By Xavier Castellanos, Director of Americas Zone
In 2002, participants of the first ever World Urban Forum in Nairobi concluded that the future lies in the cities. A decade later, the future is irrefutably here. More than half of the world’s population lives in cities and urbanization is increasing around the globe, making vulnerability to urban risk a defining feature of 21st Century reality. This demographic trend has prompted a shift in the loci of humanitarian need and vulnerability from a rural to an urban setting as human suffering and poverty escalate and concentrate in cities.
The evolving pattern of vulnerability and risk is today a preoccupation of particular significance in the Americas, the most urbanized region in the world, with around 80 per cent of its 556 million inhabitants living in cities and towns. In only 15 years, figures are projected to rise to nearly 85 per cent, and according to the United Nations Population Fund, 90 to 95 per cent of the population will be living in cities by 2050. Furthermore, nearly 31 per cent of today’s urban dwellers in the Americas live in irregular settlements.
Although steadily becoming a priority preoccupation of the humanitarian and development community, efforts to tackle increasing vulnerability to urban risk have not co-evolved at the same pace as the challenges fuelled by rapid urbanization and unplanned population growth.
In 2010, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) devoted its annual flagship publication – the World Disaster Report – to the topic of urban risk and called for concerted action: Before the tide of urbanization leaves us behind, the humanitarian community needs to bring about a sea-change in how we respond to the vulnerable people [the estimated one billion urban slum dwellers worldwide], and how we engage with governments which are struggling to understand what is happening in their cities and finding it difficult to resource an adequate response.
The need to get up to speed in tackling vulnerability to urban hazard is critical. It is in this context that IFRC is rising to the urban challenge in the Americas Zone and launching urban risk, migration, climate change and violence as four thematic focus areas for integrated zone programming over the next four-year planning period (2012 to 2015). These key external trends are not only compounding impoverished communities’ exposure to hazards and the following risks posed by disasters and pandemics but also interacting to create various novel forms of vulnerability and crises that heighten marginalization, impoverishment and insecurity. The complex nature and potentially devastating impact of these trends must be addressed by concerted and focused action involving all 35 member National Societies as well as Movement partners, external collaborators and national governments across the continent.
This publication, developed in an effort to complement and inform the internal process of defining urban intervention strategies to manage urban risk in the Americas, provides a glimpse of how three national Red Cross societies – among many other across the continent – are intervening in volatile urban settings. The cases studies and beneficiary stories from Colombia, Nicaragua and Jamaica, alongside reflection and learning from other urban settings including Paraguay, Panama and Peru, provide impetus for re-evaluating the lens through which we view and promote human development.
It is clear that addressing urban risk as well as the other key trends currently shaping the world requires not only a mind-shift in the Movement but a fundamental adaptation of our work. While global poverty and vulnerability is perceived historically as a rural phenomenon, the urban setting is fast gaining ground, with the fastest urbanization of poverty today occurring in Latin America. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, 66 per cent of Latin America’s poor now reside in urban areas. The trend in urbanization and its impact in the Americas calls for an extension of the rural-oriented focus that has come to epitomise the work of the humanitarian community.
It is now necessary to enlarge and adjust our services to better meet the consequences of process such as migration, climate change, and violence in urban areas, while not reducing or by any means downgrading the importance of our continued work in rural areas.
The changing world of needs, vulnerabilities and opportunities also encourages a move from the “fractured city” perspective that has dominated 21st century urban imaginary in the Americas to a more holistic systems perspective. Cities are political, administrative and sociological units that bring together different and often contradictory processes, offering some inhabitants prosperity while confining others to the margins of vulnerability and risk. As the words and life stories of Red Cross Red Crescent beneficiaries portrayed in this publication illustrate, the strains and challenges of living as second-rate citizens on the urban edge is a precarious reality rooted in complex urban dynamics. Only by focusing attention on the interrelatedness of the different dynamics and processes within cities can the Red Cross Red Crescent effectively contribute to human development by identifying ways to reduce the risks that curb human progress and consign large segments of humanity to lives of poverty, exclusion and insecurity.
Our work in the urban settings must rest on the very foundation of the Red Cross Red Crescent development role, namely, integrated services and our three core pillars: providing local and national services that prevent and reduce vulnerability; building resilient community and civil society capacities; and changing mindsets that promote societal and personal transformation. Using all three key areas of work to approach urban contexts as multifaceted spaces that integrate both positive and negative tendencies through simultaneous processes provides increased opportunities to tackle the underlying causes of urban vulnerability. As demonstrated by the case studies, an integrated and collaborative approach to urban risk, involving cross disciplinary and multi-sectoral dialogue, is most productive. An integrated approach to service provision also allows a better contribution to sustainable national development efforts through reduced disaster losses, improved population health, and enhanced social inclusion and well-being.
Urban risk concerns all of humanity, and tackling vulnerability to urban hazard in the Americas is an urgent necessity. The challenge is to make the ballooning urban population part of the solution rather than the problem. As the largest humanitarian network in the world, IFRC is in a key position to respond to unplanned urban growth and the resulting urban plight by creating the basic conditions that these communities need to collectively face the challenges at hand.