Strengthening Infrastructure Capacity to Support IDPs

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By the end of 2019, more than 40 million people globally had been forcibly displaced from their homes. Before COVID-19 dominated the headlines, developing countries already faced a growing number of shocks such as droughts, floods, and earthquakes. These events have led to large population shifts. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) frequently move to urban areas with the hopes of accessing employment, housing, and other services. These types of natural disasters, as well as conflict events, have escalated in frequency and severity over the last decade. The novel coronavirus has made life even more precarious for already vulnerable populations.

Although leaders of developing countries are aware of these increasing shocks, few have been able to adequately address their effects, especially on the most vulnerable populations. The COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered additional challenges for cities in low- and middle-income countries. The question of how cities can best support IDPs in informal settlements and slums has taken on renewed urgency.

In the development community, there are varied opinions on how best to protect IDPs. Our research under USAID’s E3 Analytics and Evaluation Project reinforces that infrastructure and planning – and in particular, engineering and architecture capacity in cities – are critical to support these displaced populations. Increased engineering and architecture capacity can build city resilience to shocks such as the current pandemic. 

Over the past year, our research team conducted 120 interviews across eight cities in Colombia, Kenya, and the Philippines. The team spoke with government officials, NGO managers, professional associations, community leaders, and other infrastructure professionals to understand local differences in architecture, engineering, and construction capacity and discover how cities plan, prepare for, and support IDPs. 

Our work is ongoing and predates the current pandemic but viewed in the current context, it’s clear that infrastructure professionals and city leaders can play a big role in mitigating the effects of shocks on IDPs.

The Needs of Vulnerable Populations Matter  

The current pandemic has highlighted the difficulties IDPs face in following even basic preventative recommendations, such as not being able to regularly wash their hands due to a lack of access to clean water. Displacement also limits access to employment opportunities, which in turn influences whether people can afford to shelter in place. Such living conditions leave many IDPs exposed to respiratory diseases and other illnesses. Social distancing is not viable in high-density informal settlements. 

Also, millions live in urban spaces that are not officially recognized, either because they are un-zoned or are zoned for alternative uses such as greenspace. This affects service provision, as decision-making processes often do not include the displaced. Urban planning that accounts for the reality and inclusion of informal settlements and the presence of IDPs could dramatically improve the safety of the most vulnerable. Engineers, architects, urban planners, and other construction professionals can help design spaces that meet the needs of all community members. 

Cities can envision multi-purpose buildings and options for increased access to services such as clean water, sanitation, and healthcare. For example, in Bangladesh, USAID helped build a “multi-purpose cycle shelter.” This was a school that was also designed to function as an emergency shelter that could withstand natural disasters like flooding. This approach to urban infrastructure design is not yet common across USAID investments, but there is great potential for the Agency to re-formulate the approach to development via holistic infrastructure planning. Architects, engineers, and humanitarian aid workers should jointly design infrastructure in addressing needs related to IDPs. 


Workforce Capacity Matters

During interviews with our team, people shared stories of collapsing buildings in low-income neighborhoods. Many attributed these events to unclear approval processes, substandard materials, and limited oversight. Unsurprisingly, the capacity of local architecture, engineering, and construction professionals appeared to be highest in urban centers and capitals. This meant supervision was limited in small cities and growing townships, where a single engineer may be responsible for enforcing safety standards across an entire city. 

Furthermore, our research showed that a lack of coordination between different offices resulted in failed attempts at infrastructure. For example, housing built for new migrants may not consider access to transportation or basic utilities, resulting in largely unusable developments. Local professionals will need to embrace the potential of density rather than view it as an unfortunate inevitability. In Colombia, this took the form of local officials recognizing and eventually supporting community centers in informal settlements that would have otherwise been ignored. In Kenya, it meant developing a small-scale water delivery system in a neighborhood that is officially a “blank space” on the zoning map. 

Policy Matters 

Policy choices and economic realities in urban and peri-urban areas leave IDPs vulnerable to infectious diseases and other risks. 

While responding to shocks requires bold action, our research suggests that international donors, city planners, and other officials have opportunities to take small steps to help the most vulnerable. For instance:

  • Formally recognize slums in city zoning and planning to allow residents to advocate for themselves; 
  • Survey land to improve service delivery in settlements that are officially considered unoccupied;
  • Include IDPs in decision-making processes regarding investments and activities about their wellbeing; and 
  • Strengthen the capacity of engineers and architects to better incorporate and anticipate IDP needs in infrastructure investments – invite humanitarian experts to join engineering/architecture teams and vice versa. 

The current pandemic has given a devastating picture of how a public health crisis can overwhelm densely populated areas and stress the basic services that cities provide. The need to address risks from COVID-19 is clear, but it is important to also recognize that, for the most vulnerable, these risks stem from a legacy of neglect, displacement, and political priorities. Donors, national government officials, city managers, and others have many tools at their disposal to strengthen urban infrastructure to combat traditional challenges associated with urban resilience, while at the same time combatting the spread and impact of COVID-19. Agencies like USAID can increase the resilience of cities by helping strengthen the capacity of infrastructure professionals.


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