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Urban violence: What role for traditional humanitarianism?

25-03-2013 Feature

In an increasingly urban world, violence in cities has become a major challenge to humanitarian organizations used to working primarily in rural areas. Around 50,000 people die each year as a result of conflict. That number rises to 400,000 if you include the death toll linked to violence in the world’s most dangerous mega-cities.

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A discussion event hosted by the ICRC and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Conflict Issues in London looked at whether and how humanitarians should respond.

Ours is an “urban century,” according to Robert Muggah, Research Director of the Igarapé Institute in Brazil. Currently half of the world’s population live in urban areas and by 2050 the figure will rise to 75%.

Cities – as places of power, media attention, transport intersection and economic opportunity – are prime locations for struggles over space and resources, according to Elena Lucchi, International Consultant on Humanitarian Affairs.  How urban infrastructure keeps pace with the rapid growth of cities can determine levels of violence. Rather than living in formal structures, a large proportion of urban residents – around a billion people globally – live in slums where access to State services is dramatically reduced and social exclusion prevails.

The phenomenon of violence and urbanization has led academics and aid workers alike to challenge the rural bias of humanitarian agencies working across the world. Local mayors, Mr Muggah observes, have no problem defining violence within their cities as war. Yet because such violence lies outside the traditional notion of armed conflict and thus the conventional scope of action for humanitarian organizations, the agencies have been loath to engage. And when they have engaged they have been criticized for “mission creep” by wary national governments.

The ICRC has started to examine new approaches to urban violence and how it might help to alleviate suffering in cities. Its projects have sprung up in places as diverse as Mexico City and Belfast in Northern Ireland. Responding to urban violence poses its own set of challenges, as Geoff Loane, head of mission for the ICRC in the UK and Ireland can testify. Access to stakeholders in a society like Northern Ireland, that is carefully managed and divided by both physical and psychological structures, such as peace walls, murals, flags and marches, is no easy task.

To speak to the power brokers and gain the acceptance needed to operate often requires going behind bars to talk to gang leaders and others in prison to gain their trust, ICRC policy expert Pascal Daudin observes. This is intimidating for individuals involved. But it is also an uncomfortable challenge to traditional State authorities, not least the police, who remain at least nominally in charge of ensuring peace and stability within the confines of a city.

The aim, however, is far from disempowerment. As Mr Daudin explains, the ICRC can improve its response by activating networks and working with community groups, as well as National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies, to reach vulnerable areas and bring help to those in need. Long term stability rests with those within the urban setting, not those visiting from outside.

How humanitarian organizations can and should work in such urban environments is as yet uncertain. But the humanitarian imperative is definitely there, as is the work that must be done to alleviate current levels of suffering.

The APPG on Conflict Issues aims to encourage dialogue, on the basis of expert information and opinion from across the political spectrum, on issues relating to conflict, especially on the practical means of preventing, transforming and resolving violent conflict.

The panel discussion took place in London on 21 March 2013.

Photographs © ICRC / L. Sturdy