Contested Public Authority in Marginal Urban Areas: Challenges for Humanitarians

Dolf J H te Lintelo, Hart Ford, Tim Liptrot, Wissam Mansour and Aline Rahbany

Forced Migration Review, Issue 63, February 2020


In Lebanon and Jordan, the international community is increasingly shifting support from national governments to municipalities, in recognition of the critical role they play in responding to forced displacement, and as part of a broader localization agenda. Large numbers of Syrian refugees have settled in informal urban settlements, including Palestinian camps and unofficial gatherings. Municipal authorities tend to have little or no presence in these areas, and this vacuum is filled by de facto governance actors (e.g. traditional leaders, tribal networks, influential individuals, criminal gangs, labor brokers, militias, faith-based groups and local committees). The authors’ research suggests that the localization agenda currently fails to take proper account of influential local governance actors, which impedes the ability of humanitarian organizations to broker support for highly vulnerable populations living in these areas.

The authors identify five key recommendations for designing and implementing humanitarian and development interventions in complex, low-income urban areas:

  • Undertake a strong context analysis, at local area or neighborhood level including stakeholder mapping, analysis and simultaneous equal engagement with state and non-state actors.
  • Communicate with communities to build consensus on program objectives. The order in which stakeholders are engaged is important and can close doors later if missteps are made early on.
  • Foster greater dialogue between implementing partners and donors. Donors could offer more practical guidance on how to operate with non-state public authorities that are deemed to exclude certain groups, and provide greater clarity on ‘red lines’ in the case of proscription policies.
  • Place greater emphasis on the role of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator.
  • Support primary data collection, to generate deeper knowledge of the impact of humanitarian and development interventions on the legitimacy of state and non-state actors governing low-income informal urban settings.


Jordan | Lebanon | Syria