Urban blog series
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There’s a common folk tale that paints the picture of six blind men who come across an elephant for the first time. Each of the men approaches the elephant and blindly feels what is in front of him. One finds the trunk, another the tail, another the foot, another the ear and so on.
Afterwards, the men discuss the elephant: “An elephant is like a strong pillar” says the man who felt the leg. “What are you talking about?” asks the man who felt the tail, “the elephant is clearly like the brush we use to sweep the floors. It’s thin and hairy – not at all like a pillar”. The others chime in with their own experience, all certain the others must be mad, for they each felt the elephant with their own hands – they know what an elephant is, surely!
You don't need me to repeat the statistic (because everybody knows it) but I'm going to anyway: more than half the world's population now lives in urban areas. Behind that simple figure are a host of other complicating factors – for example, the absolute number of slum dwellers is growing, but relative numbers are falling. The basic message is loud and clear however: the future is urban.
Although the message might be clear, the humanitarian community doesn't always have a clear idea about how to respond; as ALNAP's own Urban Humanitarian Response Portal says, “urban disasters differ in important ways from rural disasters, and force the humanitarian community to rethink fundamental tools, approaches and assumptions.” Many organisations are not clear about what those differences are, though, and the community is struggling to work out what “rethink” means.
More than half of the world’s internally displaced people (IDPs) live outside of camps – many of these people have found refuge in existing urban communities alongside the urban poor, refugees and migrants. The majority of these are women and children, who often stay in makeshift shelters, are exposed to violence, and struggle to access basic services, education and employment, notably due to their lack of personal documentation.
More information about IDP numbers and needs in urban areas is not only necessary for the provision of effective response in an emergency, but is also essential for targeted support for durable solutions.
The average length of internal displacement is a staggering 17 years, and finding solutions to protracted displacement has become a major challenge for governments, and humanitarian and development actors alike, as a new comprehensive study by the Brookings Institution highlights.
The devastating war in Syria has seen more than 3 million people displaced to neighbouring countries (with millions more internally displaced inside Syrian borders). These refugees have predominantly ended up in towns and cities. The international community’s humanitarian response has therefore focused on these urban areas – with varying degrees of success.
Given the scale of this crisis and the resources needed to address urgent needs, it’s worth taking a moment to ask: could we be more effective if we were armed with better evidence to support our policies for urban displacement? What benefits, for example, might there be for host communities if refugees had freedom of movement and access to work? What if operational humanitarians on the ground responding to these challenges were able to engage more in the development of policy?
Drones may not have a very good reputation but they’re trying to clean up their image. As Amazon considers drone delivery, and Facebook initiates plans to provide internet connection in remote areas via drones, can humanitarians benefit from them too?
As humanitarians, we are often confronted with challenging problems that must be solved rapidly with limited resources. Thanks to new and emerging technologies coming to the rescue, the potential to save time and resources is at our fingertips. Studies have pointed to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or “drones” as having the ability to provide higher resolution and more targeted imagery of affected areas. The use of UAV-sourced imagery may be a solution to unlocking the potential power of crowdsourced damage assessments. These technologies hold huge potential.
For the first time in recent history, the Red Cross gathered local community members in Seoul, Republic of Korea to discuss how they felt about emerging technology and innovation when coping with disasters. Here they found a space for conversation in which they could share what tools on the techie horizon most scared and excited them. This meeting, which took place on August 13, is part of a multi-sector effort to evaluate the views of urban communities on the humanitarian application of emerging technologies, using a human-centered design process and other participatory approaches.
From teachers and disaster managers to students and small business owners, the participants opened up about how they use technology and their attitudes and perceptions about living in a connected world. Many expressed that technology had a role in a disaster management context and could be used to better understand hazards and vulnerabilities, improve analysis of risk and planning, and advocate with local and national government authorities. A few, experienced with response operations, wanted to see how specialized trainings in the use of technological tools could be practiced, e.g., using virtual reality in contingency planning exercises for urban disaster preparedness.
Humanitarians are increasingly recognising the challenges of responding to disasters in urban areas by hiring urban-focused staff, developing urban-tested tools and advocating for urban-specific policies within their own organisations and in the sector as a whole. Attention is shifting from ‘what makes urban different?’ to ‘what can we do about it?’ and ‘how can we improve what we know?’.