Global Alliance for Urban Crises nearing launch

By tapping Habitat III process, initiative aims for collaboration between humanitarian groups, local authorities and city planners to broaden post-disaster urban response.

Humanitarian workers remove rubble in Port-au-Prince following the 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti. Four years later, nearly three-quarters of those affected by the disaster said they still considered themselves displaced. (Marco Dormino/UN Photo)

Major humanitarian and cities groups are coming together to create a new alliance that will attempt to overhaul how the international community and local authorities prepare for and respond to urban crises.

The Global Alliance for Urban Crises is seeking to bring together city leaders, urban professionals, the development community and the private sector in order to significantly broaden the strategies that have long typified humanitarian response in urban areas in the aftermath of natural disasters and other crises. Organizers are planning to use the confluence of two major summits next year to jumpstart the initiative: the World Humanitarian Summit, which takes place in May, and the Habitat III conference on urbanization in October.

Experts say such expanded collaboration has long been needed but that it will become increasingly important in coming years. Post-disaster humanitarian response typically has been forced to focus on fulfilling immediate needs around housing, food and safety. But there is growing concern that, particularly in urban areas, it is city systems themselves that require care and attention. Failure to do so — or, worse, imposing interventions that are inadvertently destructive to those systems — sets up the likelihood of additional crises in the future.

[See: Learning the language of cities in crisis]

The first step, then, is to get a wide group talking about ways to collaborate on both planning and response. That’s where the new initiative comes in.

“The process leading up to the alliance’s creation has made meaningful attempts to draw in a wider network of city actors, including local government, academics, development actors and urban planners, which have not previously been connected in this way,” said Leah Campbell, a research officer with the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP), a London-based group that is involved in the project.

While an understanding of the need for a more comprehensive approach to post-crisis urban response has been growing for years, the initiative has received particular impetus from the current global discussions on the rapid urbanization process expected to continue to ramp up in coming decades. This process, experts say, has brought with it an urbanization of emergencies around the world.

“If the alliance is able to succeed in bringing together a diverse group of actors to align their work on urban humanitarian response, and take substantive action to improve the evidence base, pilot new approaches, and broaden the dialogue,” Campbell said, “this will be an incredibly useful and needed process, given our rapidly urbanizing world.”

‘Fundamentally at odds’

On the one hand, responding effectively to crises in urban areas is becoming increasingly difficult given the interdependence of increasingly complex city systems. But on the other hand, those systems can offer a potent tool that, if they are designed well and resiliently in the first place, can play a major role in responding to the needs of citizens. That, after all, is what these systems are created to do.

“If the alliance is able to succeed in bringing together a diverse group of actors to align their work on urban humanitarian response, and take substantive action to improve the evidence base, pilot new approaches, and broaden the dialogue, this will be an incredibly useful and needed process, given our rapidly urbanizing world.”

Leah Campbell
Research officer, ALNAP

At the moment, however, most humanitarian response strategies are not set up to work in this way.

“At present humanitarian response is fundamentally at odds with the way that towns and cities are organized and the way that urban life plays out,” warned a report released this year by the Urban Expert Group, the body that is leading the work toward establishing the Global Alliance.

The current system “still struggles to institutionalize working with local market mechanisms, supporting local authorities or restoring/bolstering existing service delivery mechanisms,” the report states. “Opportunities are lost for wider and longer-lasting positive impact on urban life in the best of cases, while in the worst, responses may distort and damage informal or formal systems, particularly if humanitarians establish parallel service provision.”

A key recent case study in pushing this line of analysis has been the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. That event sparked massive displacement in the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince, forcing some 1.5 million people to live in temporary camps. While these numbers have since come down, four years later some three-quarters of those who had been displaced reported that they “continue to identify themselves as displaced,” according to a 2014 report from the International Organization for Migration and the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

The Haitian government never developed a comprehensive national strategy on long-term solutions to this displacement, the report finds, and the majority of international partners focused their attention solely on the housing needs of the displaced. Further, the study states, “Many of the humanitarian actors involved in interventions intended to respond to longer-term durable solutions concerns felt that they were intervening at the limits of their mandates.”

May unveiling

The Global Alliance for Urban Crises today is moving toward the end of an initial launch phase, with final consultations having wrapped up in mid-October. For the moment, organizers say, foundational documents have been accepted and discussions now are focusing on governance structure and initial priorities. Formal commitments are expected by early next year.

Thus far, five organizations have agreed to the idea in principle. These include humanitarian groups (ALNAP, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Rescue Committee), local authorities (United Cities and Local Governments) and urban planners (the International Society of City and Regional Planners). These founding organizations also include a multilateral agency, UN-Habitat, the lead U. N. agency on next year’s Habitat III conference.

The key motivator for the new rethink is the proximity of two major international summits taking place next year. In May, Istanbul will host the World Humanitarian Summit, a special initiative of U. N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon intended to reshape the humanitarian system and “keep humanitarian action fit for the future”. That event follows a two-year discussion process that has included a specific “urban track”, and initial reports suggest that it has brought in an unprecedented range of participation and critical engagement.

Five months later, in October 2016, Quito will host Habitat III, the U. N. cities summit. That effort will result in the New Urban Agenda, a 20-year global strategy on urbanization.

An explicit element of the Quito discussions will be to ensure that future urban planning takes into account new risk-mitigation mandates in line with the major global strategy on disaster risk reduction agreed upon in Sendai, Japan, this year. One of four key strategies in the Sendai framework is aimed at “Enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response and to ‘Build Back Better’ in recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction.”

[See: New disaster-risk framework seen as first step toward sustainability]

While the new Global Alliance for Urban Crises should be formally announced at the World Humanitarian Summit, the initiative’s outset is firmly couched in the Habitat III process. A report by the U. N. secretary-general from August states that the New Urban Agenda “should include recommendations on how to build urban resilience through risk-informed urban development and better alignment of humanitarian and development programming and financing.”

The report also notes that “Action in urban areas needs to recognize the complexity of cities, with improved urban expertise and capacities within organizations, while building on the capabilities, opportunities and potential new partnerships present in urban settings.”

Supporters of the initiative say they are planning to use the Habitat III process to push the Global Alliance from both the top and bottom. While they see the Quito conference as a key way to approach U. N. member states, they say they will also be engaging in the Global Assembly of Partners, the broad-based effort aimed at offering stakeholder input for the drafting of the New Urban Agenda.

Note: This article has been updated to note the authorship of the Urban Expert Group report.

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