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Humanitarian Aid on the move #8, special issue: Cities and crises

Humanitarian programmes which need to be adapted to urban vulnerabilities in Port-au-Prince, Freetown, Charikar or Ulan Bator
Nicolas Villeminot

Action Contre la Faim’s operations in urban environments have forced it to revise its operational methods. A city’s buildings, inhabitants and local authorities are so many interlinked factors which need to be taken into account. The organization has added value to bring to both emergency relief programmes and long-term development programmes: it is continuing to evolve, adapting and revising its methods in order to obtain the same legitimacy in cities as it has in rural contexts, where it has established a reputation for quality.

The earthquake in Haiti on 12 January 2010 revealed the difficulties encountered by humanitarian organisations in urban contexts. Port-au-Prince was devastated and the Haitian population was in shock. The government, the Haitian Civil Protection Force, the United Nations and humanitarian organizations were among the victims. International humanitarian aid began to flood in [1], followed by donations from all over the world. But rapidly the response encountered problems. These were caused by constraints which were unfamiliar, or which were exacerbated by the unprecedented scale of the situation: supplying the city, dangerous buildings, property ownership conflicts, inappropriate techniques or methods, clearing rubble, the issue of waste, degraded social fabric, violence in the camps, lack of integration of local representatives and associations, symbolic locations, the slowness of decisions, etc.

Though the scale of the crisis in Port-au-Prince is not comparable to the other crises in which Action Contre la Faim (ACF) and humanitarian organizations have been involved in recent decades, it should, however, be noted that it was not the first time that an urban context was on the agenda. ACF carries out operations in urban environments in numerous contexts and many of the issues raised in Haiti echo those which the association has faced in other emergency relief, post-crisis and development programmes.

ACF’s experience in urban environments has been built up over a variety of disasters and programmes in different places, often without any real continuity. These little steps have not been very well documented by humanitarians over the years and ACF’s three decades of activity, particularly when compared to the numerous documents on rural contexts and displaced persons camps. But the organization is currently proactively developing a strategy to improve its operations in urban environments which will require new technical and social methods. This has even sparked debate within the association about the positioning of the organization between rural and urban contexts. Since 2009 it is an acknowledged fact that half of the world’s population now lives in cities and that this trend to the detriment of rural areas will continue inexorably.

ACF’s areas of expertise in the fight against hunger are: Nutrition, Food Security and Livelihoods, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene and Mental Health and Healthcare practices. Though ACF has been active in all these areas in Port-au-Prince, it has often been through Water and Sanitation programmes that it has built its experience in urban environments.


[1] The Flash Appeal Haiti 2010 following the earthquake represented the largest ever request for funding for a humanitarian crisis – 1.5 billion US dollars – more than had been requested following the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26/12/2004.