Habitat III process paying ‘insufficient’ attention to resilience and urban crises

New Urban Agenda is key opportunity to bridge longstanding divide between development and humanitarian aims, advocates tell Urban Thinkers Campus participants.

A resident of Tacloban City, in the Philippines, surveys the damage from Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, December 2013. (Evan Schneider/UN Photo)

The idea of resilience could offer a key way to bridge a longstanding divide between the aims, methods and strategies of the global development and humanitarian communities, advocates and practitioners say — particularly in the urban context.

Resilience is a growing field in urban development that focuses on preparing for natural, economic, and social shocks to urban systems. The concept offers a place for “both the humanitarian space and development actors to develop and grow. Every day both are responding, but they need to respond and help cities to grow,” said Samer Saliba, Urban Crisis Response Learning Manager at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), told an online forum on the issue this week.

“There is a need for joint thinking linking these two, and the framework of resilience-building may help us do just that,” he said.

Saliba was speaking during a thematic stakeholder event taking place ahead of this year’s Habitat III conference on cities. The event, an initiative of the World Urban Campaign, was one of more than two-dozen such global forums aimed at gathering input for the drafting of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III. The campus was led by IRC and World Vision, and hosted by the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP), a London-based group.

[See here for all of Citiscope’s reporting on the Urban Thinkers Campuses]

The discussion drew participants from more than 116 cities in 61 countries, organizers said. As with each of the other Urban Thinkers Campuses that have taken place over the past half-year, these discussions aimed to come up with specific recommendations for the New Urban Agenda.

“For many reasons, city and international partners can’t move forward from humanitarian response to resilience-building fast enough,” Saliba said. “Crises offer opportunities to move cities from point A to point B — but that should be about the betterment of inhabitants’ lives, not [maintaining] the status quo.”

This year may offer a unique opportunity to move this conversation forward, potentially even solidifying new guidance. In May, just five months before Habitat III, Istanbul will host the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, an initiative of U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon aimed at agreeing on landmark reforms regarding how the global humanitarian sector functions. That event is also supposed to see the formal announcement of the Global Alliance for Urban Crises, a multistakeholder coalition that aims to broaden discussion and action on this issue.

[See: Global Alliance for Urban Crises nearing launch]

Together, supporters say, these two summits and their years-long preparations offer a potent opportunity to bring city officials and urban planners together with development practitioners and humanitarian agencies with the aim of working — even collaborating — toward shared goals.


For decades, this has not been the case, for multiple reasons. Humanitarian workers are frequently faced with situations that call for immediate response to pressing individual need. Yet whether those responses are helpful — or even, at times, harmful — to a community’s longer-term ability to get back on its feet varies significantly.

“This notion that the world is urbanizing is absent from the humanitarian community. Most stakeholders are urban stakeholders, but the humanitarian community has not been fully acknowledging this new reality, as well as that crises are urbanizing … we need to articulate clearly that this is the new normal.”

Filiep Decorte
Technical adviser, UN-Habitat

Similarly, funding cycles for post-disaster or wartime responses are typically far shorter-term than would be required for an integrated approach to building up a community’s resilience — that, after all, has long been the purview of development groups.

[See: Learning the language of cities in crisis]

But some say a change is already well underway in how many groups are approaching these similar but differing sets of needs and considerations. At the Urban Thinkers Campus, participants were presented with case studies from Somalia and Armenia that blurred the lines between humanitarian and development responses.

In Mogadishu, for instance, the IRC’s work has been faced with staggering post-war needs, including some 370,000 displaced people out of an urban population of little over two million. Yet an IRC worker said the group has aimed to incorporate the idea of “sustainable resilience” in its work in the city.

“Our strategy is focused on employment creation, the delivery of basic services and emergency demands in the city,” said Abdiaziz B. Yusuf, a livelihoods coordinator for IRC Somalia. “We know that strengthening markets, understanding value chains and value addition is primary in bettering people’s lives. We also know that youths in the city have not had enough opportunities, so we’re looking at improving fishing and scaling up [other employment] opportunities for youths.”

These are typically the realms of development groups, of course. But supporters of a rethink, particularly in the urban space, say this type of broadening of horizons and fuzzing of dividing lines is critical.

“Are we talking about IRC as a humanitarian or development actor?” Filiep Decorte, a technical adviser with UN-Habitat, asked during the Urban Thinkers Campus. “I’d say that difference isn’t important. This is about using the right tools to respond to a situation, while moving away from delivering aid … to ending need.”

Urbanizing crises

The key now, supporters say, is to broaden this recognition from individual groups and agencies to these sectors as a whole. That is where the World Humanitarian Summit and Habitat III can play a part.

Thus far, however, this opportunity hasn’t been adequately addressed by either side, according to those closely following the Habitat III and World Humanitarian Summit processes.

“This discussion on resilience and urban crises and the humanitarian-development divide has not taken place in the Habitat III process so far,” Decorte said. “The New Urban Agenda has been paying insufficient attention to this so far. We’ve been making the core argument that more and more cities are in crisis or at risk, and that it’s very important to allow them to come back onto the development trajectory.”

[See: Habitat III can help migration drive city development]

Yet Decorte also noted that humanitarian workers have yet to fully recognize the new reality that more and more of their own work is taking place in cities — where often, critical city systems need just as much attention as individuals and their families in the aftermath of a disaster.

“This notion that the world is urbanizing is absent from the humanitarian community,” he said. “Most stakeholders are urban stakeholders, but the humanitarian community has not been fully acknowledging this new reality, as well as that crises are urbanizing … we need to articulate clearly that this is the new normal.”

Meanwhile, global crises are becoming increasingly protracted, dragging on for years and thus setting up situations in which both people and their environments need longer-term assistance — and humanitarian response is struggling to keep up. It’s also important to recognize how the world’s urbanization is taking place — the fact that most of it is unplanned and in fragile settings has led directly to fast-rising urban risks.

“Yet the development side of the debate not paying enough attention to that fact,” Decorte said. “Strangely, on the humanitarian side of this global debate, this realization has struck home very clearly in the last year.”

Looking forward

What can be done to bridge this gap? For now, the Urban Thinkers Campus has come up with a series of draft recommendations for the New Urban Agenda, aiming to consolidate parallel action at the World Humanitarian Summit in May. The following draft recommendations are currently open for public comment through 18 February. More information is available here.

Resilient Cities:

Bridging the humanitarian and development divide

The planning and building of resilient cities should be:

1. Holistic and Sustainable

Ensure that cities are able to holistically prepare for, withstand, and recover from economic, environmental, and social disruptions. Actors should strive for cities that operate on resilient systems1; that is, systems (financial, governmental, infrastructural, ecological, societal, etc.) that are reflective, robust, redundant, integrated, inclusive, resourceful, and flexible. Once holistic strategies are identified, ensure that resiliency strategies are sustainable in the long-term and that resiliency building is recognized as part of sustainable development and that the process is. Resilience should be a driver of sustainable development as well as a quality of it.

2. Achievable and Leave No City Behind

Ensure that all cities – especially those experiencing protracted humanitarian crises - have the tools to assess their risks and vulnerabilities and the appropriate frameworks required to develop resiliency strategies that draw upon input from multiple stakeholder groups, regardless of resources or capacity. Resiliency strategies, especially those for cities in crisis should build interventions on existing urban service delivery systems, people’s own recovery mechanisms, and the strength of the urban economy.

3. Opportunistic and responsive

As urban crisis response is arguably the best time build urban resilience, ensure that responses – be it to emergencies or protracted crises - seek to both reduce the risk of future crises and improve upon the pre-crisis condition. Align immediate life-saving and protection priorities, reducing the number of individuals, families and neighbourhoods in need of humanitarian assistance as soon as possible, while addressing climate adaptation, and putting cities and towns on a more sustainable, inclusive and resilient post-crisis urban development track.

4. Localized, Participatory, and Grassroots

Ensure that resilience building is lead by local stakeholders and communities, with support from both humanitarian and development actors. Ensure that resiliency strategies are tailored to the local context, feasibly implemented by local stakeholders, and representative of the city’s diversity. Ensure that identifying and implementing resiliency strategies is a participatory process that relies on the involvement of the communities they serve. Support localized social resilience to enhance the ability of individuals, households, neighbourhoods/communities and organizations to respond to shocks and stresses while restoring and strengthening urban systems that support them as quickly as possible. Resilience planning should include community engagement and awareness building, community-based needs assessments, and stakeholder and political economy mapping, among other urban planning practices.

5. Considerate of Urbanization and Urban Displacement

Ensure that resiliency strategies manage urbanization generally and urban displacement specifically as both a humanitarian, development and human right challenge and is taken as an opportunity to plan for more resilient urban growth, with socially inclusive communities (host/displaced) and local policies that promote the accommodation, if not the integration, of new urban residents.

6. Integrated and Collaborative

Ensure that resiliency strategies are informed by an integrated group of urban professionals, including those with humanitarian and development perspective, and draw from multiple humanitarian and development perspectives in order to achieve solutions appropriated to urban complexity. Foster collaboration between city, humanitarian, and development actors so that all are contributing to resilience-building. On a local level, ensure that resilience is a priority at multiple levels of governance and that resilience strategies address urban systems, individual communities or institutions, and urban-rural linkages both holistically and as separate parts.

7. Inclusive and Empowering for All

Ensure that urban resiliency planning includes and empowers the voices of displaced and marginalized populations. Give special consideration to the participation of children, women, youth, and elderly populations while recognizing their unique risks and vulnerabilities and considering community-based protection mechanisms. Ensure that resilience building leads to healthy, safe, educated, financially secure, and empowered vulnerable urban residents, both individually and on a community-level. Ensure that resilience strategies leave no one behind and promote the right to the city for marginalized populations, including the forcibly displaced and those disproportionately affected by conflict or violence. Special considerations should be given to address discrimination based on faith, social status, ethnicity, gender, and legal standing.

8. Spatially Relevant

Given the spatial dimension of vulnerability and access to services in cities, ensure that actors employ strategies that strengthen spatial resiliency, such as area-based approaches, neighbourhood improvements, or engineering interventions. Give special consideration to the improved coordination of resilience-building actors and operating across spatial jurisdictions. Ensure that resilience strategies address the spatial implications of conflict, violence, and marginalization by striving for de-escalation, social cohesion, and stronger legal standing for those living in areas that may be considered spatially separate, especially by ensuring that the systems serving those areas remain functional before, during, and after crises and that the marginalized have legal access to those systems.

9. Linked to Urban Economics

Ensure that resiliency strategies prioritize market-based responses, striving to achieve sustainable livelihoods and the support of local economic development while engaging the private sector to enact those strategies. Ensuring the right to work and access to income earning opportunities, especially for the most marginalized and vulnerable communities, builds market resilience and supports the resiliency of other systems as well. For emergencies, consider cash-based programming as a viable method of meeting immediate needs while strengthening market resilience in the long term.

10. About Betterment

Ensure that resilience building does not only seek to maintain the status-quo, particularly for the most vulnerable, but that it instead achieves a higher overall quality of life, improved access to livelihoods and economic gains, stronger institutions, and the betterment of the city. Resilience is about more than surviving, it’s about thriving.

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