Urban Violence and Humanitarian Action

Urban Violence and Humanitarian Action: Engaging the Fragile City


Global preoccupation with rapid and unregulated urbanization and protracted urban violence is on the rise. Chronically violent cities – Abidjan, Baghdad, Ciudad Juarez Gaza, Guatemala, Kingston, Nablus, Grozny, Mogadishu and Rio de Janeiro – are all synonyms for a “new” kind of armed conflict with grave implications for humanitarian action and human welfare. These and other urban centers are experiencing a variation of warfare, often in densely populated slums and shantytowns. All of them feature pitched battles between state and non-state armed groups and amongst armed groups themselves, despite their maintaining clearly articulated political agendas or ideologies. To some analysts, these “other situations of violence” exhibit many of the key characteristics – intensity and organization – of conventional armed conflicts despite not being recognized as such by the international community.[i] To some veteran observers “urban zones are fast becoming new territories of conflict and violence”.[ii] Military doctrine in a number of developed countries is beginning to reflect the primacy of the urban battlespace as the dominant site and mode of conflict in the twenty first century.[iii]

The relationships between urbanization, urban violence and humanitarian action have potentially deeper roots than is often imagined.[iv] For centuries, the clustering of populations into dense urban cities, towns and villages has been accompanied with the escalation and containment of violence.[v] Indeed, scholars such as Anthony Giddens and Robert Muchembled have long observed how the history of cities is inextricably connected to the pursuit of security and safety and the taming and regulation of violence at the periphery.[vi] Some of the manifestations of these efforts are more obvious than others: the fortification of cities through defensive architecture and the elaborate histories of siege to the rapid expansion of surveillance and walled cities are all testament to the shared heritage of urbanization and security.[vii] More recently, even internationally imposed efforts to guarantee security – from the organization of peace support operations to counterinsurgency – are increasingly city based.

A growing chorus of diplomats, security experts and humanitarian practitioners contend that there is something qualitatively new going on in twenty first century cities and their peripheries.[viii]With more than half of the world’s population now living in fast growing urban centers and projections of two thirds by 2030[ix], commentators are observing that many rapidly burgeoning urban centers and informal settlements appear to be experiencing escalating conflict and crime. The degradation of complex systems of service delivery and taxation due to rapid urban expansion leads to what are often referred to as “cascading” problems that over-ride municipal capacities. Expanding slum populations – more than 80 per cent of global urban growth over the next decades is to take place in poor squatter settlements and shanty-towns – has raised concerns about the prospect of the ability of cities to cope and adapt.
This paper sets out the broad parameters of urban violence in the twenty first century and why this matters for the humanitarian community. It first describes key trends in urbanization and urban violence and the problematic assumptions linking the two. This opening section also considers recent contributions from the urban sociology and human geography literatures. The second section reflects on the humanitarian challenges arising from protracted urban violence. While far from exhaustive, it makes the case for a more comprehensive engagement in such settings by the relief and development sectors. The paper concludes with a number of reflections on how humanitarian agencies are already starting to engage with urban settings – including perceived opportunities and challenges.

Securitizing the city

The city is very much present in contemporary military doctrine and practice. Cities as disparate as Bagdad, Ciudad Juarez, Kabul, Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro and San Pedro Sula are being problematized by what some have termed the “new military urbanism”.[x] As in times of old, cities are re-emerging center-stage in the debates on the new frontiers of war, counter-insurgency, stabilization and crime prevention.[xi] Thus, cities and urban dwellers are increasingly being re-imagined in twenty-first century warfare with western military doctrine increasingly preoccupied with micro-geographies, architectures and social characteristics of urban settings.[xii] There is little doubt that cities have long been and continue to be sites of violence, both from within (terrorism and social unrest) and without (civil wars and insurgencies).[xiii]

The language and practice of “militarism” and “strategic” interventions from above are fusing with ostensibly “civil” and “local” concerns from below, revealing a disconcerting blurring of erstwhile separate boundaries.[xiv] Reconceiving future armed conflicts as a kind of “post-modern medievalism”, military theorists are also busily revisiting the proxy wars of colonialism – and earlier – to harvest lessons that might help inform tactics in contemporary urban theatres. Taken together, cities and their peripheries are being cast as “strategic sites” of engagement whose density, vulnerability and unpredictability require new paradigms of intervention.  Likewise, there are fears that “mega” slums will likely constitute the future frontier of armed violence and sources of insecurity while others contend that so-called “feral cities” are already “natural havens for a variety of hostile non-state actors” and may pose “security threats on a scale hitherto not encountered”.[xv]

Urban geographers and municipal planners are developing a colorful lexicon to describe the role of cities and war. Novel expressions range from “urban battlespace” to “military urbanism”.  Moreover, the localized geographies of cities, the heterogeneous forms of violence between and within neighborhoods, and the systems linking them together are increasingly dominating discussions of security, war and geopolitics. This new terminology has unsettling implications for the securitization of the city. As Agree (2001) and Blackmore (2005) observe, the use of concepts such as battlespace connotes a boundless and unending process of militarization: “nothing lies outside [the battlespace] temporally or geographically. Battlespace has no front and no back and no start or end.” These terms are also shaping how military strategists are rethinking interventions.  Vaultravers (2010) has noted how owing to “… the complexity of the urban environment, fighting in cities calls for adaptations in military doctrine, structures, training, and equipment”.

There is also a growing preoccupation with  “fragile” and “failed” cities – at least in military circles – in much the same way that security and development sectors have raised concerns about ‘failed states’.  Fragile and failing cities experience a failure of localized social contracts binding governments and citizens and a declining ability to regulate and monopolize legitimate violence across their territories. The potential instability generated by such settings is said to give rise also to urban terrorism (Norton 2003). While empirically untested, there is also creeping worries that megacities and urbanizing corridors – including their governance systems and security apparatus – are unable to cope.[xvi] In the words of one breathless commentator: “boom cities pay for failed states, post-modern dispersed cities pay for failed states, and failed cities turn into killing grounds and reservoirs for humanity’s surplus and discards (guess where we will fight)” (Peters 1996, 3). In this way, “future military expeditions will increasingly defend our [US] foreign investments … rather than defending [the home nation] against foreign invasions. And we will fight to subdue anarchy and violent ‘isms’ because disorder is bad for business. All of this activity will focus on cities”.

It is worth recalling that cities and urbanization have long been problematized within humanitarian and development discourse and suffered from neglect as a result. While a cadre of disaster specialists have very recently become seized with the relationships between sudden onset natural crises and urbanization, the discourse and practice are focused on risk reduction and preparedness rather than violence per se. For the vast majority of humanitarian and development agencies, however, most attention has traditionally focused on rural areas. There are a number of reasons for what might be described as a “rural bias”. First, rural areas were typically considered to be the sites of the greatest need – owing in the long-held assumption that armed conflicts exacerbated already elevated rates of rural poverty and marginalization. Second, corollary investments in vulnerable rural areas were believed to reduce the persistent lure or “pull factors” of cities. The issue of urban violence was seldom addressed by humanitarian and development specialists, if at all.[xvii] Nevertheless, there is now a cautious reappraisal underway, with some humanitarian and development agencies rethinking the role and practice of humanitarian action in cities seized by endemic violence.[xviii] And while concerns are emerging, neither community has yet to articulate a mandate or business model to engage.

An urban era and the fragile city

The twenty first century has been labelled by many as the “urban century”. As signalled above, major urban centres across the developing world – particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean – are facing challenges with integrating and absorbing their growing populations. And while there is general recognition of the tremendous demographic shift to cities in the past decades, it is many of these same developing countries that are accounting for an estimated 90 per cent of urban growth.[xix] Owing to rapidly escalating rates of unregulated urbanization, fragile and ungoverned spaces are increasingly being identified within densely populated urban and peri-urban areas including slums and shantytowns. UN-Habitat has estimated that the population of people living in slums will reach two billion over the next two decades, accounting for almost all the world’s population growth during this time (Figure 1).[xx]

Figure 1, Urban population growth 2000-2020

2000 Per cent 2010 Per cent 2020 Per cent
Total world population 6.086 100 6.843 100 7.578 100
Developing countries 4.892 80.4 5.617 82.1 6.333 83.6
Total world urban population 2.845 46.7 3.475 45.5 4.177 50.7
Total developing country urban population 1.971 40.3 2.553 73.5 3.209 76.7

Source: UNFPA and UN-Habitat (various sources)

With this massive demographic shift has emerged a a preoccupation with the fragile city, as noted above. Indeed cities, particularly those located in lower- and middle-income settings, are being identified as particularly prone to above-average rates of organized violence and insecurity. In some cases, these cities and their hinterlands are claimed to experience epidemic rates of violence – whether compared internationally, regionally or domestically with other equivalent sized urban centers.[xxi] There is also mounting evidence of soaring rates of violence to back these claims – particularly in cities not typically associated with armed conflict throughout Latin America and the Caribbean (see Figure 2).[xxii] But the fact is that urban violence is highly heterogeneous with some regions, even some countries, featuring rather more or less violence than others (see Figure 2).[xxiii]

Figure 2. Top ten most violent cities and their states (various years)

Most populous city Country City homicide rate (per 100,000) National homicide rate (per 100,000) Multiple
Caracas Venezuela 122 (2009) 46 (2009) 2.6
Guatemala Guatemala 116.6 (2010) 41.4 (2010) 2.8
Belize Belize 106.4 (2010) 41.7 (2010) 2.5
Bassetterre St. Kitts and Nevis 97.6 (2009) 38.2 (2010) 2.5
San Salvador El Salvador 94.6 (2010) 66 (2010) 1.43
Tegucipalpa Honduras* 72.6 (2009) 82.1 (2010) 0.87
Maseru Lesotho 61.9 (2009) 33.6 (2009) 1.84
Cape Town South Africa 59.9 (2007) 33.68 (2007) 1.77
Port of Spain Trinidad and Tobago 60.7 (2008) 35.2 (2009) 1.72
Panama Panama 34.6 21.6 (2010) 1.6

*It is worth noting that San Pedro Sula in Honduras is now considered the most violent city in the western hemisphere having registered a rate of 159 per 100,000 homicides in 2010.[xxiv]

Source: UNODC (2011) website and Krause, Muggah and Gilgen (2011)[xxv]

The emergence of fragile cities as a category suggests that the referent of international attention is correspondingly expanding. That is, fragility is no longer confined exclusively to the domain of states but is rather extending to their capitals and outlying metropolitan regions as well.  The international security and development optics are scaling outwards to account for chronically violent and ungovernable cities and neighborhoods in which public authorities and civic actors have lost control, are unable or unwilling to deliver basic public services, and cannot fulfill their essential function of providing security, welfare and legitimate representation. And while a small number of humanitarian and development agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) are acknowledging this state of affairs, they and others lack the language and practical tools to engage fully with them. The aid architecture itself is still oriented toward more conventional engagement through centralized state systems and in rural areas, a fact that may slow down and even impede more comprehensive engagement.

The real and perceived threats presented by fragile cities are finding resonance among certain social scientists, especially those preoccupied with defense. A kind of wary urban pessimism has taken hold. For example, analysts such as John Rapley claim that sprawling slums and townships are a perilous new frontier of warfare.[xxvi] Likewise Richard Norton argued famously that so-called “feral cities” are “natural havens for a variety of hostile non-state actors” and may pose “security threats on a scale hitherto not encountered”.[xxvii] Meanwhile, other commentators such as Harroff-Tavel have described how humanitarian agencies are confronting new and unprecedented challenges in certain cities, including those not traditionally considered to be in war zones, though offer few practical solutions as to how they should move forward.[xxviii]Notwithstanding an important, if nascent, counter-argument that slums can sustain effective informal forms of service provision, extraordinary entrepreneurial activity and exciting nodes of innovation and belonging[xxix], the ideological commitment to restoring state and metropolitan order is deep-seated.[xxx]

And while alarm bells are being sounded over the real and imagined threats presented by – so called fragile cities, surprisingly little is actually known about them. What makes them violent? What is the role of urbanization in shaping trajectories of violence? As noted in the introduction, there is in fact some evidence that the presumed relationships between urbanization, urban violence and humanitarian crises are not entirely without basis.[xxxi] As Beall notes, cities have for centuries experienced major and moderate forms of violence that have resulted in widespread suffering, particularly amongst the poorest segments of the population.[xxxii] Furthermore, there is some evidence that many cities experiencing rapid population growth have also suffered episodic and endemic forms of violence. In some cases, violence is an expression of resistance to city-building, including forced resettlement and other forms of population relocation. As Graham observes, however, it is the “urban scale, as a site for or actor in the resolution of international social conflicts, ethno-national conflicts, and inter-state war” that is novel and challenging for some policy makers to get their heads around.[xxxiii]

In fact, even less is known about the resilience of fragile cities, that is, the extent to which they are able to cope, adapt and rebound from major stresses such as chronic violence.[xxxiv] The manner in which informal institutions in supposedly chronically violent cities such Beirut, Medellin or Johannesburg are capable of reproducing alternative service functions is poorly understood as are the livelihood strategies adopted by many of the residents within them. There is a comparatively modest literature on how displaced populations, both refugees and internally displaced persons, are managing in cities, though it seldom engages with questions of urban violence after the initial displacement event.[xxxv] And while urban violence and its effects are of mounting concern[xxxvi]the basic assumption about a positive linear correlation between city size or population density and the incidence of urban violence is debatable. Rather, there is evidence that urban violence is highly heterogeneous, multi-causal, and spatially uneven.[xxxvii] Nevertheless, policies aimed at tackling such violence frequently target symptoms – from firearms availability, menacing gangs, and the needs of survivors – and overlook the underlying factors shaping its emergence and severity, including the origins, motivations and means of “violence entrepreneurs” and the enabling structural conditions of cities and their governance institutions.[xxxviii]

Nevertheless, it seems that city fragility is both a catalyst and a consequence of transformations in broader state and metropolitan governance and, more prosaically, spatial organization.[xxxix] In many cities of Latin America, the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa in particular, certain slum neighborhoods and shantytowns have assumed the character of forbidden gang and crime zones well beyond the control of public security forces.[xl] These zones of exception are outside the de facto control of formal authorities. Within them, a slew of risk factors are believed to exacerbate urban violence and contribute to vicious cycles that disable upward and outward mobility, although the interaction of these factors are poorly analyzed.[xli] Of course, in certain cities slums are often less dangerous than widely presumed. Insecurity in such areas is relative, with some zones within these slums being considered more dangerous to residents (and outsiders) than others. Yet irrespective of the evidence, many middle- and upper-class residents may feel compelled to build (higher) walls and elaborate (more sophisticated) security systems to shield themselves, giving rise to a Manichean landscape of “safe” gated communities and “violent” slums.

As is so often the case, real and perceived urban violence mutually reinforce each other to create what Tunde Agbola has aptly terms an “architecture of fear” and what might even qualify as a “state of exception”. [xlii] The result is a progressive fragmentation of public space, a breakdown of social cohesion through the generation of new forms of spatial segregation and social discrimination, and potentially more urban violence with devastating humanitarian implications. Urban violence must thus be understood as intricately linked to the structural dynamics of urban agglomeration, as well as to the competing interests of — and power relations between — social groups.[xliii] However, as indicated above, city disorder need not imply that urban spaces are unable to cope with such challenges and ultimately transform. To the contrary, it is the very “resilience” of cities that is too often overlooked, and a source of resistance and agency from which important lessons can be drawn for humanitarian action.[xliv]

The humanitarian imperative in the fragile city

A number of humanitarian actors are cautiously engaging these new urban sites of fragility with a kind of wary pragmatism. Many are deploying conventional tactics. In most cases, their engagement is conditioned – even structured – by a long-standing and often highly principles set of rules and standard operating procedures. In a small number of settings affected by chronic urban violence such as Guatemala, Medellin, Port-au-Prince, and Rio de Janeiro, for example, humanitarian agencies such as the ICRC and Médecins Sans Frontières are undertaking more unconventional approaches – seeking to find ways of working with municipal and state-level authorities on sensitive issues of criminal and gang-related violence.[xlv] Likewise, more multi-mandate agencies are also getting involved in violent urban settings with objectives that extend beyond more narrow humanitarian aspirations. Activities are varied and range from conflict resolution, mediation and efforts targeting so-called “root causes” to the provision (in some cases substitution) of water and sanitation, health care and education services as well as micro-finance and livelihood support. But these experiences tend to be less the rule than the exception.

It is important to recognize that alongside international agencies operating in fragile cities are a host of domestic entities working purposefully to prevent and reduce urban violence. As noted by the World Bank´s 2011 World Development Report and a recent study commissioned by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (2011), these local level organizations number in the thousands and often seek to reduce the proximate and structural risk factors giving rise to urban violence.[xlvi] Activities typically focus on enhancing opportunities and reducing risk factors for at-risk youth, promoting formal and informal means of mediation and legal aid, regularising land tenure, supporting proximity and community policing, investing in environmental design and slum upgrading, and many more. These entities often do not conceive of their activities as falling into either the humanitarian or the development camp, and many operate independently of the international aid architecture altogether. In some cases, organizations such as ICRC and MSF, among others, have sought to harness their experiences, social technologies and personnel to reduce risk and vulnerability of urban residents.

There is a small but nevertheless expanding literature on the specific opportunities and challenges of humanitarian response and development programming in urban settings.[xlvii] But there is a veritable silence in the scholarly and policy domains when it comes to addressing the specific consequences of urban violence from a humanitarian perspective. Until recently, most discussions of urbanization and humanitarian action focused less on engaging humanitarian and development in the city per se, and more on treating the underlying risks associated with urbanization to begin with. Discussed at length earlier in this article, the focus of relief and development was thus devoted to decreasing rural poverty and thereby reducing rural-urban migration flows. By investing in local agriculture and rural economic growth the argument was the incentives of the city were thus diminished. More recently, the emphasis has been on mitigating urban disasters including earthquakes, cyclones, climate change and promoting protective factors, but the negative connotation of urbanization persists. And while facing real threats and challenges on the ground, urban violence is still relegated as a peripheral, even tangential, problem. Where considered at all, urban violence is regarded as a symptom of poverty and treated separately, as a specific institutional or law-enforcement issue to be dealt with by others.[xlviii] With notable exceptions, urban violence is seldom conceived as specific risk factor in its own right. Comparatively few scholars or practitioners have emphasized how efforts to reduce poverty, address inequality, reduce risk and increase resilience may themselves contribute to parallel reductions in urban violence.

An example of the biases shaping humanitarian efforts to engage with urban violence includes the recent activities of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC).[xlix] In 2009, the IASC identified urbanization as a strategic priority and formed a taskforce to develop a plan to address its implications for humanitarian action. The resulting strategy acknowledges the need for humanitarian actors in urban settings to protect people by limiting the effects of violence but on the presumption of a pre-existing condition of a humanitarian response. In other words, it treats urban violence as a peripheral outcome of a separate higher-order disaster. And while the IASC signals  the importance of protecting civilians in urban settings it also underlines the critical absence in the humanitarian sector of strategic policies and operational tools oriented towards reducing urban violence. Yet, it fails to articulate the extent to which violence or its direct or indirect effects might itself constitute a humanitarian crisis, much less criteria and approaches to mount a humanitarian response to it.

Put succinctly, there appears to be a ‘“blind spot” when it comes to recognizing and responding to humanitarian situations caused by long-term urban violence, This is a contrast to so-called “chronic crises” and fragile states, which are often well recognized, if inadequately addressed, by the international response system. Some of the reasons for this neglect are arguably structural. The existing criteria applied by humanitarian agencies and donors to identify emergencies, mount responses, and mobilize resources are designed for states with demarcated geographic boundaries and populations, and clearly identified disasters or conflicts. It could be that cities affected by violence lack a singular emergency “event” or an easily-locatable ”disaster affected” population. In many cases, such settings lack a clear declaration of a disaster by the national authorities’ much less substantial interest of media or donor constituencies. Likewise, urban violence settings do not present an obvious timeframe or ‘exit-strategy’ for humanitarian actors, which, as with chronic crises, make both agencies and donors reluctant to engage with the short-term funding and resources they have available.

While there are many challenges confronting humanitarian agencies in engaging with urban violence, there are also critical opportunities. For example, certain narrow-mandated humanitarian agencies have already initiated interventions sensing that the future is in the city. Equally, multi-mandate agencies have a significant potential to learn from and engage with fragile cities, particularly due to their reach and considerable experience operating in settings affected by armed conflict. It is no longer a question of whether, but rather where, how and in what way to engage. As development programming inexorably focuses more on urban contexts in lower- and medium-income settings to address poverty, reduce risk and build resilience, it will inevitably confront (and in some cases instigate) urban violence. As such, the early experiences of humanitarian agencies operating at the coal face in cities seized with acute rates of urban violence will offer critical lessons to inform programming models and operational approaches.

A humanitarian approach to engaging fragile cities

There is in fact a considerable repertoire of experience and expertise within the humanitarian sector to engage in settings characterized by high intensity urban violence. But in most cases it has yet to be parsed and analysed. A major task for the humanitarian sector, then, will be collating and learning from these experiences, but through the application of new lenses. Conceptually, analysts working with both the ICRC and MSF have singled out the “human security” approach as one of many lenses through which humanitarian assistance can be mobilized and needs identified in violent urban settings.[l] Such an approach privileges interventions that reduce the proximate risks of violence from occurring rather than necessarily altering the fundamental causes of insecurity to begin with. Alternatively, other multi-mandate agencies have emphasized the virtues of interventions that promote “vulnerability reduction” and more controversially “stabilization” through establishing employment, education and alternate opportunities for at-risk urban residents, particularly young males and would-be members of armed groups. This latter approach highlights the importance of strengthening the so-called “protective factors” that can mitigate violence in households and neighbourhoods.

When focusing on the practical implications of engaging urban violence, some analysts single out the dividends of highly concentrated populations that allow for maximizing and scaling-up distribution of assistance. Others emphasize the particular role of pre-existing formal and informal service delivery capacities – many of which can serve as potential force multipliers for aid that are otherwise absent in more rural settings. Still other assessments underline the complex but nevertheless highly resilient institutions and networks amongst urban dwellers, especially amongst those residing in slums, and their leveraging potential.[li] Drawing on the experiences of ICRC and MSF, in particular, but also the International Federation of the Red Cross and national Red Cross branches, a number of entry-points for engaging fragile cities can be discerned:

A first step to action is recognising the scale and distribution of urban violence. This is essential to acknowledge the humanitarian imperative in violent urban settings and ultimately to develop appropriate responses to them. International humanitarian response systems, encompassing risk reduction, preparedness, warning and response, frequently adopt a typology of disasters that is usually limited to sudden onset natural disasters, ‘chronic’ food insecurity  or ‘slow onset’ disasters, ‘failed states‘, state-level armed conflicts and sudden outbreaks of mass violence. And while global urbanization is forcing this typology to expand to account for “technological” disasters, urban violence is still regarded as marginal. Where considered at all, it is treated as a lower-order form of “armed conflict”.  Without first recognizing or attempting to measure urban violence, the international humanitarian system will be unable to consider what actions might be appropriate to meet people’s humanitarian needs. Ultimately, the measures and definitions applied to humanitarian emergencies could be usefully revised to allow for better disaggregation, particularly at the municipal level. Agency monitoring systems would also benefit from investment in expanding their ability to capture a finer level of granularity than is currently the case.[lii]

A second possible entry-point for humanitarian agencies is a more pronounced engagement with armed groups. Fragile settings frequently present a multiplicity of actors engaged in and connected to urban violence who may have dynamic (and in some cases unpredictable) interests and whose power and actions directly determine whether humanitarian agencies can access populations. As a result, humanitarian agencies operating in densely populated and violent urban settings often require particular skills in mediation and negotiation in order to operate at all. Interpreting and navigating these associated landscapes may demand a set of skills that already exist among those humanitarian agencies with experience in more traditional conflict zones and which can be drawn upon to work in violent urban contexts. Engaging with such actors is also critical in major disaster situations, where a greater attention to existing social dynamics should be integrated into contextual analysis shaping response planning and strategies.

Third, humanitarian agencies could also usefully refocus their efforts to enhance and support existing public services rather than supplanting them. Humanitarian agencies can play an important role in both supplying and enhancing existing public services – particularly healthcare and key services such as water and sanitation services – in contexts of acute urban violence. Such support is especially critical in fragile cities where public providers may be absent or services themselves have collapsed. A challenge for humanitarian actors in these settings is in fact identifying specific categories of “need”– particularly poorly serviced slum areas – and ensuring effective targeting. Targeting assistance in an impartial manner is especially tricky (particularly with respect to IDPs)[liii] when those in need of assistance may be marginalized or neglected by the national and metropolitan authorities to begin with. What is more, declaring contexts of urban violence to be “humanitarian emergencies” and targeting marginalized populations for assistance may not be politically feasible, especially in middle-income settings. Concentrating on supporting and enhancing those municipal public services that are functioning and willing may be a more effective entry point, particularly when it comes to negotiating access, improving basic  services and building opportunities for stability.

A final entry-point is for humanitarian agencies to emphasize interventions that promote risk reduction and urban resilience in fragile environments. Disaster risk reduction frameworks and programming approaches can be premised on “resilience models” that incorporate urban violence as a central factor.   Urban violence can be conceived as a “hazard” in its own right and as a determinant of “vulnerability”. Urban violence can also be interpreted as a form of “capacity” since it is often also deployed as a means of maintaining control, configuring social relations, and accessing power, prestige and profit. In urban contexts where violence is a significant factor, humanitarian interventions will need to learn from and work with others focused on conflict prevention, violence prevention and reduction, and peacebuilding.


Global population growth is overwhelmingly concentrated in poorer and unregulated peripheries of cities including slums and settlements. In many cases, governments and elites have expressed alarm, even outrage, over corresponding surges in insecurity. Often side-stepping complex issues tied to systemic marginalization, they have met urban violence alternately with heavy fists or open hands. More than 1.5 billion people are living in situations characterized by chronic fragility and instability, and this figure is set to rise.[liv] Yet much of this violence is concentrated in urban centers in developing countries. These cities are themselves home to half of the world’s population and are expected to absorb almost all new population growth over the next 25 years.[lv]

The sheer organization and intensity of urban violence can eclipse that of open warfare and generate humanitarian crises of alarming scale. Concern with these fragile cities is fast becoming a central preoccupation of military strategists, policy makers, urban planners and others. Yet the response of humanitarian actors in programmatic terms remains gradual and incremental. Precisely because humanitarian agencies are guided by established norms, principles and programmatic priorities, they need to invest in better understanding and engaging with the causes and impacts of urban violence. There is much that can be gleaned from better analyzing and learning from the formal and informal systems operating in settings characterized by chronic urban violence. This article has sought to initiate a very preliminary reflection on the underlying trends of urbanization and urban violence. It will be up to humanitarian actors to translate their own latent awareness and experience into good practice.

By Kevin Savage and Robert Muggah
Go to publication

The Igarapé Institute uses cookies and other similar technologies to improve your experience, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and our Terms of Use, and by continuing to browse, you agree to these conditions.

Skip to content