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

What is French decentralised cooperation doing in terms of territorial crisis management?
Pierre Baillet

The World Bank’s World Development Report of 2009 considers, not without reason, that the pursuit of economic growth is dependent on increased human and economic density. Urbanisation would therefore appear to be a driving force of development.
On the other hand, this heightened concentration brings with it other factors, such as those which favour the development of political and social crises. These concentrated human settlements are too often established in areas which are unsuitable for human development or in at-risk areas. The cost of property causes the city to spread, for example, into areas liable to flooding.
In response to this situation, the International Association of French-speaking Mayors (AIMF) decided to raise awareness amongst local authority representatives about anticipating crises in their management of a territory: support for the creation of shared governance tools, new services to be shared between municipal authorities and the development of a new form of decentralised cooperation close to the local population.

 Municipalities as direct sources of cooperation

Crisis recovery contexts are important issues which are discussed by states, donors, businesses, NGOs and professionals. And yet, local authorities, who are close to the population and funding agencies and are better placed to engage in effective prevention and reconstruction policies, are still too often absent from processes in which cities affected by hazards are provided with aid. They could play an increasingly important role. First, a number of facts are worth noting.

 

The city as a source of dynamism and wealth

Through the concentration that they bring, cities have historically been sources of success, development and wealth. People are drawn to these environments, the proximity of diversity stimulating some and reassuring communities. Their networks make the circulation of people, ideas and energy easier. A number of favourable and positive factors are uniquely concentrated in one area, and this is the case in every country. This fantastic dynamism raises the issue of the omnipresent role of state administrations in the absence of other legitimate stakeholders such as local authorities.

 

The city’s fragile balance

Nevertheless, cities are also systems with a complex and fragile balance, where there is always the potential for crises. Depending on the seriousness of the crisis, this state of imbalance or unstable balance will be an aggravating factor for natural and political risks. The complexity which local authorities already face on a day to day basis means that they are apt to tackle crises alongside other players, such as governmental authorities and international bodies. But how can local authorities improve their effectiveness? What means do they have at their disposal?

 

Due to social, physical and political concentration, cities are faced with numerous risk factors

One crisis factor is the combination of poverty and a concentration of human beings in at-risk areas. Cities attract the poor who often settle in areas where no one else wants to settle. Due to their limited means, local authorities are powerless in the face of such situations.

Thus, cities develop and grow rapidly in fragile and dangerous areas. The city of Nouakchott, for example, only recently grew to its present size. When Mauritania became independent, it had a population of only several thousand. It now has a population of 1 million. This new town is situated below sea level, like Cotonou, Lomé and many other cities in the Gulf of Guinea. Goma is located on a volcano. Port-au-Prince is on a fault line. Niamey grew on an area of the Niger river bed which is liable to flooding, where no one wanted to build. Then there are the mudbrick cities of the Sahel which are not resistant to torrential rain, such as Ouagadougou, where this happened two years ago. Like New Orleans, the delta cities of Ho Chi Minh City and Alexandria are exposed to the risk of flooding.

Furthermore, it is clear that, contrary to what happens in rural areas where tradition and collective memory allow natural traps to be avoided, risk management is more complex in urban areas.