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British Red Cross urban learning scoping study

Summary of report1

The British Red Cross has undertaken a scoping study to better understand the challenges posed by humanitarian action in urban areas, and how the Red Cross and partners might approach them more strategically. The findings are relevant to many others outside the Red Cross international division and partners (the primary target).

The study sets out what works in urban areas, what is relevant to British Red Cross ways of working and what is practical for staff.

It draws lessons from humanitarian programmes worldwide, but focuses principally on evidence from five British Red Cross operational contexts: Haiti (Portau- Prince), Uganda (Kampala and other cities), Djibouti ( Djibouti-ville), Mongolia (Ulaanbataar) and Nepal (Kathmandu).

It looks at the evolving nature of risk and vulnerability in urban areas relating to natural hazards, urban violence and conflict, markets and livelihoods, health and water, sanitation and hygiene, and shelter, land and the built environment.

The study’s observations include:

In urban areas people often have multiple livelihood strategies. The use of tools such as the British Red Cross’ household economic security (HES) approach, which involves identifying (geographical) livelihoods zones for analysis, assessment and targeting is particularly challenging in urban areas.

On assessments, the use of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ (the Federation’s) participatory approach for safe shelter awareness (PASSA) in Haiti was very successful, particularly in ensuring both a participatory and accountable approach.

The British Red Cross has built up experience in cash and livelihoods programmes in recent responses in China, Haiti, Pakistan and Bangladesh. However, there are particular challenges for cash transfer programmes in urban areas, especially in terms of identifying and targeting the most vulnerable, as, for example, seen in the British Red Cross’ economic security programme in the peri-urban slums of Djiboutiville.

The current situation inside Syria highlights the complexities of urban displacement and targeting, with people living with host families, in schools, public buildings, parks and mosques and often displaced more than once.

Investment in information management technology and capacity is often critical. In Haiti, for example, the Haiti Red Cross Society and the Federation, in partnership with telecommunications firm Trilogy International, are creating an interactive communication platform using SMS and interactive voice response technology to enhance accountability to affected communities.

Getting shelter solutions right is a very important element of humanitarian response and recovery, without which successes in other areas such as livelihoods and health will be more limited. Building on its leadership of the global shelter cluster in disaster situations, the Federation has done much to highlight the need for more sustainable approaches to shelter reconstruction in urban areas.

The related issue of land tenure is often critical in urban areas, and navigating legal and political systems is important in ensuring the success of an urban shelter programme. Land tenure issues were among the biggest challenges faced by the British Red Cross team in Haiti. Under the leadership of the Federation’s disaster law programme, Red Cross legal experts have been examining the legal barriers to shelter, the impact on vulnerable people and some potential solutions.

National disaster management authorities (NDMAs), have a particularly important role in urban disaster management and should be a key contact point.

A new, area-based method of coordination in urban settings (the integrated neighbourhood approach) is being discussed; this approach was taken by the British Red Cross in Haiti. A geographic approach linked to urban systems has challenges, e.g. where does humanitarian mandate end and that of development and government agencies begin. However, if well managed, such an approach provides a significant opportunity for a more joined-up response from government agencies (including civil defence, emergency services, line ministries and service providers), the private sector and civil society.

While agencies need to adapt to meet the challenge of humanitarian action in urban areas, urbanisation does not change everything. The fundamentals of good programmes, such as high quality contextual analysis and assessments, are common to both rural and urban areas. Yet, given the increasing scale of the humanitarian challenge in urban areas, there is a significant need for strategic planning and institutional adaptation.

The study highlights and elaborates five ways forward for the British Red Cross and partners:

  1. sharpening context analysis and assessments
  2. understanding cash and markets better
  3. engaging and communicating with complex communities
  4. adapting to the challenges of land and the built environment
  5. engaging with urban systems and partnering with local groups and institutions.

Three case studies are included in the report (the experience from Djibouti is summarised in Box 1).

Practical tools for humanitarian action in urban areas and a framework for internal and external lesson learning steered by the British Red Cross urban working group is included in the annexes.

Case study

Port au Prince, Haiti

Djibouti: supporting peri-urban livelihoods and markets

In December 2008, following extensive regional assessments, the Federation launched an appeal for the Horn of Africa to address pressing needs in the region’s drought-affected countries, whose plight was worsened by the impact of the global financial crisis and rising food prices. The appeal included Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, and was followed by a comprehensive plan of action drafted in June 2009. This plan encompassed a wide range of potential programmes including emergency food aid, health, water and sanitation and support for people’s livelihoods.

The British Red Cross and the American Red Cross together identified specific components of the plan that they could jointly fund. Both National Societies agreed to fund a programme by the Red Crescent Society of Djibouti designed to protect and support the livelihoods of vulnerable groups affected by the economic and food security crisis in the country. The programme focused on providing vulnerable families living in peri-urban areas of Djibouti with one off microfinance loans to initiate small, yet viable income-generating activities. This was intended to improve the overall economic security of households and to increase their resilience in the face of future stresses.

The programme focused on an expansive squatter community, known as Balbala, with a population of around 250,000-300,000 including people from the Afar, Bedja and Somali tribes, all of whom were extremely poor. This peri-urban area, near the capital, Djibouti City, had very little access to basic services such as health, education and water and sanitation.

The aim of the programme was to help a minimum of 1,000 households, focusing mainly on women. The women received one-off reimbursable loans to initiate viable income-generating activities according to their wishes and capacities. Women who had been unable to access official micro-credit services were encouraged to apply. The long-term aim was that women, and the affected communities more broadly, would use this opportunity to improve their creditworthiness and would gain entry to existing microcredit schemes to pursue their own livelihoods further after the British Red Cross-funded programme came to an end. The reimbursed funds would then be used to finance a series of community-based projects to provide benefits to the targeted communities as a whole.

To ensure that the micro-credit project was accepted by all stakeholders and was implemented in a way that complemented the work of other groups, a step-by-step approach was taken that sought to avoid doing any unintended harm to the beneficiary communities themselves or to the existing microcredit system that served them. The approach was piloted from January 2010 with the disbursement of 100 micro-loans. It was hoped this approach would both benefit the community and establish the Red Crescent Society of Djibouti with a good reputation for this type of programme.

The project saw important successes in terms of delivery and impact, with the project providing 946 micro-loans, with a repayment level of around 93 per cent. Women used the loans to increase their base of productive assets and every beneficiary has now become a member of the micro-loan provider, while lending groups have applied for new loans after repaying their first loan.

Yet the programme encountered two central challenges relating to its urban setting. The first challenge was the identification and targeting of beneficiaries. Targeting the poorest people in an area where the British Red Cross had never worked took some time and a good deal of community sensitisation. Available socio-economic data was unreliable. Targeting was further hampered by security and access problems. Due to the unplanned nature of the settlements, the slum areas were very difficult to navigate and households were often hard to locate. Self-targeting through community meetings was deemed the best option but this proved time-consuming and demanded the support of an in-country programme manager.

A related challenge was the need to better understand household economies and existing debt burdens. Many people in the project lived day to day, barely earning enough to cover basic survival. Taking on debt in hard times is a coping mechanism, and no livelihoods approach can succeed without taking this into account. This point, again, highlights the need to better understand urban markets and financial systems and how they are both formed by and shape the communities that engage in them.

Show footnotes

1Learning from the city. British Red Cross Urban Learning Project Scoping Study.

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Reference this page

British Red Cross urban learning scoping study. Field Exchange 46: Special focus on urban food security & nutrition, September 2013. p33.



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