Strengthening urban resilience in African cities: Understanding and addressing urban risk

Robyn Pharoah


As part of its programme on strengthening urban resilience in African cities, ActionAid commissioned research to better understand the risks faced by urban poor people on the African continent. This exploratory research comprised a desktop review of the literature on urban risk in Africa, and fieldwork in three cities in Senegal, The Gambia and Zimbabwe. It examined hazards, vulnerabilities, local capacities, power imbalances and underlying risk drivers to identify strategies for enhancing resilience to disasters, climate change and conflict in Africa’s urban environments.

Key findings:

This research shows that disaster risks in towns and cities are strongly linked to underdevelopment. Insecure livelihoods; a lack of basic infrastructure and services such as water and waste management; poor urban and land planning; inadequate oversight of urban planning, land-use and building standards; as well as low accountability for the provision of infrastructure and basic services all increase poor people’s exposure to hazards, and vulnerability to their effects. Consequently, reducing risk and building resilience to disasters in urban areas requires tackling the developmental issues that underlie it. This requires improving infrastructure and services, and strengthening livelihoods, all of which are critical in reducing exposure to hazards and enhancing people’s ability to cope with and recover from disasters. It is essential to facilitate and support efforts by governments to reduce risk, while at the same time holding them to account through transparent, responsive and proactive governance structures. It is equally important to involve the private sector, as business and industry often contribute to risk on the continent.

Reducing risk and building resilience in towns and cities in Africa requires holistic action at the local, regional and national levels. It requires:

  • Empowering communities to identify, reduce and manage risk.
  • Strengthening governments’ capacity to reduce risk, particularly at the local level.
  • Strengthening urban planning and regulatory frameworks.
  • Facilitating dialogue and collaboration to reduce risk.
  • Non-governmental organisations, UN agencies, civil society and community groups also need to develop strong relationships, and collaborate.
  • Focus areas should include working with communities to identify, strengthen and diversify livelihood opportunities, especially for young women and men.


Pharoah, R. (2016). Strengthening urban resilience in African cities: Understanding and addressing urban risk. Johannesburg: ActionAid International.