Building the evidence-base on Humanitarian Action in an Urbanising World

Author: Dr Lucy Earle, Urban Adviser, DFID Humanitarian Policy and Partnerships Group

Rapid urban growth in developing countries and its intersection with the effects of climate change is exposing populations of towns and cities to increased risk. In a number of contexts, forced displacement into urban centres is further compounding the vulnerabilities of hosts and displaced populations alike. Interventions to reduce risk and to respond to humanitarian crises will need to be increasingly concentrated in urban areas. Two DFID programmes have been developing evidence and tools to support humanitarian action in our urbanising world.   Much of the research will be published over the coming months, but many briefing and research papers are already available here: and here:

Very little is known about the nature and scale of risk in sub-Saharan Africa’s urban centres. This matters, because Africa’s towns and cities will undergo significant increases in population over the coming decades. While some data on big disasters exists, everyday hazards (particularly those faced by residents of informal settlements) can also have a critical impact on livelihoods and well-being. These often go unrecorded, however. Further, information tends to be aggregated at national level, leaving local authorities with scarce information at the appropriate scale to work with. Reducing risk in urban areas will depend on the quality and capacity of local governments, but they currently lack the knowledge, budget and capacity to act effectively on risk reduction and prevention.

DFID, with the ESRC, is funding research led by King’s College London to build understanding of hazards and vulnerabilities in urban sub-Saharan Africa. The researchers are undertaking systematic analysis of how urbanisation, urban planning, governance and climate change are influencing risk. This means not just considering hazards and vulnerability but also the ‘multiple intervening processes through which hazards are created’, looking at economies, spatial form, societies and governance, all of which can create circumstances in which threats become disasters.

Aiming to break the break the cycle of risk, the Urban ARK research teams, working in 9 urban centres of different sizes in sub-Saharan Africa, have applied a ‘spectrum of methods’ to understand the ‘spectrum of risks’ present in towns and cities. See ARK briefing 7. This includes, for example, the extension of the DesInventar database (historical event mapping) in Ibadan and the adaptation of the Household Economy Approach to understand resilience in Niamey. Climate profiles are being developed for each city to encourage citizen engagement with local authorities. In data-scarce contexts, researchers are applying the ‘urban textures’ approach – GIS-based analysis of urban land-use.

A second DFID-funded urban programme, but one that takes a global perspective, is the Urban Crises Programme. Led by IRC and IIED, it has generated a wealth of evidence and tools to support a more appropriate response to urban populations affected by disasters and displacement crises. Based on the understanding that humanitarian response is anchored in historical experiences in rural areas, and often focused on camps, the programme has sought to provide guidance on how best to work with existing city systems and to engage with municipal actors, including local authorities. This is critical in displacement crises as well as disasters, as 60% of all refugees and at least 50% of IDPs are now living in urban areas.

Case studies document learning on working with local authorities, protection and cash in urban areas, and cover a range of urban contexts, including Tacloban, northern Syria, and Kampala. The project also supported a learning consortium that has produced a ground-breaking suite of tools that promote context analysis and vulnerability assessment that is appropriate for urban centres.

Together these two programmes are responding to a wave of interest in urban humanitarian crises and a demand for knowledge on both urban disaster preparedness and response.


IIED and IRC will be presenting the Programme’s findings in London, November 15-16. Last-minute places may be available. Please contact Diane Archer at IIED.

photo lucy earle

Lucy Earle is an urban adviser for DFID’s Humanitarian Policy and Partnerships Group. She is currently based at the Permanent Mission of the UK to the UN in New York and is seconded part-time to the International Rescue Committee where she has been implementing a joint IRC-DFID partnership on urban humanitarian crises since 2014. Lucy has a background in urban housing and governance and published a book with Palgrave Macmillan this year on the right to the city and housing movements in Sao Paulo, Brazil.



Further reading:

  • ‘Urban crises and the new urban agenda’ in Environment and Urbanization (2016) Vol 28 no 1
  • ‘Addressing urban crises: Bridging the humanitarian-development divide’ in International Review of the Red Cross (2016) vol 98 no 1