Urban Programming Sector Overview

March 21, 2010

In recognition of the rapid and complex global demographic shifts, resulting from rapid urban population growth and the complex dynamic of urban livelihood, Mercy Corps currently operates upwards of 50 urban projects in more than 20 countries, worth approximately $175 million. These projects specifically work to improve the quality of urban communities by developing programs that address the nexus of integrated and complex urban issues in order to support secure, productive and just communities.

Urban Poverty Reduction: Improving Access to Basic Services and Economic Opportunity

The development of a comprehensive urban poverty definition goes beyond income/expenditure considerations and includes a set of inter-related poverty criteria that reflect the conditions for meeting basic needs (shelter, health care and food, water and sanitation, employment, and transportation). Mercy Corps' urban programming increases urban communities’ access to basic urban services in order to improve the quality of life for urban citizens.

The Mercy Corps urban poverty reduction strategy includes two main objectives: increasing access to adequate and affordable urban services in urban poor settlements and increasing economic opportunities within the formal and informal sectors. The urban poor rely on effective economic and social coping strategies for land utilization, primarily through informal means. Low rates of formal land ownership hinder urban citizens from leveraging land as a livelihood resource or asset, and heighten their vulnerability to poverty.

Good Governance and Capacity Building

Municipal governments face a critical challenge from the compounding effects of population and poverty increases. Rapid increases in population and poverty rates place additional burdens on governments or jurisdictions with limited internal capacity (technical and financial). At the same time, low income residents—often with limited access to information and government channels — lack the political voice and representation to advocate for local development and service needs.

To improve the effectiveness, efficiency, responsiveness, and transparency of urban governance, Mercy Corps' urban programming supports initiatives that strengthen civic participation, as well as build the capacity of local government and community mobilization structures. Working to enhance existing mechanisms of democratic development processes, Mercy Corps' urban programming strengthens relationships between marginalized residents and local governments. Urban programming promotes the system and processes of good governance — striving for accountable, transparent, just, responsive, and participatory governance by actors at all levels.

Conflict Resolution and Peace Building

Scarce food, water, and land resources, can lead to environmental degradation, poverty, conflict, and migration in the absence of poor governance and regulatory systems, weak markets, and limited human and social capital for resource allocation and utilization. In these situations, urban policies related to housing and shelter, land rights, access to basic resources and employment can either exacerbate or ameliorate the underlying conflict, and thereby determine the role that urban areas play within the larger context of civil or inter-group conflict.

Through mutually beneficial partnerships, urban programming builds peace between disputing parties. Mercy Corps uses urban programming as a means to increase economic well-being, improve governance and community capacity building, and better manage natural resources — all of which combine to form a powerful means of promoting peace. To ensure sustainability, Mercy Corps engages partners across the public, private, and civic sectors.

Decreasing Urban Vulnerability to Climate Change and Disasters

Climate change is a lens through which to assess both threats and opportunities to urban development and humanitarian action. The interaction between urban poverty, natural disasters and social determinants of health determine climate change vulnerability. While urban poor populations are more likely to live on marginal land — prone to the risks of flooding, storm surges, and landslides — they are also most likely to have limited access to financial risk mitigation systems, such as savings accounts or property insurance; limited access to health risk mitigation systems, such as sanitation, clean water, healthy food; and limited to no medical care options.

Since the poorest residents lack social safety nets and often live in the most marginal of urban areas, they remain vulnerable to extreme weather events, which have increased in frequency due to climate change. These communities pay high costs in well-being due to the social determinants of health linked to settlement locations — often in close proximity to (or in some cases on top of) toxins, waste, and water and air pollutant sources.

All three of these conditions (climate change, vulnerable settlement locations and social determinants of health) increase the vulnerability of urban poor communities. Mercy Corps’ integrated urban programs identify and address vulnerability by building the capacity of the communities and local governments to generate local adaptation strategies.

Urban Food Security

Mercy Corps addresses the underlying causes of malnutrition in urban poor settlements by cultivating positive economic, health and social environments to directly improve access and utilization of adequate and affordable food and improving long-term food security. Inadequate food intake and infectious diseases cause malnutrition — a symptom of urban poverty.

Recognizing the urban specific conditions and constraints in poor urban communities, Mercy Corps implements an integrated program strategy to address the root causes of malnutrition. Mercy Corps focuses on reducing the burden of malnutrition for the most vulnerable, including pregnant and lactating women and children under five, with a special emphasis on children less than two years of age. Mercy Corps develops projects that complement both local government priorities and existing programs that focus on the golden ‘window of opportunity’ for preventing malnutrition: the age between birth and two years.


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