David Sanderson, professor of architecture at the University of New South Wales. Photo by: David Sanderson

An urbanized, more disaster prone world requires a different type of aid response, according to David Sanderson, a professor of architecture at the University of New South Wales built environment department. The development and aid sectors will need to partner more, and more widely, but think about their operations on a hyper-localized level, he told Devex.

Sanderson will be presenting his findings ahead of the 2017 Research for Development Impact conference in Sydney on June 13 and 14, a meeting will gather Australian academics and NGO officials to discuss partnering for impact on sustainable development.

In advance of the conference, Sanderson previewed his findings for Devex, describing his takeaways and message for Australian development and relief work. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Tell us about your research and findings on disaster response in urban settings.

The focus of my discussion is collaboration and coordination of development and humanitarian aid in urban areas in particular, and how that interfaces in emergencies.

“[Disaster-affected] people have a life before, where we can operate to reduce the impact of what may happen, and after, where we can work to help them recover more quickly. So we need to be there for them.”

Working with the Norwegian Refugee Council, International Rescue Committee and World Vision, we looked at area-based approaches in urbanized regions. Connecting approaches in these areas to improve coordination and cooperation post-disaster is critical to building resilience.

Area-based approaches have gained traction in recent years amongst humanitarian agencies in particular. Urban programming can be very complex. We have identified nine issues drawn from humanitarian action — but also good practice from developmental approaches — to address chronic urban poverty.

Amongst our findings and recommendations, we first need to re-think the time frame following a disaster or crisis. It should not aim to be a six months response, and then [aid groups] leave. [Disaster-affected] people have a life before, where we can operate to reduce the impact of what may happen, and after, where we can work to help them recover more quickly. So we need to be there for them.

We also need to think smarter and work smarter, and this means thinking about the people we are using and their roles, as well as the project management tools. We realized the project management cycle needs to be reconsidered to provide a humanitarian response while not being naïve to the aid architecture we have.

We need to focus on location. Prioritizing a geographic location, such as a neighbourhood, market or streets, should be the starting point for interventions. And building relationships to facilitate these responses is important. This requires cooperation between humanitarian and development players.

What are your thoughts on the divide between humanitarian and development sectors?

There should not be a line drawn between the two. Resilience understands development and humanitarian [needs], and it needs to be packaged in a response.

This shouldn’t be surprising news. It has been discussed for 40 years. But for some reason, today we still have a system that separates the two. That reason is not a very good one — it is the architecture and structure of aid delivery.

At the World Humanitarian Summit last year, we discussed this issue. Humanitarian responses receive a lot of money that has to be spent quickly. Post-disaster, it is very difficult to spend money in poor places. And by separating humanitarian from development, we risk wasting money.

As the frequency of natural disasters increases, how important is it to make sure we are smarter and more coordinated in responses?

Aid agencies and NGOs should be sued and held to account if they waste money — there should be court cases for NGOs wasting money on short-term, quick fixes as opposed to the dull stuff of investing in recovery.

It is just awful, but it happens all the time. And it is not just cynicism, it’s the system. But we need to get serious about changing it.

Investing wisely requires us to educate people that change takes time, and often it is invisible — it’s the iceberg under the surface. Politicians especially need to understand this. They are accountable and need to be able to defend why they invest in poor countries, but they can become frustrated by lack of progress.

Aiming for quick wins is not the answer, especially in urban settings. The quick fix can look good for media, donor countries and politicians, but it’s not real.

Spending lots of money on creating temporary shelter that only lasts three to five years, for example. What is the point of doing that in some of the poorest countries in the world? It’s extremely offensive and ethically corrupt.

Climate change is shifting the way disasters impact communities. How does your work help to identify future issues and prepare for them?

The whole things needs to urbanize. For the aid sector, Haiti was a wakeup call. And the evidence is growing that resilience has traction in urban areas.

One million people a week are moving into urban areas, and predictions are for a steady increase, including growth of slum dwelling.

Urbanizing our sector is still a work in progress and needs to happen faster. The assumption should be that in 10 years’ time, we are all living in a largely urban world. We should not ignore rural, but there needs to be more investment in research for urban approaches and acknowledgement that this is where the population predominantly resides.

[The sector is] working on this, but it is slow progress. Traditionally, development has been a rural concern. But it can’t afford to be seen as a rural concern any more.

“The quick fix can look good for media, donor countries and politicians, but it’s not real.”

Then there is the slow onset disasters, such as heat deaths, that creep up on us, unlike an earthquake. There is still a question as to whether this requires an aid response or is a [matter for] scientists and engineers developing new solutions to factor changing environmental conditions. But we need to be talking about this, thinking about it and building it into how we look at emergencies and how we respond to them.

Development and humanitarian aid need to work better with other sectors in disaster, as well. In an urban areas-based response, what do you see as the role of the private sector?

When we are looking at clusters in urban areas and responding using an area-based approach, the private sector is important. Markets re-open the day after disasters. People need money, so they sell stuff. We need to engage in this area to really support people affected, recovering from or at risk in a disaster.

But traditionally, collaboration and coordination has been rurally derived, where you assume there is nothing and aid agencies are needed to gather [supplies] and do stuff. This is not the case in urban areas and the response approach has been markedly different. To support this, we need to ensure we are collaborating widely while thinking small geographically.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.