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Violence and humanitarian action in urban areas: new challenges, new approaches

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 September 2010


A number of states are faced with the challenge of ensuring the harmonious development of rapidly expanding cities and of offering a growing population public services worthy of the name in the fields of security, health, and education. That challenge is even more difficult and more pressing because violence may erupt (hunger riots, clashes between territorial gangs or ethnic communities, acts of xenophobic violence directed against migrants, and so on) – violence that does not generally escalate to the point of becoming an armed conflict but that is murderous nevertheless.

On the basis of the experience of the International Committee of the Red Cross and of its partners, as well as reports by academic specialists, this article describes the vulnerability of the poorest and of migrants in urban areas. It presents the difficulties with which humanitarian organizations, which are often accustomed to working in rural areas, have to contend. Lastly, it describes innovative responses, from which much can be learned: income-generating micro-projects, aid in the form of cash or vouchers, urban agriculture, and the establishment of violence-prevention or health-promotion programmes to protect those affected by armed violence in disadvantaged areas.

Urban violence
Copyright © International Committee of the Red Cross 2010

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1 See Luke Dowdney, Children of the Drug Trade: A Case Study of Children in Organised Armed Violence in Rio de Janeiro, 7Letras, Rio de Janeiro, 2003, pp. 90–91 and 257. ‘Asphalt’ (asfalto) is a term used to refer to ‘areas of the city that are not considered to be in the favela’. It alludes to the fact that these districts are asphalted, in contrast to the anarchic urban excrescences known as favelas.

2 Hugues Lagrange et Marco Oberti (eds), Émeutes urbaines et protestations: une singularité française, Nouveaux Débats, Paris, 2006.

3 Steffen Jensen, Gangs, Politics and Dignity in Cape Town, James Currey Ltd, Oxford/University of Chicago Press, Chicago/Wits University Press, Johannesburg, 2008.

4 In this article, the term ‘humanitarian entities’ is used in the broad sense to include all bodies (whether international, national, or local) that perform acts of humanity in response to the needs of vulnerable individuals or communities, whatever the situation prevailing in the country.

5 The author visited Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and Cape Town to discuss the phenomenon of violence in urban settings with academic and other specialists in the subject.

6 United Nations, Department of Economics and Social Affairs, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2007 Revision Population Database, New York, 2008, available at: (last visited 30 June 2010).

7 Human Security for an Urban Century: Local Challenges, Global Perspectives,, 2007, p. 10, available at: (last visited 29 July 2010).

8 Tine, Victor Sakagne, ‘Urbain et rural autour de la re-création des “écocités”: les expériences de Mboro et de Darou Khoudoss (Sénégal)’, in ECHOS du COTA, No. 116, Brussels, September 2007, p. 4Google Scholar, our translation. The example of Mboro in Senegal, in a horticultural area but also close to phosphate mines, is a good example of this type of interconnection.

9 UN-HABITAT, State of the World's Cities 2008/2009: Harmonious Cities, Earthscan, London, 2008, p. 11.

10 Mike Davis, Le pire des mondes possibles: de l'explosion urbaine au bidonville global, La Découverte, Paris, 2006.

11 UN-HABITAT, State of the World's Cities 2006/2007: The Millennium Development Goals and Urban Sustainability: 30 Years of Shaping the Habitat Agenda, Earthscan, London, 2006, p. 18.

12 Erosion or impoverishment of the soil, deforestation, drying up of water sources, damage caused by communication lines designed to bring produce to the market, etc.

13 UNHCR, 2008 Global Trends: Refugees, Asylum-seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons, 16 June 2009, p. 2.

14 UN-HABITAT, State of the World's Cities 2008/2009, above note 9, p. 92.

note 9

15 Ibid., p. xiii. Asian cities on the whole (there are exceptions such as Hong Kong) appear to be characterized by less stark inequalities.


16 For example, the walls of the old cities of Jerusalem, Dubrovnik, and Carcassonne.

17 Conflict and Emergencies in Urban Areas, Conference at Webster University, Geneva, on 30 January 2009.

18 Stathis N. Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006, pp. 133–136.

19 See ibid., p. 38, observing that ‘most civil conflicts are fought primarily in rural areas by predominantly peasant armies’. The author points out that, notwithstanding this observation, most studies on violence in civil wars have been carried out by urban intellectuals and therefore show an urban bias.


20 For a representation of the different strata of violence in society, see the World Health Organization (WHO)'s ecological model of violence, which distinguishes violence against the self, interpersonal violence (in the family or community), and collective violence of a social, political, or economic nature. WHO, World Report on Violence and Health, Geneva, 2002, p. 7.

21 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Crime and Instability: Case Studies of Transnational Threats, February 2010.

22 L. Dowdney, above note 1, p. 10.

note 1

23 The author would like to thank Fabien Pouille and all the ICRC's agronomists who met in Nairobi, and Nicolas Fleury (who is in charge of the ICRC's micro-finance initiatives), for all their help towards understanding the vulnerability of urban populations, income-generating micro-projects, and urban agriculture.

24 Rural environments differ greatly and the idea that they are always poor is a stereotype. Poverty and opulence can co-exist in the countryside, depending on resources and on how wealth is – or is not – redistributed. Some rural areas generate large incomes, for example where they support large-scale cattle ranching, banana plantations, or industrial coffee, palm-oil, or rubber-processing plants. At the same time, within the same region, different types of community – farmers and herdsmen, for example – may live side by side with differing levels of income depending on circumstances.

25 Mathieu Merino, L'insécurité alimentaire en Afrique subsaharienne, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, Note 02/09, June 2009, p. 5, our translation.

26 ‘Difficulties in supplying drinking water will become a major challenge for some mega-cities such as Johannesburg, whose municipal council is currently obliged to take water from over 500 km away. In Bangkok, salt water is starting to seep into the groundwater. Mexico City's foundations are subsiding because the city has drawn too heavily on its reserves of underground water’ (our translation). French Government, Ministry of Defence, Strategic Affairs Delegation, Prospective géostratégique à l'horizon des trente prochaines années, 2008, p. 164, available at: (last visited 30 June 2010).

27 Zetter, Roger and Deikun, George, ‘Meeting humanitarian challenges in urban areas’, in Forced Migration Review, No. 34, February 2010, p. 6Google Scholar. This task force, entitled ‘Meeting Humanitarian Challenges in Urban Areas’ (MHCUA), in whose work the author participated, works under the direction of UN-HABITAT.

28 ICRC and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, The Need for Collaborative Action and Partnerships Between States, the Components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Other Stakeholders in Addressing Humanitarian Challenges of Common Concern (Objective 1), background document available at:$File/30IC_5-1_Obj1_ChallengesBackground_ENG_FINAL.pdf (last visited 30 June 2010).

29 Harroff-Tavel, Marion, ‘Do wars ever end? The work of the International Committee of the Red Cross when the guns fall silent’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 85, No. 851, September 2003Google Scholar.

30 ICRC, Micro-economic Initiatives Handbook, Geneva, July 2009, available at:$File/ICRC_002_0968.PDF (last visited 30 June 2010).

31 ICRC and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Guidelines for Cash Transfer Programming, 2007, available at: (last visited 30 June 2010).

32 It is easier to make the choice of assisting only some villages in rural areas, where those villages are scattered over a wide area, than to restrict oneself to helping one district or a group of streets in a city, where the population is dense and dividing lines are hard to draw.

33 2009 Agro workshop: food production in urban and peri-urban areas, Nairobi, 28 September–2 October 2009. Seminar organized by Fabien Pouille and Bruno Mesureur, agronomists, in Geneva and Nairobi.

34 Protection covers all activities whose purpose is to ensure that an individual's rights are fully respected, in keeping with the spirit and the letter of the relevant bodies of law, particularly human rights law, international humanitarian law, and refugee law.

35 See above note 27.

36 According to the Statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, adopted by the 25th International Conference of the Red Cross at Geneva in 1986, amended in 1951 and 2006, Art. 5, paras. 3 and 2(d), adopted by an International Conference in which the states took part, ‘The International Committee may take any humanitarian initiative which comes within its role as a specifically neutral and independent institution and intermediary, and may consider any question requiring examination by such an institution’. It must also endeavour to ensure protection of and assistance to victims of what the Statutes call ‘internal strife’ and its ‘direct results’.

37 Pierre Gentile is head of the Civilian Population Unit at the ICRC. The source of these ideas is an ICRC internal document.

38 Dipak K. Gupta, Understanding Terrorism and Political Violence: The Life Cycle of Birth, Growth, Transformation, and Demise, Routledge, London and New York, 2008, p. 149.

39 Under human rights law, the use of lethal force must meet the criterion of strict necessity. International humanitarian law, by contrast, allows such force in a far broader range of circumstances.

40 Report of the 30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, prepared by the ICRC and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Geneva, 2007, p. 212.

41 See also Poretti, Michele, ‘Preventing children from joining armed groups’, in Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 4, 2009, pp. 121141Google Scholar, an article written by an ICRC adviser in his personal capacity.

42 Guatemala, Honduras, Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Dominican Republic, and Haiti.

43 Launched in 2007 with financial support from the ICRC delegation in Pretoria, this project promotes a culture of tolerance, self-discipline, and personal development through sport. In 2009, 140 schools and 48 youth clubs took part in this initiative.

44 The descriptions of these projects and the lessons learned are based on replies from National Societies to a questionnaire sent to them by the ICRC and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies as part of the preparation for a workshop on promotion of respect for diversity and non-discrimination, held in Nairobi in 2009.

45 These groups tend to stigmatize the behaviour of young people and call for stronger measures (‘a firm hand’), sometimes for political ends (for example, to attract votes before an election).

46 I.e. humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity, and universality.

47 Yves Pedrazzini, La violence des villes, Enjeux Planète, Paris, 2005.

48 Laurent Mucchielli, Violences et insécurité: fantasmes et réalités dans le débat français, Éditions La Découverte et Syros, Paris, 2002, p. 139, our translation.

49 Ibid., p. 140, our translation.


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