Our Perspectives


A new Global Alliance to 'think urban' in humanitarian response

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Downtown Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: UN Habitat

In this blog series leading up to the World Humanitarian Summit, UNDP experts and practitioners share their experiences and views on responding to conflict and disasters.

The humanitarian situation is changing. There are now more refugees and internally displaced persons than at any time since the end of the Second World War and 60 percent of these are in urban areas.  We need to ‘think urban’ when we design our responses to these increasing crises. 

Rapid and poorly planned urbanization is driving vulnerability in towns and cities around the world. Humanitarian emergencies are increasingly occurring in towns and cities. Responding to this reality requires new ways of working.

Major international humanitarian responses are often not closely tied to local municipal actors that understand their communities’ ongoing needs. Humanitarian work was not always designed to tackle the particular challenges of urban crises such as the ongoing settlement of Syrian refugees across Middle Eastern cities.

At UNDP, we’ve adapted the way we work within these contexts, as the UN lead on early recovery. Supporting municipal actors is one of UNDP’s key roles in crisis situations, and we have been supporting municipal governance actors in leading, managing, coordinating and delivering services to assist their populations within humanitarian settings in many countries from the Philippines, Nepal and Yemen to Iraq.

Between now and 2030, the world’s urban population is projected to grow by 1.5 billion people. More than 90 percent of that urban growth will occur in areas located in the developing world, mostly in Africa and Asia.

A significant proportion of this urban expansion will occur in fragile contexts, plagued with recurrent violence and conflict. Therefore, humanitarian and development organizations now need to ensure they work in coordination with local actors including local governments, the private sector and civil society.

UNDP was one of the first of the now 65 organizations to join the Global Alliance on Urban Crises that was launched during the World Humanitarian Summit. The launch of the Alliance was chaired by Kadir Topbas, Istanbul mayor and president of United Cities and Local Governments, and Joan Clos, under-secretary general of UN Habitat. It brought together mayors from affected cities, representatives from NGOs, DFID and the media to discuss the principle of ‘leave no city behind’.

The Alliance, chaired by UN Habitat and IRC, brings together different actors, including humanitarian agencies, development agencies, urban professionals such as planners, architects and engineers, and local authority networks in an innovative partnership that will render urban humanitarian responses more appropriate, effective and sustainable. 

Displaced persons and refuges in an urban context are more dispersed, mobile and less visible. There is a wider range of shelter options within cities, and appropriate housing solutions should be explored rather than camps being the default options. The livelihood options needed in an urban context need different skill sets and legal requirements.

UNDP promotes a long-term systems approach to urban crises that addresses inequalities (governance, society and infrastructure). The aim is to integrate the displaced into the host community, moving from delivering aid to ending need. We help communities and local authorities build institutions and capacity so they can deliver social services in an equitable manner to the displaced and the host population.

UNDP, as part of the Global Alliance, prioritizes local leadership in urban crises and is working on setting up practical tools and resources for municipal actors. The Alliance will also call for preparedness and response to urban humanitarian crisis to be reflected in the New Urban Agenda, to be agreed at the 2016 United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in October.

Urban space is both a risk for conflict and an opportunity for conflict prevention and resolution, building and sustaining peace and social cohesion. With good planning and closer co-operation, we can do more to help people in need and make our cities and communities more secure and more resilient. 

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