Learning about learning in humanitarian urban operations

Decades of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, an occupation and internal political divisions have fuelled a complex protracted crisis in the occupied Palestinian Territories (oPT), with almost half of the population in need of humanitarian assistance. 

A recent ALNAP case study explores the approaches taken by the Gaza Resilience Programme (GRP), an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) initiative aiming to strengthen the resilience of systems and communities in Gaza through context-appropriate humanitarian response.

In this blog, ICRC’s Federico Sittaro, Michael Talhami, Joana Cameira, Natalia Blanco Guiard and Tammo Van Gastel, share the journey that led ICRC to creatively re-imagine its methods – better accounting for interconnected systems, operational resilience and sustainability of humanitarian impact. For more information, read the ICRC's report 'Towards more Effective Humanitarian Operations in Urban Areas of Protracted Armed Conflicts'.

"How curious to find that a circular logic is the only way out of an unending cycle of conflict and violence."

The most important lesson we have learned from our attempts to assist service providers in Gaza is that we still have so much more to learn. How curious to find that a circular logic is the only way out of an unending cycle of conflict and violence.

We began to question the assumptions that our urban systems projects were founded on: 'Are formal and informal sectors truly incompatible with one another when delivering essential services?’, ‘Are coping mechanisms developed by the population in response to service gaps always a pain point for service providers?’.

Questioning these assumptions pushed us to change the way we function internally. We departed from nearly two decades re-drafting annual plans, replacing the yearly planning cycle with a more adaptive and iterative process, and we began to develop more context-specific approaches to traditional humanitarian problems.

Protracted conflicts: humanitarian and development needs meet halfway

Gaza is the quintessential protracted conflict, with full-blown emergencies and pressing development needs. Under full territorial closure and a naval blockade for decades, the small territory has sustained repeated large-scale attacks, with periods of lower-intensity hostilities in-between. The prolonged violence has taken its toll across generations, from children who have experienced trauma to parents who are unable to find work.

Bridging the humanitarian – development divide is no abstract dilemma for the public health and water providers of Gaza. They must prepare at once for the next great disruption, be that an escalation of conflict or a new outbreak, while maintaining their “day to day” planning work for five or ten years into the future. Balancing this workload is no simple task when 97% of the water is unsafe to drink, electricity is available a maximum of eight hours a day, and the risk of disease outbreaks puts intense and constant pressure on healthcare systems (even before COVID-19). 

In 2012, Gaza was projected by the UN to be ‘unliveable’ by 2020. Today, it is in a precarious and vulnerable situation. Yet, it is precisely the remarkable resilience shown by the people and institutions in Gaza that made us ask: ‘Could those solutions that are developed organically by the users of our services, directly inspire our humanitarian objectives?’ A new generation of projects began to emerge.  

A new way of reasoning

To begin our learning journey, we spoke with colleagues, external partners and citizens of Gaza about how different systems interact. We reviewed reports, evaluated household coping mechanisms, mapped hundreds of generators and climbed over roofs packed with solar panels. We found that some of our projects have had unintended consequences, a revelation which led to more self-criticism than we care to elaborate on, but that also led to a new way of reasoning – and acting.

To make the most of the little power that does exist in Gaza, our teams help local providers to analyse the benefits of installing ‘smart meters’ in apartment blocks. By tracking individual electricity use closely, the demand for electricity could be distributed more widely – meaning more regular supply for everyone involved. When our engineers realised hospital water supplies were jeopardised by a lack of electrical power, they decided against the traditional humanitarian answer of sourcing a bigger generator – which would have increased the hospital’s dependency on fuel – instead working with local technicians to adapt and increase the efficiency of existing equipment. 

"We realised the need to start a journey outside the traditional comfort zone of a humanitarian agency."

What’s next?

The learning approach behind this way of working does not necessarily require more money than traditional approaches, but it does demand a sustained intellectual effort. Institutions must provide frontline staff with considerable ‘space’ to reflect, assess, evaluate, and navigate fears that arise from trying new approaches.

We still firmly believe there is room for traditional humanitarian work. We will continue to develop emergency preparedness plans, set up tap stands, restore bombed-out pumping stations and maintain stores of backup fuel for hospitals. But we’re moving away from projects developed from a single field visit or request, towards horizon-scanning. We’re using sophisticated analysis to strengthen our understanding of how these complex systems work under the stress of humanitarian crisis. We do not have all the answers, but we value the questions more and more. We are reaching for public health data and electricity inverters alongside the “scalpels and duct tape”. 

Further reading