Today, more than half of the world’s displaced people live in urban areas and the average length of displacement is 25 years. The humanitarian sector must adapt to meet the challenges of an urbanizing world and the increasing role of cities as places of refuge and economic opportunity, as well as sites of heightened risk of crisis, marginalization and inequality.

One of the primary reasons that refugees are increasingly moving to cities is to find work. Ensuring that urban refugees can access viable economic opportunities is therefore a critical component of any urban humanitarian response strategy.

This report underlines the importance of programming that promotes economic wellbeing, with a particular focus on cash assistance, livelihoods support programming and highlights linkages between the two. It also shines a spotlight on the various opportunities and challenges that urban areas present for the achievement of long-term economic self-reliance for the most vulnerable city dwellers, while providing insight on how humanitarians may leverage the former and address the latter.

The findings and recommendations draw upon experience from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) cash assistance and livelihoods programming in urban areas in Lebanon and Jordan. The findings recognize that while cash assistance is a vital component of many first-phase humanitarian operations in urban areas, humanitarians should look further for ways to link cash assistance to sustainable livelihoods interventions in order to support longer term economic self-reliance of both the displaced and impacted host communities as displacement crises endure.

This report contributes to the continuing discussion around how to improve urban humanitarian response. The findings and recommendations are intended to build on the growing evidence base around best practice in urban humanitarian response. This report is not an evaluation, but rather a product to inform and influence operational practice and policies in ongoing and future urban responses.

Key Research Question

This report looks at IRC’s experiences in cash assistance and livelihoods programming in Lebanon and Jordan in the context of the Syrian regional response. It explores opportunities and challenges inherent to cash and livelihoods programming, identifying good practices and ways to integrate other relevant sectors in order to produce better outcomes for clients. Specifically, it addresses the following question:

How do humanitarians support sustainable livelihoods among crisis-affected populations comprised of people with varying skillsets, educational backgrounds, and needs as they reside in complex urban areas that already fail to address the needs of the most vulnerable?


The findings in this report highlight the complexity of urban humanitarian programming in the case of Lebanese and Jordanian cities. The recommendations suggest ways to overcome the challenges and leverage the opportunities in urban contexts in order to better support the economic self-reliance of programme participants and benefit the communities in which they reside.

The main findings are:

  1. Cash assistance and livelihoods programmes both play a central role in urban humanitarian response. They can be more effective when bundled, flexible, and creative, and when they strive to achieve multiple outcomes.
  2. Collaboration and trust-building with local, municipal, community-based, and private sector actors supports efficiency, sustainability and adapts programs to the local context.
  3. Livelihoods programming in urban areas has the potential to support social cohesion.
  4. Advocacy is an important programming tool, crucial for improving the regulatory environment and generating a narrative on livelihoods that increases space for engagement.


  1. Ensure that livelihoods programmes in urban areas consist of diverse approaches to achieving economic self-reliance. Cash-transfer programming, wherever possible, should therefore be used in tandem with livelihoods support for displaced and affected host populations. Livelihoods programming should be coordinated with and supportive of work being done to achieve outcomes besides just economic wellbeing.
  2. Partnership, collaboration, and trust-building with urban stakeholders is important in delivering effective livelihood programming in urban areas. Humanitarians responding to urban crises should pursue more collaboration with local stakeholders and focus on building positive working relationships with municipal structures.
  3. Cash assistance and livelihoods programs in urban areas should explicitly endeavour to promote social cohesion.
  4. Advocacy should be viewed as an integral programming tool in cash-transfer and livelihoods programs. It has the potential to significantly improve program outcomes. Advocacy needs to be carefully calibrated according to the specific context in order to maximise its effectiveness and avoid potentially backfiring.