A new tool for understanding urban emergencies

Josphat Mburu, 36, rents and uses a motorcycle as a taxi service in Korogocho slum to provide for his wife and two children aged 13 and 6. Photo by: Crystal Wells / Concern Worldwide

Five months ago, 36-year-old Josphat Mburu was barely making ends meet as a motorcycle taxi driver in the Kenyan slum of Korogocho when he was mugged, robbed of his money and his vehicle and hit on the back of the head with a metal job. His wife Sicily, 33, was forced to quit her job to care for him for five months.

Now he’s fully recovered, but must rent a motorcycle because he doesn’t have enough money to buy one, and Josphat and his wife have lost the startup capital they need to start the business they were hoping would pay for a modest-two room house in the slum.

Josphat’s story is not unique, and Concern Worldwide is collecting data from him and others across three Kenyan slums where over 260,000 live as part of a groundbreaking project that hopes to show how urban and rural poverty are radically different.

Concern’s goal is to create a tool that could be used by the wider humanitarian community and governments to monitor vulnerable urban areas and provide better, real-time support. Additionally, the team intends to use the research to help redefine what classifies an emergency in an urban setting, a shift that could translate into greater international aid and more lives saved in times of crisis.

“Urbanization is growing,” says Wendy Erasmus, Concern’s country director in Kenya. “By ignoring slums, we are missing where most of the emergencies in the world are going to take place. This project is helping us understand what we should be watching closely so we know when an emergency is unfolding and respond quickly.”

‘Come back when you reach 15 percent malnutrition’

The need for a new lens to look at urban poverty became clear to the organization in 2009, after disputed presidential elections sparked widespread unrest in Kenya followed by an extensive food crisis. Malnutrition rates in the slums hovered around 4 percent and clinics were inundated with children needing care.

Concern lobbied for an international response, but one by one, donors told the aid group to come back when malnutrition rates reached 15 percent, the current international standard for defining a food crisis.

“That would have meant that 40,000 children needed medical care and nutritional support,” Erasmus explains. “Facilities in the slums couldn’t handle 15 percent. They could barely handle 4 percent, which meant 11,000 children were in need of care.”

With the poor increasingly migrating to cities, a one-size-fits-all threshold for what marks a food crisis is not only outdated, but also means the world is dangerously slow to intervene.

“The humanitarian sector has been oriented for the rural context for a long time,” said Jay Chaudhuri, coordinator of Concern’s Indicator Development for Surveillance of Urban Emergencies project. “Emergencies are increasingly happening in cities and the sector is trying to catch up for how to respond in the urban context.”

Collecting the data

There are no house numbers in a slum, where it’s common for shelters to be broken down one day and two to stand in its place the next — making conducting a census extremely challenging.

“Each time [we collect data] we have to do a list for the area, counting each house by hand, and then take a random sample [from that list] to interview,” says Chaudhuri, whose team measure a variety of factors from if children are in school to household debt, monthly income, access to water and diet. By doing so, they are painting a much clearer picture of the socio-economic fabric of slum communities as well as what factors they should be watching to know when an emergency looms.

Eventually, they plan to establish more benchmarks for what classifies as an emergency in the urban context. For nutrition, this means establishing a new emergency threshold for malnutrition rates other than the current 15 percent, which was designed for a rural food crisis. This and other emergency indicators — livelihoods, food security and nutrition, water and sanitation, health, personal security, and children’s education — will help governments and humanitarian groups know when a situation is moving from chronic poverty into an emergency.

In February, Chaudhuri and his team completed their ninth data collection. What they have found so far paints a grim picture, and it seems that Josphat and Sicily are far from alone in what they have experienced in recent months. Overall, those surveyed feel that insecurity is on the rise and nearly a quarter of them have removed their children from school because of unaffordable school fees. Almost half are purchasing food on credit, another hint that income is not enough to cover even basic expenses. For the poorest, even buying groceries is driving them into debt, with some families spending some 120 percent of their income on food.

“We can see in real time whether things are improving or deteriorating,” the project leader explains. “In Korogocho, things got slightly worse late last year and we weren’t sure if it we weren’t sure if it was part of a trend or a one-off [thing.] But in the last data collection we saw a severe worsening of the situation.”

But since Concern knew what was happening early, they are able to respond quickly and target 2,000 vulnerable households with monthly cash transfers of approximately $25 to help them get through the difficult period — and not drive themselves further into poverty just to get by.

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About the author

  • Crystal wells profile

    Crystal Wells

    Crystal Wells is a roving communications officer with International Medical Corps, a global humanitarian organization dedicated to saving lives and relieving suffering through emergency health care services and training. She has worked in the NGO sector for nine years and has traveled extensively to cover needs on the grounds and responses to wars, natural disasters, and disease outbreaks.