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Neglected cities: the responsibilities of aid agencies in post-crisis contexts - The case of Afghanistan
Béatrice Boyer

Crises have left cities in Afghanistan with informal settlements, plundered property and out of date forms of urban planning. These cities have strong identities but governance is non-existant or biased. How is the reconstruction process progressing in the urban sector? What are international actors doing and what more could be done?

 Are cities victims or sources of crises?

The world is becoming increasingly urban. Whether for economic, cultural or climatic reasons, more and more people are heading for cities. By 2020, almost 80% of the world’s population will live in cities in poor and emerging nations. This urban pressure results in informal urbanisation, revealing the structural fragility of urban systems which are particularly sensitive to crises.

The observation and analysis of humanitarian action in different post-crisis or post-conflict urban contexts, shows that post-crisis actors involved in reconstruction are generally not equipped to deal with the complexity of urban contexts. On the other hand, in these unstable contexts, local authorities are themselves disorientated by urban phenomena most of the time and completely unable to cope with the effects of these crises, whereas the private sector is often very dynamic despite - or perhaps because of - the crisis. Through its actions, the private sector puts pressure on the city in the absence of clear technical and administrative institutional responsibilities. Development actors, or those responsible for urban policy or urbanism, are conspicuous by their absence, only intervening when the situation is stabilised and made secure. There is therefore a lack of clear action, and sometimes complete impotence in the gray area between the post-crisis and pre-development phases, during the complex process of establishing who will do what to improve living conditions in the city. In general, funding and operations are redirected towards other contexts where the struggle against vulnerability is easier to identify such as rural health and education, which are sectors where aid organisations have more experience. The city is unsettling.

But although urban contexts are complex, and particularly in an emergency situation or during a crisis, not running projects or running inappropriate projects can create new imbalances in the long term which exacerbate inhabitants’ problems. Urban crises are a new type of crisis. In already unstable situations, they add to the problems of people who live in small, densely populated areas. In the short term, these place more obstacles in the way of a crisis resolution: political discontent, poverty, social discord, insufficient resources, food insecurity and hygiene-related vulnerability, particularly concerning clean drinking water. In the long term, these cause social disintegration, economic inequality or injustice, added costs in providing facilities and services and irreversible environmental pollution in degraded and over-developed cities.

Cities are also a concentration of various elements and are therefore a wonderful and powerful agent for positive change. A great deal of work needs to be done on post-crisis aid in urban contexts (debate, analysis, innovation) in conjunction with the different professions already working on urban issues. In order to analyse urban contexts affected by crises and propose actions which would be appropriate in these, there is a real need for clarification and discussion of the issues involved. The urban situation in Afghanistan a few years after the arrival of the international aid community is an interesting example to look at.