The Scope and Limits of Humanitarian Action in Urban Areas of the Global South

Our rapidly globalizing and urbanizing world presents a host of complex challenges for humanity and the living environment. These developments pose threats to, as well as opportunities for, ongoing and future humanitarian action. Rather than be limited by unprecedented changes in the global South, for example, where cities are growing at record rates, humanitarian action should, in the future, be at the forefront of new approaches to reimagining and redesigning just and sustainable human settlements.

As we approach the first World Humanitarian Summit, to be held in Istanbul in May 2016, the world urgently seeks an agenda for humanitarian action that will address the various vulnerabilities associated with urbanization. Nearly 50 per cent of the world’s population, or an estimated 3.5 billion people, already live in urban areas, with projections suggesting an increase to 70 per cent by 2050. With the majority of the fastest-growing cities located in the global South, the future of urban areas in an increasingly globalized economy and networked society assumes greater significance when we take into account the scale of vulnerabilities associated with natural phenomena and human-induced processes.

The future demands solutions to urban crises of unprecedented scale and impact, which are likely to pose formidable challenges for humanitarian organizations and developing communities, as well as urban planners and dwellers. How can we best address growing vulnerabilities within the continuum of disaster prevention and response based on current urban institutional, governance and structural mechanisms? What actions are likely to prevent the reoccurrence of urban disasters? Through which kinds of creative solutions, new social movements and political coalitions can we best confront and address emerging problems?

How can we apply lessons learned from dealing with recent natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, climate change-related flooding and droughts, which have contributed to worsening living conditions for large swaths of humanity in coastal cities across Africa, Asia, Oceania and South America?

While urbanization is one of the results of accelerated human mobility and the search for better opportunities, life in cities may be under threat from the effects of climate change, as well as poor governance and violence, which often arise following large-scale conflict. Since the end of the cold war, the world has experienced new forms of conflict involving State and non-State actors, targeting the most vulnerable civilian populations and turning cities into zones of refuge as well as zones of active warfare. Cities such as Bangui, Beirut, Goma, Maiduguri, Mogadishu, Mumbai, Nairobi and Tripoli have suffered some of the worst consequences of these “new” wars, including terrorist attacks in urban areas, while also hosting a steady stream of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) from war-ravaged hinterlands and neighbouring countries. The destruction and post-conflict reconstruction of cities, leading to displacement and massive waves of migration across borders, test the very limits of survival, resilience, creativity and humanity itself.

According to recent studies, over 35 million people were displaced by violent conflict within their countries in 2014, with similar numbers seeking refuge abroad. Many of the world’s refugees and IDPs remain in refugee and IDP camps in urban areas, some of which are already blighted by poor planning, overcrowding, and lack of social services, amenities and jobs. This is the situation in cities such as Baghdad, Damascus, Goma, Juba, Kinshasa and Maiduguri, among others.

Urbanization in the global South also contends with high levels of inequality, criminality, unemployment and poverty, leading to the marginalization of vast numbers of people and contributing to high levels of social disharmony and political instability. The scope of the challenge facing humanitarian action in the context of the growing urban crisis in the global South is immense. As noted in the report of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for the World Humanitarian Summit, entitled One Humanity: Shared Responsibility, “rapid unplanned urbanization combined with natural hazards, pandemics and aerial bombardments are placing even more people at risk”.1


The situation with regard to the ongoing urban crises in the global South can be characterized as “urbanization without development”. Breaking the current impasse with humanitarian action in that part of the world requires an understanding of decades of failed and misplaced urban development planning. The growth of cities has in many cases outpaced or overwhelmed planning capacities, leaving authorities unprepared to deal with exploding urban populations and placing urban dwellers at great risk in the face of mounting pressures and unpredictable disasters.

An agenda for change will require that humanitarian action be based on the recognition of the equal rights of citizens. Transcending the current urban crisis calls for new and innovative ideas, and bridging the gaps between the knowledge and practice of urbanization and equitable development. This will also involve working with urban planners at the municipal and national levels, as well as regional and global actors. A new foundation must be laid by mainstreaming urbanization into participatory national development planning.

Many have called for interdisciplinary and integrated approaches to pre-emptive plans designed to deal with natural and human-induced urban disasters and crises. Such measures would have to connect national efforts to a worldwide commitment to building socioeconomic bulwarks against inequality, poverty, corruption, youth unemployment and marginalization, and other vulnerabilities underlying urban crises.

An alternate future lies in actions directed towards building and recreating more egalitarian, secure and liveable urban settings in the global South. It also calls for equal access to efficiently delivered sanitation, adequate and sustainable shelter, clean water, good education, health care and security. It is time for a new global impetus that goes beyond the usual rhetorical and short-term, technocratic “fixes”, which tend to be elitist and exclusionary. Lessons from the past century make it clear that urban development in the global South is fundamentally a people’s rights issue. We should embrace a holistic, humanistic approach in taking actions that exhibit a new awareness of what is really at stake: the future of human existence and civilization. The world stands at a critical juncture, at which the present and future of our cities ultimately depend on outcomes across the global South. The time to chart a new, people-centred course for humanitarian action is now upon us.


  1. Report of the Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit, “One Humanity: Shared Responsibility”, 2 February 2016 (A/70/709, para. 3).