRIN
“Urban” may be the new buzzword in humanitarian circles, but aid agencies have been slow to turn it into action. 

Conflict-ridden urban sprawl is increasingly talked about as a source of fragility that will shape humanitarian response in the years to come. A toxic mix of poverty, natural disaster, climate change and conflict is threatening the survival of the world’s most vulnerable people. And in an ever more urbanised world, emergencies will increasingly be concentrated in cities.

But aid actors have struggled to adapt. Accustomed to working in more remote war zones or in the aftermath of natural disasters, they have been slow to develop the more complex set of skills needed to measure and respond to opaque urban emergencies. 

Waking up late

For the first time in history, more people live inside urban areas than outside. Statistics show an alarming overlap between rapid population growth, poverty and urban slums. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the urban population in poor and fragile countries has grown by 326 percent in the past 40 years; most future growth will take place in Asia and Africa. 

At the same time the drivers of conflict are evolving. 

“With the advent of global supply chains and communications technologies, we are seeing the fusion of political, criminal and extremist forms of violence,” says Robert Muggah, research director at the Igarapé Institute, a Brazil-based think tank. “We’re also seeing civilians increasingly implicated as victims and perpetrators.” 

Exacerbated by “turbo urbanisation,” he says, these trends make it increasingly difficult to distinguish between formal armed conflict and “other situations of violence," such as gang and drug violence in many Latin American cities.

Yet, UN humanitarian agencies “have woken up to this reality rather late,” according to John De Boer, a senior policy advisor at the United Nations University (UNU) Centre for Policy Research. He attributes this to a reluctance to move away from “siloed” responses and to “paralysis” on “how to develop systems and structures to respond effectively."

Muggah, who recently wrote a blog on the issue, says both humanitarian and development agencies have been “comparatively slow to respond." 

As Kevin Savage, humanitarian research director at World Vision International, puts it, the aid sector is dominated by large agencies “that take a long time to change." 

But in the lead-up to the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, debate on the issue is intensifying. The World Bank, UNU, European Commission and World Economic Forum, UNICEF, World Vision and many others are “seized of the issue,” Muggah says.

Rules of engagement 

But when does urban violence constitute a humanitarian crisis? 

“The standard of living in urban slums is often lower than the minimum standards set by humanitarian practice,” argues Ronak Patel, director of the urbanisation and crises program at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. 

“In some cities, violence levels seem to exceed a threshold that would justify their classification as an armed-conflict-like situation,” says a “lesson paper” published last year by the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) advising humanitarians on how to engage in situations of urban violence.

“Many in the sector have problems with this because it starts to look more like development and less like aid”
But as patterns of violence become murkier, so do the rules of engagement. Urban conflicts do not necessarily fall under the auspices of International Humanitarian Law, creating legal grey areas for humanitarian action. 

And in an urbanised environment, the line between humanitarian response – tailored to emergencies – and a developmental approach – geared for long-term involvement in communities – is also less clear cut. 

“We have a grand new problem to face,” says Stephanie Kayden, also of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, who predicts a “sea change” in the aid sector as humanitarian agencies contemplate engaging in longer-term violence reduction programs. “Many in the sector have problems with this because it starts to look more like development and less like aid.” 

Nor do emergency responders have all the skills needed. 

“[The] long-term infrastructural change required goes beyond the capacity of humanitarian actors,” says Patricia McIlreavy, senior director of humanitarian policy at the NGO consortium InterAction. “We don’t have the funding or the time-frame.”

That said, humanitarian agencies are today mired in protracted emergencies – from Syria to South Sudan, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Somalia – that show no signs of abating. The average length of displacement in major refugee crises is 20 years.

Kayden sees a role for greater partnership with the development world, which can do “more of the heavy lifting."

An existential crisis in aid 

But where to draw the line? Where should the limits of humanitarian action lie? 

McIlreavy acknowledges that the humanitarian sector must grapple with new urban dynamics. Refugees, for example – like those who have fled Syria for Jordan and Lebanon – are increasingly moving into urban areas. But she is less sure whether humanitarians should be tackling gang violence. 

“Humanitarians are beholden to go where others don’t go but how do we ensure that we don’t become an excuse for development actors not to address the root causes – such as lack of education and poverty?” 

“These scenarios are becoming a reality. We need to get ready for them”
In Muggah’s view, changing forms of violence and the move to cities is generating “an existential crisis” in the aid community at large. While the more orthodox organisations “are clinging to the idea that aid be provided by neutral, impartial and independent actors in a targeted manner," other “multi-mandate agencies are less wedded to these principles and are starting to test out new approaches to preventing violence and promoting resilience in cities.”

Agencies like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are forging ahead with programs in violence-plagued cities in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Brazil – places that “offer a kind of laboratory, a natural experiment, for humanitarian agencies intent on preventing violence and increasing resilience,” Muggah says. 

MSF is working closely with the health authorities in areas like Tegucigalpa, Ixtepec, Bojay and Apaxco to boost existing healthcare provision where local services are overwhelmed by intense and protracted gang-related conflict. It plays a supervisory and supportive role, transferring knowledge rather than running the show – and plans to expand once it has a better understanding of the scale of the needs. 

“These scenarios are becoming a reality. We need to get ready for them,” says Gustavo Fernandez, MSF program manager for Guatemala and Honduras.

But, he says, too few international actors are responding to crises in mega cities. “The level of violence and the consequences they bring to health systems and individuals deserves greater attention from the aid community.” 

He acknowledges that massive, prolonged crises gripping the Middle East and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, for example, have sapped energy, attention and funds. But he adds that where needs are expressed and programs developed, funding can be found. 

CNN effect 

Massive disasters and all-out warfare tend to make better headlines than the slow creep of urban violence: humanitarian agencies are able to bring in more funding and “call attention to crises that development actors can’t,” Patel adds. 

But urban crises are slowly taking their place on the agenda. “It's much more mainstream to talk about ‘urban’ than it was a few years ago,” says World Vision’s Savage. 

For example, when people began fleeing urban violence in Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico last year, US President Barack Obama declared the arrival of thousands of refugees into the US “a humanitarian crisis,” which gave it “the CNN effect,” Savage said. “When it finally hit the US media, it made a difference to us.” 

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