As a contribution to the ongoing policy discussions on adapting humanitarian response to urban contexts, the US and UK governments hosted a side event at the Red Cross Red Crescent International Conference in Geneva, in December 2015.

The side event focused on the challenges of working in towns and cities directly affected by conflict – urban areas under siege or on the frontline. To date, this specific urban context has received less attention from policy makers and practitioners than urban refugee situations, natural disasters in towns and cities or urban violence. However, a number of institutions have been working in conflict-affected cities for many decades, and have begun to share their learning. The US and UK were able to bring together representatives from three of these organisations to present at the Red Cross conference. The event was moderated by Lucy Earle, who is seconded in to the IRC from DFID, as part of the Urban Crises Learning and Advocacy Partnership.

Groupe URD have undertaken work in a number of war-torn cities, including Sarajevo, Kabul and Mogadishu. They have synthesised this learning in a series of publications in English and French, available here. François Grünewald, Groupe URD’s director, opened the Side Event noting that cities and war have long been closely linked, but that demographic, political and economic changes mean that urban warfare is becoming more prevalent. He outlined the challenges humanitarian actors face in delivering assistance safely in situations of urban warfare, given the use of snipers and heavy artillery in densely populated areas. The way modern urban warfare has developed often results in breaches of IHL, where civilians are placed in considerable danger. This underlines the importance of respect for IHL in the conduct of military operations in urban areas. Although conflict creates specific risks for civilians and humanitarian responders, François’ recommendations for appropriate programme design have much in common with those promoted for other types of urban crises. In this regard, he drew attention to the issue of scale and the tendency of humanitarian actors to operate within a microenvironment, that does not take in to account the wider urban contexts, its networks and systems.

More detail on the issue of city scale was given by the ICRC – an organisation with more than three decades of learning to impart from responding in urban areas affected by protracted conflict. The Water and Habitat Unit have recently released a report entitled ‘Urban services during protracted armed conflict: A call for a better approach to assisting affected people’.

The head of the department, Jean-Philippe Dross, highlighted the interconnectedness of urban systems and the extension of ‘urban’ beyond the city. Infrastructure for certain services, notably energy and water, often lie outside the city limits. He also drew attention to the long-term impacts of urban warfare on critical infrastructure which can lead to an irreversible decline in urban services, putting populations’ health and well-being at significant risk, and contributing to displacement. He noted that humanitarian actors tend to focus on the direct impacts of conflict, and that, limited by short timeframes and funding streams, they are unable to deal with the indirect impacts of war on urban services. Relief efforts in urban areas often fall far short of need, and a new paradigm is required to respond to the scale, complexity and duration of armed conflict in urban areas.

The final speaker, Szilard Fricska, is currently head of UN-Habitat’s office in Syria and is based in Damascus. Acting as discussant, he drew attention to the need for context analysis that goes beyond mappings of services and infrastructure, to also incorporate analysis of political and war economies. Giving an example from Homs, Szilard demonstrated how it is only by overlaying these different lenses on the city that humanitarians can have an understanding of needs, and be able to deliver assistance safely and appropriately. As Szilard pointed out in the Q and A session, cities are complex systems, but they are not random. They are organised around particular elements. What is needed is a methodology to ensure that humanitarian interventions are guided by appropriate contextual analysis. UN-Habitat’s experience from Syria would suggest that area and systems-based approaches can provide a framework to guide programme design and implementation. More detail on area-based approaches can be found here.

While there is limited evidence to date of how these approaches function in urban crisis situations, they could help to address the issues of scale and complexity that are so characteristic of urban environments. The more developmental approach promoted by area and systems-based analysis tallies with ICRC and Groupe URD’s calls for interventions that are commensurate with the scale of the city, the duration of conflict, and its long-lasting direct and indirect impacts.