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Cambridge Global Challenges


The reality of growing cities, with existing deficits in infrastructure and services leading to marginalised populations, means that accumulated risks can easily tip into crisis. This risk is multiplied if additional pressure comes from a sudden population influx or disaster. However, if the humanitarian sector is well prepared to respond in urban settings, and local actors are more aware of the potential offered by collaborative approaches with the humanitarian sector, this opens the door for more effective humanitarian response.

Crises of different types, from displacement to disasters, are now prevalent across the globe. At the same time, authorities from the city-level up are themselves confronted with challenges posed by crises, such as a sudden population influx. This includes the burden imposed on already-limited resources and infrastructure, potential social tensions between host and displaced communities, and the possibility of displacement crisis becoming protracted. In a disaster setting, the challenge becomes how to ensure services become operational again, and repairing damaged shelter and infrastructure, in a context where there may have been pre-existing deficiencies.

These challenges have to be taken into account by humanitarian agencies operating in urban settings, where there are many more stakeholders involved in a humanitarian response than a more ‘traditional’ camp setting.

Problems are particularly acute for displaced populations. In 2016, 60 per cent of refugees were living in urban areas. There remains a lack of clarity about where displaced populations are living in cities, and what they are doing to survive. In cities, refugees and internally displaced peoples (IDPs) face additional deprivations that are not faced by other low-income populations – in particular, there are concerns around their protection, and they may face legal and language barriers. They may also face challenges in ensuring their health and livelihoods – similar concerns that would face urban populations affected by a disaster.

So what can be done to help urban and humanitarian stakeholders (including local governments) increase their knowledge and technical capacity and better be able to meet the immediate needs of cities and urban residents affected by crises? How can crisis response in urban settings meet emergency needs, but also foster recovery and sustainable development, and strengthen preparedness for future events?

To address these questions, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) has funded the Urban Crises Initiative. This three-year project has researched the barriers to effective urban response and identified strategies and actions to improve effectiveness. The programme has been led by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Together, they have analysed historic responses and generated new knowledge to improve humanitarian effectiveness during urban crises, including disaster preparedness and response and forced displacement.

IIED, through its Urban Crises Learning Fund, has helped to generate new evidence and foster new ways of working in order to increase urban and humanitarian stakeholders’ knowledge, technical capacity, and commitment to working in partnership. The Urban Crises Learning Fund has supported research projects in more than 21 countries, involving academics, practitioners and local actors. Research has documented past responses, examined ongoing interventions, and highlighted challenges – but also identified practices and approaches that work in urban settings.

The synthesised results of this research project are presented in an extensive, engaging article which can be found on the IIED website. This covers items such as engaging local actors, managing cash and livelihoods in the wake of a crisis, and working within the paradigm of area-based responses.


To access the IIED's consolidated results report, please see the full source article here.

Cambridge Global Challenges is a Strategic Research Initiative of the University of Cambridge that aims to enhance the contribution of its research towards addressing global challenges and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

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