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Food and the city

The Malian Red Cross distrbutes food to 600 households in Gao's Chateau neighbourhood in march 2013. Food distributions include rice, flour, salt and cooking oil
(Katarina Hoije/IRIN)

With the vast majority of population growth taking place in towns and cities, according to the UN, aid agencies are adapting their food security responses to better fit into urban contexts. An increasing number of tools and innovations are becoming available to help with this effort, but humanitarians have yet to undertake the shift required for large-scale systematic urban response, say aid experts.

Below, IRIN reviews some of the lessons currently available:

Do not over-estimate urban resilience

Myths about urban resilience skew humanitarians' perception of residents' vulnerability, say some urban aid experts.

Because urban populations tend to have more available salaried employment and a less visible link to seasonal uncertainties, they are sometimes considered better able to cope with shocks than their rural counterparts - but this is often not the case.

"Even though access to markets is better, financial access is not necessarily better. Everything is just so much more expensive in an urban area: you have to pay for your water, your electricity, your rent, your food and your transport. Nothing is free," said Laura Phelps, urban displacement adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in a Field Exchange editorial. And as the urban poor are generally more dependent on precarious informal-sector income that "rarely meets consumption needs", they are more likely to use risky coping mechanisms.

Additionally, urban populations often do not grow their own food; they are thus more vulnerable to the vagaries of market price fluctuations, which can be seriously affected by rising fuel prices.

And existing food security assessment tools can give misleading results in urban areas, with urban diets appearing to be more diverse than rural ones while quantities of protein remain very low.

Cash works best in cities

It is now well established that cash and vouchers are often more appropriate than food distributions in urban settings, and that this should become the default response where markets are working. Cash can quickly target more people when a population is spread across a vast area. It is safer and faster and often disrupts markets less, says Graham Mackay, Oxfam Great Britain's deputy humanitarian director.

Numerous studies have established that food-insecure households tend to primarily spend the money distributed on diversifying their diets, as well as on settling debts, healthcare or education fees.

The concentration of skilled staff and telecoms technologies in urban centres also makes mobile cash transfers more viable.

Cash can help to make markets work for the poor, which must be a standard of urban disaster relief and recovery, says UN-Habitat. A strong understanding of the local market should be at the heart of any urban assessment. UN-Habitat suggests assessing pre-existing markets, re-establishing major markets, buying locally whenever possible, and getting small businesses working, where possible. Where disrupted, agencies must support efforts to re-establish supply, storage and market mechanisms, while providing cash, vouchers or support to income-generating activities.

Coordinate with local authorities

National and local government agencies are almost always more present in cities than in rural areas, which can make it easier for international humanitarian actors to locate and work with them.

At the same time, the multiplicity of actors involved means there is usually less clarity about who is in charge. Several agencies - including Action against Hunger (ACF), the World Food Programme and Oxfam - recommend mapping political structures, power relations and interests at the beginning of an intervention. Some of the most efficient urban emergency responses are linked to a government-led existing social security system that targets the vulnerable.

However, agencies must balance engaging with the government with humanitarian principles, particularly if the government is engaged in campaigns against urban gangs or paramilitary groups, says the evaluation and learning-oriented non-profit ALNAP.

Adapt assessments and targeting

In high-risk cities, contingency planning should establish baseline information, including cost-of-living calculations, so that the difference between "normal" circumstances and shocks can be quickly determined.

Agencies should coordinate with relevant government authorities on urban assessment, where possible, says ALNAP. Livelihoods-based needs assessments may be more relevant than single-sector assessments given that residents use cash to meet shelter, food, health and water needs, says the British Red Cross, and that given urban residents often have multiple income streams.

And when analysing livelihood and food security, aid groups must not overlook the possible links between urban households and their rural communities, through which they may be sourcing food. Assessments must also address urban expenditures such as fuel and transport costs.

When targeting in urban contexts, aid providers must take care to ensure that vulnerable groups are not overlooked. These include slum dwellers, refugees, internally displaced people and socially marginalized groups. Not all slums and informal settlements are marked on official city maps, for example. Neighbourhood-based targeting and coordination might be more appropriate in a city if all actors decide to coordinate along these lines.

Rural assessment tools, such as the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, should be adapted to urban settings, as should some standards, such as the Sphere Standards for nutrition, say several critics. "A lot of responses we use in rural areas are replicable - but we need to take more time to analyze need and target vulnerable households, taking into account the added complexity of urban contexts," said NRC's Phelps.

Finally, urban indicators need to be very responsive to change, given the speed with which cities change.

Crowd-source data

Technologies can assist in urban distributions. Some agencies are crowd-sourcing information on the locations of needs. Digital satellite mapping can show slums and squatter settlements. Google Maps provides information that can be used to track distributions and the movement of goods.

And some organizations specialize in mapping or urban communication. For example, MapAction is an NGO that deploys to urban disasters to provide agencies with frequently updated situation maps, and the NGO Frontline SMS uses laptops and mobile phones to help spread emergency messages.

Monitoring and evaluation

As urban programming is a relatively new field with few evidence-based practices, all new programmes should be designed and funded with a strong monitoring and evaluation capacity, as well as a significant research component, Ian MacAusland, an education expert at the think-tank Oxfam Policy Management, wrote in Field Exchange.

Take your time

Tracking and targeting urban populations is labour intensive, so agencies must allot more time and resources to it than they would in rural settings.

For instance, during Cote d'Ivoire's 2010 post-election crisis, an ACF programme aimed to target the most vulnerable residents in the capital, Abidjan. ACF carried out a door-to-door survey of 25,000 households, of which just under half were eventually targeted. The assessment took months, said Marie Sardier, ACF's global food security and livelihoods adviser, but it had to be done for the programme to be credible.

Thoroughness is all the more important in volatile urban areas, say aid agencies. The British Red Cross says at least 10 percent of selected households should be visited for verification, and if 30 percent of visited households do not meet the criteria, the selection process should be re-run.

Consider alternatives to large-scale distribution

Large-scale distributions can become focal points for violence, says the US Agency for International Development. To minimize these risks, distributions should be kept local. For example, they could be linked to neighbourhoods or sections of neighbourhoods. An alternative is mobile service points, such as the mobile clinics Médecins Sans Frontières used in Colombia.

Establish programme boundaries

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee's working group on urban emergencies and the Disaster Emergency Committee have concluded that, when planning urban response, agencies must know what they want to achieve and when to leave, as it can be difficult to tell when an "emergency" ends and "normal" conditions begin.

Sources :
ALNAP review of responding to urban disasters, by David Sanderson and Paul Knox-Clarke with Leah Campbell

ALNAP's urban aid tools

Inter-Agency Standing Committee reference group on urban disaster challenges

ACF's Identification of Vulnerable People in Urban Environments

British Red Cross: Learning from the City: Urban Learning Project Scoping Study

Save the Children: Urban malnutrition, a review of food security and nutrition among the urban poor

Field Exchange, September 2013


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:

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