Humanitarian response is getting a major urban overhaul

The sector’s key handbook is being revised to offer guidance on what actions aid agencies and others should take in cities.
Locals receive food supplies during a relief operation by the International Committee of the Red Cross amid armed conflict in the Luntukulu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, December 2016. (Julie Schneider/ICRC/cc)

How does humanitarian action in urban areas ensure quality and accountability? A key part of the answer lies in what’s known as the Sphere Project and its handbook — tools that are little known outside of humanitarian circles but which guide post-disaster and crisis response by governments, NGOs, the military, the United Nations and more.

Now, the Sphere Handbook is getting a first-ever urban overhaul. First produced in 1997, the handbook is undergoing a revision process to give guidance on the core actions humanitarian actors need to take when responding to crises in towns and cities. Significantly, these changes will recognize the reality that an increasing part of humanitarian response is happening in urban areas.

The revision is prompted by the increasingly urban nature of crises around the world. But it also reflects important technical advances and learning made in recent years, especially in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Since the handbook’s last revision, in 2010, several trends have emerged, different ways of thinking about towns and cities have received growing attention, and new frameworks have taken the place of previous ones.

[See: U. N. increasingly looking to its urban agency on crisis response]

Perhaps one of the most important examples of these new lines of thinking is the increasing use of cash-based assistance in urban settings where, for instance, markets are functioning and accessible. This has meant a major shift away from providing relief items, such as food and shelter, to giving cash to people to decide on their own priorities — rather than having aid agencies decide for them.

Resilience as preparedness

A discussion around global standards in humanitarian response is timely, having last week wrapped up a global summit on disaster risk reduction in Cancún, Mexico. There, pathways to safer, more resilient cities and countries were a hot topic.

“The Sphere revision is prompted by the increasingly urban nature of crises around the world. But it also reflects important technical advances and learning made in recent years, especially in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.”

Indeed, all of this coincides with a significant strengthening of the humanitarian sector’s emphasis on resilience and its application to the built environment. That includes around preparedness, adaptation and recovery activities, and the ways in which resilience can link development and humanitarian programming.

[See: Summit aims to ‘substantially increase’ local strategies on disaster risk]

Broadly, this is an attempt to move away from one-off humanitarian interventions and toward reducing aid dependency in situations of recurring disasters, such as floods. Under this approach, a resilient city is one that uses humanitarian aid as investment in future preparedness by developing municipal plans to manage large influxes of people, preparing for the impact of climate change and reducing disaster risks — for example, by creating evacuation plans or enforcing building codes in case of earthquakes.

Thinking about cities also has been impacted by global agreements struck over the past two years, which are likely to have a major impact on how humanitarian organizations go about their work. These include the New Urban Agenda, adopted last year; the 2015 Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction that was the focus of last week’s Cancún meeting; as well as the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals, which has as one of its aims Goal 11, seeking to “Make cities and human settlement inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Many are now hoping that these global accords will help improve the level of crisis preparedness and capacity for response in urban areas.

Another key evolution in the humanitarian community is a movement toward “systems thinking”. This means means moving away from sector-focused programming to a more integrated approach to humanitarian response. Systems thinking also has increased the humanitarian community’s capacity for understanding urban complexity and the links between basic services such as water, sanitation, electricity, health care and education at the local, municipal and national levels.

[See: More than half the world’s refugees live in urban areas. Here’s what that means for cities.]

In a disaster setting, for example, systems thinking would help with shelter needs by making agencies and others think more broadly about related issues — land ownership, rental markets, involving landlords and materials supply chains. This approach would also prompts these groups to think about taking opportunities to catalyze the local labour market, for instance in training skilled masons, carpenters and plumbers.

Protracted crises and urban displacement also are changing the humanitarian landscape by seeing cities accommodate large influxes of people. This has required increasing investment to ensure access to basic services including housing stock, health care, education, water and sanitation, electricity and more.

Urban standards

Certainly such strategies and evolving thinking have direct implications for the Sphere Handbook, which is consulted by any and all groups responding to crises created by natural hazards and conflict — humanitarian NGOs, the United Nations, military, government authorities, businesses and volunteers, among others.

“A resilient city is one that uses humanitarian aid as investment in future preparedness by developing municipal plans to manage large influxes of people.”

Humanitarian groups use the Sphere Handbook as a means of identifying a set of minimum standards that guide humanitarian action, including by outlining the rights and obligations at play in humanitarian response. These minimum standards are designed to ensure certain conditions are achieved in order for crisis-affected populations to recover with dignity.

[See: Providing shelter in urban Iraq: Where the displaced meet the poor]

Examples of where the Sphere standards have been applied are wide-ranging and global. They include recent crises that have made international headlines such as the 2015 Nepal earthquakes and the Syrian refugee responses in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and elsewhere.

For example, when cities in Syria were bombed, major water lines were damaged. As a result, water no longer arrived at homes — or if it did, it was contaminated with bacteria. Sphere standards were used by agencies to implement programmes including water distribution and chlorination to ensure that the quantity and quality of water that was acceptable for the population living in these urban settings.

The complexity of responding to these urban crises is what is driving much of the thinking around the current handbook revision. Cities host over half of the world’s population, generate 80 percent of global gross domestic product and are responsible for 70 percent of global energy consumption. They are diverse, dense and complex; they run on cash and commerce; and they are host to innovation and specialized skill sets, to markets and technology.

When a disaster strikes a city, all of these factors can be an opportunity for humanitarian aid as much as a challenge. The Sphere Handbook revision will now apprise users of both.

[See: Sustaining peace in an urban world]

Let’s look at some of the main urban issues and precepts that future users can expect to see as the Sphere Handbook urbanizes. Practitioners are target audiences of the handbook, so organizers work to ensure that all guidance is tangible rather than conceptual. Here are some of the broad ways in which the handbook will be urbanized:

  • Urbanizing the handbook means embracing the city and its opportunities by buying things locally, engaging with markets, employing local traders.
  • The urban context will be reflected through activities that consider working with high-rise buildings, density, markets and shops, cash, commerce, traders, roads, public space and more.
  • Cash-based programming, as described above, will be featured as a core modality for urban and other contexts in which markets are operational during a crisis. The current advice from a panel on this issue recommends that agencies justify why they are not using cash in situations where markets work. Cash is used increasingly for rental support and to facilitate self-built reconstruction, especially in urban areas.
  • Sphere standards are universal and need to be contextualized. Sometimes this means the key actions and indicators may need to adjust the amounts or quantities to address need. This is especially true for actions and indicators around services and utilities.

[See: Could special economic zones be a win-win for refugees and host countries alike?]

And here are a few precepts that the handbook will offer for work in urban areas:

“Another significant change is the need to work through municipalities. That evolution is taking place as agencies shift to a role of facilitators who work to ensure local systems are rebuilt and strengthened, instead of acting as service providers.”

  • Engage with existing basic services by working with what exists. For instance, facilitate the improvement of health services, provision of water and sanitation, and removal of waste. Humanitarian agencies should not set up parallel systems when government or private systems already exist.
  • Always work with local actors, including local governments, local businesses and traders, urban planners, designers and other built-environment professionals.
  • Be aware of land tenure and how it impacts sector and project activities.
  • Think about using area-based (or settlement- or neighbourhood-based) approaches in order to promote multi-sectoral responses in geographical areas instead of “siloed” interventions. At their core, area-based approaches are about collaborating around a common purpose, not just coordinating activities.
  • Design humanitarian programmes that reflect urban plans and policies. Where these do not exist, influence new city plans and policies to be inclusive, sustainable and focused on disaster resilience.

[See: The U. N.’s urban agency is seeing record demand — even as its funding plummets]

  • Think about the types of social and economic activities taking place on roads and public spaces, and how certain actions can better enable those activities.
  • Remember that “community” is not homogenous and that chronic poverty adds to the complexity of addressing urban needs.

Prioritizing local systems

Together, these points constitute a major new direction in which humanitarian action is evolving. Perhaps the most significant change to urban humanitarian action is the drive to use cash as a first response (where markets work), in order allow recipients to make choices based on their own priorities and needs.

Another significant change is the need to work through municipalities. That evolution is taking place as agencies shift to a role of facilitators who work to ensure local systems are rebuilt and strengthened, instead of acting as service providers — as they often do in rural areas where basic services do not exist.

The final Sphere Handbook will be ready for launch next year. Institutions, networks or communities of practice interested in holding a consultation are welcome to do so by liaising with Pamela Sitko at urban@sphereproject.org.

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Pamela Sitko

Pamela Sitko is an Urban Technical Advisor for Disaster Management at World Vision International. She is based in Sydney, Australia.