Finding space for dialogue when urban crises hit

In towns and cities, making connections with different groups on the ground in the early stages of a crisis can strengthen the humanitarian response, reports Teresa Corcoran from Habitat III.

News, 26 October 2016
The influx of migrants and refugees onto the island of Lesbos was met with an influx of responders from various sectors who often did not effectively collaborate early on in the response (Tyler Jump/International Rescue Committee)

The influx of migrants and refugees onto the island of Lesbos was met with an influx of responders from various sectors who often did not effectively collaborate early on in the response (Tyler Jump/International Rescue Committee)

Hello. How are you? It's a simple question. And yet one that can establish vital connections between different actors responding to a humanitarian crisis in the same crowded space.

An event hosted by IIED and partners at Habitat III, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development held every 20 years, explored how to strengthen crises response in urban areas. Participants heard how humanitarian agencies fail to engage with local actors in the early stages of the response and miss opportunities to access valuable information and assistance.


"These agencies often land in a city hit by a crisis, see the problem and begin to address it – without first getting to know the different groups in the city familiar with the affected area. Establishing the initial dialogue, asking 'hello, how are you?', is something we humanitarians need to get better at," said Samer Saliba, urban response learning manager at the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

Overlooking local knowledge

Local municipalities, disaster management agencies, NGOs, civil society and individuals can guide humanitarian agencies on how to make best use of existing local services and resources.  

But humanitarian agencies often arrive with preconceived ideas of what an appropriate response would be, seek to support through their own familiar channels – and cut out local actors and individuals in the process.

"It is these local groups who really know the city, who know what it was like before the crisis. They know about existing systems and which services can be quickly deployed to support the response. They can also provide invaluable assistance themselves," continued Saliba.

At one stage during the refugee crisis on the Greek island of Lesbos only 30 of the 81 NGOs were registered with local authorities. The failure of humanitarian actors to coordinate with local agencies added to the confusion as the authorities struggled to deal with the crisis. This created tensions with the municipality and mistrust among locals

Urban crises: the new norm

As the world's urban population continues to grow, so towns and cities are increasingly sites for humanitarian crises such as conflict, natural disasters, forced displacement and outbreaks of disease. But, as the event heard, humanitarian agencies are often more accustomed to operating in sparsely populated, rural areas than dense urban sprawls. 

The Global Alliance for Urban Crises was set up to help humanitarian interventions adapt to an increasingly urban world and drive cohesion between different stakeholders that do not systematically work together.

The network extends beyond what are traditionally considered humanitarian responders to include development agencies, urban practitioners (such as architects, planners and engineers), local authorities, NGOs, civil society and community representatives.

Translating lessons into action

IIED, as a member of the alliance, is contributing to its aims through the Urban Crises Learning Fund. This is supporting research and documentation on how humanitarian agencies can and could work with different actors during crises response in cities around the world.

Often carried out by local actors – such as government agencies or NGOS – this work identifies what's working and what's not based on these experiences, and extracts lessons that feed into local action on the ground. 

As part of this learning process it is important to distinguish between lessons identified and lessons learnt, as Diane Archer, a senior researcher in IIED's Human Settlements research group, explained: "One of the key points coming out of our research into past humanitarian interventions is that a lesson may be identified but it's not a lesson learnt until there is change in the behaviour on the ground.

"Working with the alliance, we are focusing on how to foster that change, and for the various stakeholders in the humanitarian response to actually apply the lessons that have been identified."

In the context of Habitat III, Archer explained how the alliance's approach of driving collaboration between different stakeholders – who do not typically work together – can support the vision of the 'New Urban Agenda', the global roadmap to guide urban policy and planning for the next 20 years.  

"As the world's population shifts increasingly to towns and cities, the humanitarian community recognises it needs to take a new approach when tackling crises in urban settings by working more collaboratively with a wider group of stakeholders," Archer said.

"If managed well, crises responses can support the resilience and sustainable growth of urban areas by strengthening city systems such as local markets, rather than displacing or duplicating them.

"Reflecting on past and current humanitarian interventions, documenting emerging lessons and feeding these into actions on the ground is one way the learning fund is helping to contribute to more effective humanitarian response for all urban residents, and in a way that is inclusive and sustainable."

Teresa Corcoran ( is content officer in IIED's Communications Group.