Why is humanitarian work so hard in cities?

January 21, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

By chance, the day before the Haiti earthquake, we were having a discussion at Oxfam about why, when it comes to feeding programmes, disaster relief etc urban work tends to be both harder and less attractive to NGOs than doing equivalent things in rural settings. This reflected an increasing conviction that we need to do more on urban issues. Although I’m no expert on Haiti, many of these issues have already emerged in the post-earthquake operation, so here goes.

Why does the prospect of working in urban settings make many NGO people very anxious indeed? In short, complexity and chaos.

1. Political complexity: there are many more players in urban settings. As one experienced aid

Where do you start?

Where do you start?

worker said, you can’t just go in and say ‘take me to the chief’. Even in post-earthquake Port au Prince, with many of the formal institutions in disarray, there will be all sorts of centres of power, both formal and informal: churches, gangs, community organizations etc. That places a premium on political awareness and negotiation skills, but also on understanding the longer term political implications of your relief work – what institutions will be strengthened or weakened by a particular approach to emergency relief? How do you manage the risk of local politicians trying to coopt and capitalise on your efforts for political advantage (as some will inevitably do)?

2. Fluidity. People in urban areas have more ways of surviving, often producing complex livelihoods strategies that see them busy at all hours of day and night. So much harder to organize partipatory processes – people find it harder to come to meetings etc. Plus they don’t stay put. When we tried to identify ‘beneficiaries’ in shanty towns after flooding in a previous Haitian disaster, the faces were different the next time we went back to hand out emergency relief. Everything from damage assessment to needs analysis becomes more difficult.

3. Social cohesion. Some shanty towns are less cohesive, making it much harder to work with communities that are atomised, crime ridden and lacking in trust.

A-Haitian-national-police-0184. Security: in those slums that have crime problems, security jacks up the costs of operations (and slows up their speed). We’re already seeing signs of that in Haiti.

5. Not so relevant in Port au Prince, given the virtual absence of a functioning state right now, but in general there’s a tendency to think ‘Urban is for governments’: governments, both national and local, tend to be more present in (some) shanty towns, making it less clear what role exists for NGOs and raising both opposition from old hippies averse to working with the state, and concerns about setting up parallel structures that can actually undermine state provision.

6. Scale: we don’t do big infrastructure, but cities involve just that. Improving a dilapidated urban water system serving hundreds of thousands of people is very different to drilling a new borehole.

7 Space: when land is at a premium, there may be nowhere to locate evacuation sites or build the latrines or reservoirs.

Conclusion? The urban world is messy; an NGO will have to work in complex alliances and relationships with other bodies, in which political as well as engineering skills will be essential. It will have to be more agile and flexible; less command-and-control. One guy at the discussion commented wryly that he’d been talking about ‘going urban’ in various NGOs since 1987, which as well as being rather depressing, suggests there are some real institutional barriers to overcome. It’s difficult, but in most of the world, it’s a big part of the future. The Haitian earthquake may be extreme, but there will be more urban disasters in the decades to come.