ICSOs and Cities of Opportunities: Connecting Culture and Innovation

7th February 2020 by Sanjee Singh

Sanjee Singh, Director for International Housing Programs at Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI), explains why the theme of this year’s tenth World Urban Forum (WUF), ‘Cities of Opportunities: Connecting Culture and Innovation’ is highly relevant to the work of international civil society organisations (ICSOs). She shares key lessons from HFHI’s significant experience in designing and delivering innovative urban programming promoting inclusion and cultural diversity. 

This is our second perspective from a leading international CSO highlighting working in urban contexts around the world, sharing thoughts on why this is a significant driver for innovation in our sector accompanying our first guest blog from World Vision. Sanjee will also be presenting at our networking event at the World Urban Forum on Monday 10 February. 

Be part of our Innovation Report 2020 on ‘Civil Society Innovation and Urban Inclusion’


Driving Sustainable Urbanisation through Innovation & Culture 

International civil society organisations have an important role to play in the sustainable development of cities and urban environments. As we move towards 2030, implementing the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda requires prioritisation and collaboration between communities, governments, and private and development sector actors. 

Achieving these global ambitions requires special collaborative efforts, sharing best practices and knowledge, targeting resources and linking marginalised communities with public and private sector opportunities. This year’s 10th World Urban Forum is about ´Cities of Opportunities: Connecting Culture and Innovation´. It offers ICSOs a place to share their programming lessons and experiences and to tie some of these threads together.  


Partnerships & Initiatives Supporting Culture & Innovation in Cities 

Cities are centres for innovation, employment, creativity, and social and economic development. They are complex environments that are constantly changing. Navigating this complexity and addressing challenges around affordable housing, informality and inequality requires innovative solutions and collaboration between multiple partners and sectors.  

Habitat for Humanity`s work as an international housing CSO centres around everyone’s need for a home, and recognises that adequate and affordable is critical to building better cities. We take a people-centered, partnership-driven and ecosystem-wide approach to tackle the affordable housing challenge in cities.  

Habitat’s Global Urban Approach advocates for comprehensive programing that tackles the housing challenge from an innovative perspective, based on a deeper understanding of the entire housing ecosystem and the cultural and contextual needs of marginalised communities 

 The core objectives of our approach include: 

  • Designing and implementing more inclusive urban housing programs that contribute toward improvements in the living conditions for marginalised communities, and systemic market and policy enhancements across the entire housing ecosystem, implemented through people-public-private-partnerships. 
  • Creating unique urban hubs, networks, coalitions and platforms that bring together urban practitioners, researchers and policymakers, to create a common vision for development and addressing urban challenges through innovative solutions.  
  • Demonstrating the transformational impact of housing, its linkages to other sectors and contribution to broader urban development. 


Lessons from designing comprehensive innovative urban programs for inclusion and cultural diversity 

As cities grow, so too does the need for affordable housing, basic services, social services, infrastructure, etc. However, cities and local governments are struggling to meet the demand caused by rapid urbanisation, which is resulting in growing informality and inequality. Limits to access and affordability mean that marginalised communities struggle to gain access to networked infrastructures, social services and affordable housing. This is pushing them to the insecure edges of urban areas, such as informal settlements, making it even more difficult for them to vulnerable to be able to and difficult to cope with the impacts of climate change, natural disasters and conflict. 

Our urban programming over the last decade has taught us something important: designing comprehensive urban programs to improve scale, quality and impact require: 

  • Partnerships: People-public-private-partnerships that drive urban programming around a common development vision are essential and create space for greater inclusion. These partnerships are critical for supporting assessments, program design and implementation. 
  • Systematic assessments: Effective urban programming requires the use of culturallyrelevant evidence-based solutions that fit the local environment and context 
  • Co-design and co-implementation of urban programs: The results of these systematic assessments should serve as a guide for designing and implementing programs. This design requires innovation to address the specific constraints, gaps and opportunities identified to address the urban needs and priorities of marginalised communities 
  • Effective entry points: These depend on community priorities, available resources and capacity. They may include: basic services, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), community infrastructure or development, housing construction or repairs, increasing security of tenure, advocacy, policy recommendations or capacity building, disaster risk reduction; or increasing accesses to housing finance, products and services. 
  • Timing: A minimum of five years is needed in a targeted area to achieve impact and build the partnerships necessary to ensure sustainability 
  • Monitoring, evaluation, accountability, learning (MEAL) and knowledge management: Promoting good MEAL practices throughout the project’s life cycle and documenting lessons, best practices and results is vital to promote transparency between stakeholders and foster a culture of accountability and evidence to guide actions. 


    The complexity of the urban challenge requires innovative, cultural and contextually relevant solutions implemented through matrixed partnerships. Implementing comprehensive urban programs contributes toward improving the quality of life of marginalised communities, systemic market and policy enhancements and the sustainability of urban areas.  

    HFHI is partnering with the International Civil Society Centre, World Vision and Slum Dwellers International on ‘Civil Society Innovation and Urban Inclusion’ to create more spaces for our sector to develop a common learning agenda to inspire and inform continuous improvement and innovation. By doing so, we believe that ICSOs will be better placed to strengthen their impact and influence in connecting culture and innovation to make cities places of opportunity for everyone. 

    Sanjee Singh

    Director for International Housing Programs

    Habitat for Humanity International

    Sanjee Singh is the Director for International Housing Programs at Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI), based out of Atlanta, USA. Sanjee is a solution-driven strategic thinker and natural collaborator with more than 20 years’ experience in international development. She is skilled at building strategies, policies and programs to drive enhancements and systemic change leading to greater impact and outcomes. Sanjee is part of the Global Programs Design and Implementation Team at Habitat for Humanity International, focusing on the development of the organization’s Global Urban Approach and supporting the design implementation of comprehensive programs across Habitat’s federation. Sanjee has Bachelor of Science in Town and Regional Planning and a Master’s Degree in Public Development and Management from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She is passionate about contributing towards sustainable development, gender equity and building processes and partnerships that improve outputs, outcomes and impact of teams, projects and programs.

    Podcast: Global China strategies for civil society organisations

    5th February 2020 by Thomas Howie

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    This podcast focuses on findings from our Civil Society Sector Guide on the growing global influence of China, summarising key themes, implications and recommendations to better prepare international civil society organisations for this major global trend. The guide was produced as part of our Scanning the Horizon work.

    Producer: Julia Pazos


    Scanning the Horizon Sector Guide #1: “Strengthening the adaptive and collaborative capacity of internationally-operating civil society organisations (ICSOs) related to the rise of China” – icscentre.org/wp-content/uploads…-November-2019.pdf

    Blog: A Better China Strategy for International Civil Society – www.chinafile.com/ngo/analysis/bet…al-civil-society

    Blog: How Amnesty International is Engaging with China Abroad – icscentre.org/2019/11/29/how-amn…with-china-abroad/

    Thomas Howie

    Communications Manager

    International Civil Society Centre

    Thomas joined the Centre in June 2017 as the Communications Coordinator. He is responsible for developing and implementing the Centre’s global communication strategy, as well as the Disrupt & Innovate platform – a place for civil society professionals and activists to discuss current innovations and future trends in the civil society sector. Prior to the Centre, Thomas worked for 5 years in the European Parliament firstly as the Digital and Social Media Coordinator for the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament, and then, after the 2014 European elections, for Jude Kirton-Darling and Paul Brannen as Head of Communications, where he worked on issues such as the EU-US trade deal, issues around Brexit and as a specialist on the Petitions Committee. Thomas graduated from Bristol University with BSci in Geographical Sciences and holds an MA in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford, where he completed research into the role of civil society in the post war peace settlement in northern Uganda.

    Why ICSOs need to make more sense of the city in our urban century

    3rd February 2020 by Aline Rahbany 

    Aline Rahbany, Director for Urban Programming at World Vision International, explains that in this “urban century” it is paramount for international civil society organisations to rise to the complex and interconnected challenges presented by cities in order to improve people’s lives. She suggests several different ways for ICSOs to do “things differently” in order to meet this challenge. Aline will be out or networking event at the World Urban Forum on 10 February, please join her and us if you are there.

    Be part of our Innovation Report 2020 on ‘Civil Society Innovation and Urban Inclusion’

    We are living in an urban century

    Around us, people are continuously moving to cities, towns and other rapidly urbanising areas. Due to innovation in technology and infrastructure, the world is connected in a way as never before. Cities are providing opportunities for improved wellbeing, happiness and productivity. But not everyone is entitled or able to access these opportunities. Inequality is on the rise. The face of poverty has changed. Urban residents and communities are grappling with increased fragility. Violence, wars and conflicts are increasingly occurring in cities. For the first time in history, a stand-alone goal exists to make “cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” – livable for all. While this commitment should be celebrated, fundamentally the international community continues to fail at producing cities that serve everyone equally.      

    Making sense of the city

    Like other international civil society organisations (ICSOs), World Vision has been investing in alleviating poverty and responding to emerging disasters and crises, mostly in rural, stable communities. Over the past 10 years, as an organisation, we have been forced to direct our attention to understanding the new trends of poverty and humanitarian crises, not least because children are the first casualties. Urban contexts are complex and challenging: there are multiple layers of governance; inequity can be seen with informality and extreme poverty present at very close proximity to high-rise buildings and rich financial institutions; the number of key urban players and influencers is massive. 

    In such settings: 

    • understanding context, needs and opportunities takes time and requires intentional engagement at the local level; 
    • partnering is simply not optional, but absolutely essential for the effectiveness and survival of the organisation; 
    • showing the impact of our interventions is not easy. 

    Over the past 10 years implementing urban programming, World Vision has learned that we need to be doing things differently. It takes a whole-organisation approach to comprehensively address the issues faced by the most vulnerable and marginalised groups in urban contexts. It is not only about innovation in programming, but also taking steps toward more structural, organisational change to increase agility, flexibility and responsiveness to a fast-changing environment.

    We need to do things differently 

    The city provides opportunities to work differently. Population density means we can reach more people living in the same geographic area than with our rural interventions. Infrastructure and mobility allow for faster response. Functional markets present opportunities to boost the local economy. Cities often have financial resources that CSOs can tap into. 

    There is still, however, so much more to learn about working effectively in urban areas affected by poverty, violence, conflicts and fragility:

    • We need to invest more in integrated programming that empowers people. As CSOs, we are still used to developing sectoral interventions; but people do not see their wellbeing in such siloed terms. 
    • We need to learn to navigate the complex layers of urban governance and work effectively with the formal and informal actors who influence the lives of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups. This means stepping out of our comfort zone to connect with actors we have never had relationships with before but who can deepen our impact in these contexts. We cannot let our organizational bureaucracy risk limiting our ability to maximise these critical partnership opportunities.
    • We need to look to the city as a system where challenges are interconnected and recognize that we simply cannot achieve our desired impact if we work alone. This means letting go of organisational egos and being transparent about the investment we are making and the change it is contributing to. 
    • We need to revamp staff skillsets to ensure they are able to connect as meaningfully with the children in the public spaces we help rehabilitate as they can with the local mayor providing support from the local municipality, and the bank investing in the intervention. Versatility in local capacities is key. 
    • Finally, we need to learn more about how to institutionalise our efforts, and how to support and capacitate municipalities and other local and citywide actors who will continue to be there after international organizations leave. 

    Join us! 

    I am very excited to be part of the upcoming World Urban Forum 10 Networking Event on “Civil Society Innovation and Urban Inclusion” where I will join peers from other CSOs to discuss how our organizations have been working differently to address the issues and needs of excluded groups in cities and other urban areas. Visit our website to find out more about World Vision’s work in cities.    

    Aline Rahbany 

    Director for Urban Programming

    World Vision International

    Aline Rahbany is the Director for Urban Programming at World Vision International, based out of Toronto, Canada. Aline currently holds a global portfolio at WVI, with previous roles with its offices in Lebanon and the Middle East and Eastern Europe regions. Aline has more than ten years’ experience in the international humanitarian and development field, working on research and learning, strategy development, program innovation and technical support in urban contexts, including fragile cities. Aline advocated on behalf of World Vision for the adoption of urban SDG11 and influenced the development of the New Urban Agenda to be inclusive of children and youth at Habitat 3. She is passionate about inclusive cities and advocating for groups who are “deliberately silenced or preferably unheard”.