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.
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.
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.