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

Kabul - Port au Prince, reflections on post crisis aid operations in urban environments
Béatrice Boyer

Having observed humanitarian operations in cities on the ground in two countries destabilised for different reasons – war in Afghanistan, an earthquake in Haiti , it is clear that whatever the crisis that leads to the intervention of humanitarian organisations, it is essential to adapt the response to urban contexts.

From the anarchy of Afghan cities to the chaos of the urban concentration in Haiti, humanitarian actors are still trying to find their bearings in relation to conducting operations in urban contexts affected by crises or disasters. From Kabul in 2001 to Port-au-Prince in 2011, it has taken ten years for the international post-emergency aid sector to begin to take on board the specific nature of operations in cities. It has taken a great deal of pugnacity and time on the part of a number of commentators aware of urban issues to alert and convince the humanitarian sector to take into account the specific characteristics of the city which are distinct from the rural contexts with which humanitarians are more familiar. Cities are the result of multiple factors – economic, social and political – and they are made up of interdependent systems and networks which constitute their structure. By developing a better understanding of these structural and economic dimensions and the vulnerabilities and opportunities which emerge following or because of a crisis, aid organizations involved in emergency relief, post-emergency aid and sustainable recovery can develop specific strategies for urban environments, suitable operational tools and can improve the definition of their responsibilities.

Cities and crises need to be better understood, in terms of their temporary and structural dimensions and the opportunities that they present. Destruction and destabilisation cause death and injuries, but they also create material difficulties in terms of access to emergency aid. The scale of damage will be proportional to the structural condition of the city (for example, the state of urbanisation mechanisms, whether or not urban development is controlled and risk prevention and awareness-raising mechanisms). The crisis or disaster may be due to temporary factors which have a direct impact on infrastructure or on the buildings which make up the city, but it can also be made worse by structural faults which are separate from the event. But, the fact that risks and fragilities are highlighted can paradoxically be an opportunity for improvement with the arrival, en masse, of skills and resources. How can emergency relief mechanisms both respond to specific urban needs created by a disaster and, at the same time, anticipate responses to accompany crisis resolutions in cities?

The specific nature of cities was not an issue which either humanitarian actors or the Afghans took into account ten years ago: this is why aid in Afghanistan, and particularly in Kabul, was as chaotic as the context. Looking at certain programmes from an urban development point of view can help to explain why certain programmes did not go beyond the pilot stage. In Haiti, in Port-au-Prince, immediately after the earthquake, once people had got over the initial shock, the blocked streets forced the different operators to consider what a city is. In connection with local representatives, the humanitarian sector began to give urban problems the consideration that they deserved, including their interdependence, their specific characteristics and the opportunity that they might have to evolve.

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