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Humanitarian assistance in post-crisis urban contexts – what have we learned so far?
Béatrice Boyer & Marion Bouchard

When there is a disaster or conflict in a city, people need a great deal of assistance of a specific nature for which the humanitarian sector is not well prepared. The vulnerabilities of urban populations are added to the deficiencies or fragilities of urban systems and services which should structure cities and make them resilient. Groupe URD has been analyzing the issues involved in post-crisis urban operations for more than ten years. Since the 2010 earthquake which hit Port-au-Prince in Haiti, there has been growing awareness about this issue and we are moving towards a paradigm shift in the humanitarian sector regarding urban assistance with the issue being debated in numerous international bodies.

The vulnerability of cities and urban populations to external risks – natural hazards or wars – is caused by at-risk behaviour and poorly managed or uncontrolled urban development. Yet, humanitarian actors, who are called upon to play an important role during the emergency phase after the crisis, are confronted with local urban methods and the different actors who are present: local civil society, local and national institutions, aid agencies, and development and private organisations. They contribute to the recovery phases and some begin the reconstruction phase.

Despite being limited in duration and in terms of mandates, humanitarian action nevertheless has a strong impact on the post-crisis context. But the difficulties of using classic aid mechanisms have led the international community – operators, donors and decision-makers – to reconsider its way of doing things. Numerous debates and attempts to improve practices in urban environments are currently underway at the international level. This article looks at what we have learned so far.

 The links between the development of urbanization and the development of crises


“Urbanization has been a force that has changed
almost everything; ways of thinking and acting,
ways of using space, lifestyles, social and economic relations,
and consumption and production patterns." [1]


Last century, the majority of the world’s population was rural, notably the poorest people. The few big cities that existed – there were 16 cities with more than a million inhabitants in 1900 – were located in developed countries and were synonymous with prosperity. Since then, cities have continued to grow exponentially, in number and in size, and in a more or less controlled manner. Thus, since the 2000s, more than half the world’s population is urban and according to forecasts by UN-Habitat, more than 80% of the urban population will be living in countries in the global South in 2030. As well as being characterized by the concentration of powers, cities are also places where there is a density of activities: economic, employment and educational opportunities, societal and cultural dynamics, access to basic and medical services, etc. Embodying the promise of a better life for everyone, cities continue to attract people before the necessary infrastructure has been created to provide them with decent living conditions. This leads to urban contexts which are chaotic and dangerous, particularly in countries in the South where the majority of mega-cities (with more than ten million inhabitants) are concentrated. Between a third and a half of these city-dwellers live in informal urban areas (slums) [2].

Cities do not escape crises, and they can even start them. Without going into the history of sieges and urban disasters, or the wars currently taking place in cities (Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, etc.), it is clear that a number of factors can lead to disasters or conflicts: sudden or unexpected hazards, climate change, the proximity of the coast, resource depletion, the absence of technological control, the appropriation of land or resources, etc. According to a Disaster Emergency Committee report (Urban Disaster – lessons from Haiti) [3], between three and five urban disasters could take place in the next ten years. Different factors contribute to the fragility of cities and also to crisis management. Some of these are integral parts of certain cities – uncontrolled population density, lack of awareness amongst the population about risks, buildings which are not adapted to risks, weak institutions, lack of prevention legislation, at-risk geographical location, significant geological and climatic phenomena, etc. – ; others are linked to the crisis and the sudden insecurity in the city or nearby, with the displacement of victims to, from and within the city, who make the disorder created by the crisis itself worse and make managing assistance more complicated.

Thus, the scale of the impact of a crisis in a city is such that it not only determines the challenges of the emergency relief operation but also the challenges of the reconstruction.

[1] Extract from the Medellin Declaration, World Urban Forum, April 2014. Available at: http://wuf7.unhabitat.org/pdf/Declaration-Medellin_WUF7_Advisry%20Board_ENG.pdf

[2] ALNAP, “Meeting the Urban Challenge. Adapting humanitarian efforts to an urban world”, 2012.

[3] ALNAP, “Meeting the Urban Challenge. Adapting humanitarian efforts to an urban world”, 2012.