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Humanitarian intervention in violence-hit slums - from whether to how

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)

In a move that experts say could open the door to a more robust aid response to chronic violence in urban areas, the European Commission’s humanitarian aid arm, ECHO, has approved two million euros in funding for violence-hit slums in Central America and Mexico until the end of 2014.

The world’s 10 most violent cities in 2012 were in Latin America, according to a study (Spanish) by the Mexico-based Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice; and Latin America is considered the part of the world where slum residents are most heavily burdened by organized crime and violence not linked to traditional armed conflict. But as more and more cities see rapid and often haphazard urbanization, experts say other parts of the world could increasingly face similar challenges.

If large-scale aid work in so-called “other situations of violence” is the way of the future, there are certain things humanitarian workers will have to keep in mind.

“It’s particularly true in situations of urban violence but it's true with urban issues in general - they are a real and significant challenge to the existing model of humanitarian action,” Paul Knox Clarke, head of research and communications at the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP), told IRIN.

ALNAP is putting together a “lessons learned” paper drawing from the handful of cases where humanitarian agencies have intervened in slums hit by violence.

In the meantime, here are a few strategies:

Go beyond basic needs

As one of Rio de Janeiro’s notoriously violent slums prepared for the April opening of a visual arts centre, some people asked why a slum would possibly need such a thing.

“It’s wrong to see a favela as solely a bundle of scarcity,” says Jailson de Souza e Silva, associate professor at Universidade Federal Fluminense and head of Brazil’s Observatório de Favelas (the Slums Observatory).

While many slum communities are poor, that does not define them.

“In these areas you have deprivation of basic rights, but you have a very active social fabric,” said Adriano Campolina, head of ActionAid in Brazil. Such communities can be seen as very weak and humanitarians might misguidedly focus only on the most basic of needs - shelter, food, emergency care, Campolina told IRIN on the sidelines of a conference in Rio.

“Depending on the way [a humanitarian agency intervenes], if you focus only on this and you don’t appreciate that the community’s struggle is for the full range of rights as a citizen, you risk undermining these people.”

Build on existing community responses

Humanitarian aid in already marginalized slum communities could further stigmatize residents, ActionAid’s Campolina said. “The people in these communities have over the years built their own ways of mobilizing, organizing, and negotiating. If you ignore that and you just dump humanitarian aid, you may actually further ostracize the people.”

Robert Muggah, professor at the Institute of International Relations at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and research director at Igarapé Institute, a Rio-based think tank, says humanitarian actors with their “quick-in and quick-out mentalities” could undermine local forms of resilience and response.

He says city dwellers are dependent on services to ensure their livelihoods in ways the rural poor are not. “The rapid distribution of aid can unintentionally disrupt their networks and associations, often in dangerous ways. [Humanitarian action here] will require a high degree of sensitivity to local realities, willingness to work through community partnerships, and a considerable level of situation awareness.”

Understand local dynamics - even more so

At the conference, hosted by HASOW (Humanitarian Action in Situations Other than War), discussions about Brazil’s slums pointed out the importance of understanding what Harvard Humanitarian Initiative's Ronak Patel called slums’ “small-p politics”: power relationships among various groups; factors determining identity and status; and interplay among residents, authorities, and armed groups.

Aid experts say while an understanding of the local context is important in any humanitarian intervention, it is that much more critical - and complicated - in violence-hit slums.

“This is going to make the difference between a relevant and valid operation and something you're doing completely blindly,” said Vicente Raimundo, rapid response coordinator with ECHO’s office for Latin America & the Caribbean. “What is going on in El Salvador, for example, has little resemblance to what's going on in Honduras or in Guatemala. `Other situations of violence’ is a regional phenomenon that has a lot of local characteristics.”

But the complexity of the local context is no reason for humanitarian aid agencies to stay away, says Javier Rio Navarro, Médecins Sans Frontières operational adviser in Mexico and Central America.

“During any intervention, there is the need to understand the actors and the context to be responsible in the way you interact,” Navarro told IRIN. “Yes, working in urban settings is different from working in the bush. In the bush it's you and your patients. In these urban settings you've got a much wider range of actors - also a wider set of perpetrators of violence. This makes things more complicated, but does not fundamentally change our function and mission and should not turn violent urban settings into no-go areas for humanitarians.”

Be extra meticulous in targeting

The fairly narrow targeting typical of humanitarian interventions would not be suitable for most urban areas, particularly where violence has taken hold, says François Grünewald, executive director of the France-based research, training and evaluation group, Urgence, Réhabilitation et Développement (Groupe URD).

“In these urban societies where you have violence, people do not survive on their own,” he said. “They belong to networks - be they gangs, age groups, neighbourhood cliques. But if you get stigmatized because you’re targeted by a humanitarian agency, you’ve got to choose between being part of that targeted group or part of your network. And this is sometimes a choice between life and death.”

Stigmatization can be for reasons as simple as being “singled out” as a recipient of aid, in ways others in your network have not been.

Grünewald says he finds it “both fascinating and terrifying” how little interest there seems to be in the humanitarian aid and donor community for the kind of anthropological study required to understand these dynamics. He says getting to know the sociological and anthropological setting is a vital operational issue.

Be wary of your mandate - and your expertise

Many aid experts say the debate over intervening in such settings is shifting from whether to how. Still there are more questions than answers, including the applicability of international humanitarian law.

Some observers say such engagement by humanitarian agencies is mandate creep. For international affairs and political science professor Michael Barnett, author of Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism, international humanitarian agencies should limit themselves to their terrain: emergencies. Even if international agencies could base their operations in violent cities in a legal framework, he said, it is better to fund local agencies - “those who know the terrain, not outsiders.”

“What possible role could outsiders provide in terms of advancing the situation on the ground that locals couldn’t do? Perhaps there’s the neutrality aspect, but not operationally… I don’t think they [international NGOs] bring anything to the table. In urban settings - [there is a] clear role for humanitarians in assisting refugees or in natural disasters - beyond that, no.”

He acknowledged that the definition of humanitarianism has been stretched in recent decades. “But one of the things that has made humanitarian action effective is that it worked in emergency settings... Violence in urban settings is a classical human rights and development situation.”

Some agencies and donors, including ECHO, say uncertainty about the legal framework does not bar them from acting.

“We focus on the humanitarian consequences, on humanitarian needs, regardless of the causes,” ECHO’s Raimundo told IRIN. “If there are proven, unmet needs then there is a basis to act.”

For more, see IRIN’s piece on how fear of urban violence is creating humanitarian need.

Does IHL apply?
International humanitarian law (IHL), which gives civilians affected by conflict the right to humanitarian assistance, applies in situations deemed international or non-international armed conflicts. Traditionally, this has not been interpreted to include urban gang violence. But this may be beginning to change.

Ronak Patel, director of urbanization and crises program, Harvard Humanitarian Initiative:

“More and more, in these `other situations of violence’, we’ll move away from IHL because they won’t be international conflicts. Even to call them `non-international armed conflicts’ we have to meet the two criteria - organization and intensity. In many cases the intensity is clearly there; these are areas that look very much like war. Organization is much more difficult. No longer is it one or two large paramilitary forces fighting the state; it’s a multiplicity of actors - some very weak, others very organized. But attempting to call these `non-international armed conflicts’ so we can apply IHL and engage as humanitarians doesn’t work very well.

“Some have promoted a case-by-case approach; to me this seems very unwieldy but it might be all we have right now and this is an area that needs a lot of work; we’re lacking a legal framework for this kind of intervention.

“The diversity of armed actors makes application of some of the traditional methods of engaging them with IHL very difficult - e.g. teaching them about neutrality, teaching them to stockpile weapons, to minimize effects on citizens. Because they’re so many and so diverse, it’s difficult; even if leaders of many groups agree with these principles there’s no guarantee that this can be commanded all the way down the line.”

Robert Muggah, professor at the Institute of International Relations at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and research director at Igarapé Institute:

“From an international relations perspective, the question of whether or not to apply IHL or to intervene in a city like Rio is an extraordinarily sensitive one for governments. The declaration of war, the determination of armed conflict, or the introduction of IHL has dramatic implications for everything - from notions of sovereignty, notions of the right to intervene, all the way to credit ratings, to tourism and even national pride and prestige. Even so, it is interesting that for most cities HASOW covers - Rio, Medellin, Ciudad Juarez, and Port-au-Prince - most municipal public officials, elected or otherwise, have no such qualms. They readily describe their cities as at war - less conscious perhaps of the diplomatic connotations.”

Vicente Raimundo, rapid response coordinator, ECHO office for Latin America & the Caribbean:

“ECHO does have a legal basis that rules and regulates our actions. A 1996 piece of European Commission legislation regulates humanitarian aid funded by the Commission.

“We operate guided by the so-called humanitarian principles. And nothing in them prevents us from funding OSV [“other situations of violence”]. In fact, it has been done always, virtually everywhere. We focus on the humanitarian consequences, on humanitarian needs, regardless of its causes. If there are proven, unmet needs, then there is a basis to act.

“Finally, nowhere in our legislation is it defined that we have to operate only on IHL qualified situations. It is mentioned: `Whereas people in distress, victims of natural disasters, wars and outbreaks of fighting, or other comparable exceptional circumstances have a right to international humanitarian assistance where their own authorities prove unable to provide effective relief.’

“Therefore, acknowledging that we are not facing an officially-qualified armed conflict, we note as well that there are unmet humanitarian needs, that the victims do have the right to receive humanitarian assistance relevant and proportional to their needs from neutral aid actors, and that we believe that as a donor, ECHO has an added value justifying its intervention supported both by its legal mandate and previous experience.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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