Kabul: the humanitarian city

Initially mandated to protect and assist, the humanitarian project in Kabul has significantly reshaped the city over the past decade. In the absence of democratic control, and in the face of pervasive neoliberal logics, what happens to Kabuli's right to the city?

Marianne Potvin
15 November 2013

New analytical tools are required to understand the production of space under humanitarian regimes. As the duration and the sites of armed conflicts change, as violence becomes “prolonged, simmering and increasingly urban”, humanitarian assistance is deployed more and more in dense agglomerations and complex urban systems. The concept of ‘Humanitarian Urbanism’ introduced here offers new ways to study the urban processes that emerge from humanitarian action.

Humanitarian Urbanism breaks with the “camp fetish” – that enduring tendency among humanitarians, architects, planners and urban theorists to think of humanitarian space only in terms of “camps”. As it becomes increasingly obvious that refugee camps – those remote, impervious and autonomous humanitarian enclaves–have become an obsolete frame of reference to talk about spaces of refuge, Humanitarian Urbanism suggests new avenues for addressing the broader geographies of humanitarianism.


Different types of humanitarian spatial formation. Marianne Potvin. Click to enlarge.

As opposed to camp-formations, Humanitarian Urbanism is characterized by active negotiations between the extraterritorial humanitarian space, the allegedly neutral space that was once contained within the protected boundaries of camps, and the state space, the territory onto which norms of national sovereignty apply. It unfolds in the interstices of splintered sovereignties, where the rule of international relief institutions substitutes or supersedes that of weakened states or cities.

Humanitarians no longer govern bounded territories, but rather dispersed and differing populations; their protective functions now permeate the daily workings of the ‘city’. Initially mandated only to protect and assist, humanitarian institutions are now substituting municipalities for prolonged durations. As a result, humanitarian and urban epicenters no longer stand as isolated entities, but physically and politically coalesce.

The case of Kabul (2001-2011)

The fragmented urbanism that has occurred in Afghanistan over the past decade illustrates the new urban conditions and new urbanization processes that emerge from prolonged humanitarian assistance. The case studies that follow uncover a pervasive agenda within contemporary humanitarian spatial practices, one that is preoccupied with capital production rather than social reproduction or even social ‘survival’, and one that caters to upper socio-economic groups while neglecting the poor.

Land Allocation Schemes

The exclusionary strategy adopted by humanitarian agencies to manage the massive waves of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and ex-refugees returning to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime provides a first example of a humanitarian-imposed territorial model. In concert with local political objectives, one of the international humanitarian community’s first move was to unroll a vast “Land Allocation Scheme” (LAS) to relocate displaced people far from the urban centers. The LAS, led by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), humanitarian in its essence, nevertheless ensured that ‘populations of concern’, to borrow the UNHCR’s own terminology, never reach the ‘city’.


LAS relocation site. Marianne Potvin.

It soon became apparent, however, that resettlement to remote, insecure and unwanted lands, which was performed in a legal vacuum, did not meet the needs or aspirations of displaced populations. The programmatically flawed scheme ended up generating secondary and tertiary waves of displacement to urban areas, where populations were met with political contempt and little international assistance. Beyond being vested in an insidious peace-building narrative, such policies diverted funds from urban areas, while simultaneously compounding pressure on existing, yet greatly damaged, urban infrastructures.

New Kabul Master Plan

The New Kabul Master Plan (NKMP), a plan to build a new city on the outskirts of Kabul, financed by international development actors, offers another perplexing example of the specific territorial model that is conveyed via reconstruction narratives. Denying the massive urban needs in “old Kabul”, The NKMP points to a clear prioritization of profit-oriented urban development that caters to local elites, over an urbanism preoccupied with meeting the overwhelming needs of devastated populations. As delusional as the plan may be, it is problematic to observe that the allocation of the bulk of the urban reconstruction resources is being orchestrated through international recovery policies, whose proclaimed goal is human development and the restoration of basic services for all.

Not only does the NKMP exemplify a free-market capture of the urban reconstruction agenda, it also suggests a “post-conflict” version of gentrification, which implies a stable urban realm and deliberately ignores the surrounding violence. This in itself perpetuates a non-inclusive vision of the city, one that parallels the exclusivity of the camp approach.


IHFP Kabul New City Development animation, Rafaat Ludin, All Rights Reserved.

Kabul Informal Settlements

As a consequence of the exclusionary visions conveyed in the two previous examples, the humanitarian response in urban centers has remained gravely underfunded by the aid community, while barely tolerated by municipal authorities. Indeed, the phenomenon of urban displacement only begun to officially emerge as a humanitarian concern in 2008-2010, years after the onset of the humanitarian surge, at a time when massive in-migration to Kabul had already established itself as an uncontrollable “problem”.

One of the most recent programs set forth to deal with urban humanitarian needs in the Afghan capital, the “Kabul Informal Settlement” (KIS) project, led by the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (UN-OCHA), has targeted informal neighborhoods exclusively. This way of approaching the urban – by artificially circumscribing specific sites of intervention in the complex urban fabric – is reminiscent of the ‘camp bias’; it indicates that the fictional model of the well-ordered camp still lingers in the institutional ‘psyche’ of humanitarian actors.


Kabul. Marianne Potvin

In so far as they overlook the needs that exist in those neighborhoods that may seem more “formal” in appearance yet still remain under served, humanitarians are participating in deepening a formal/informal divide instead of addressing a continuum of urban vulnerabilities. They are –perhaps unknowingly– mirroring the biases of local municipal officials, who have been starkly opposed to receiving returnees or IDPs in their capital.

Humanitarian space and the right-to-the-city

These brief cases indicate a lack of understanding, from the part of humanitarian actors, of both the spatial configurations resulting from crises and forced displacement, and of the city as a cohesive whole. More importantly, the examples above also reveal that the territorial model imposed through humanitarian interventions in Afghanistan is fundamentally at odds with the idea of the right-to-the-city for vulnerable populations.

Since the 1970s, humanitarianism, as an ideology, a movement and a set of institutions, has come to resemble a variegated landscape of international NGOs, civil society actors, donor and private sector enterprises; more partisan, more political, thus less neutral. As the humanitarian project shifts its focus from protecting life to exporting western versions of peace, democracy and economic development, it has exposed itself to potential exploitation by a for-profit logic. More importantly, the ‘emergency’ or ‘life-saving’ mandate under which humanitarianism operates, prevents it from having to deal with the complex power plays taking place in spaces of extreme uneven development. 

The humanitarian project has become one of interventionism, now deeply rooted in human rights and human security narratives. And yet, as David Harvey points out, “values of individual freedom and social justice are not necessarily compatible”; we are thereby left wondering what happens when individual rights are protected, but the ‘commons’ are not, and when the collective appropriation of the space of the city is not addressed at all by those responsible for its rehabilitation.

In reference to humanitarian camps mentioned earlier, architectural theorist Eyal Weizman alludes to the possibilities for the “politics of humanitarianism to give ground to the politics of the displaced”, suggesting spaces where displaced and disempowered populations can “reclaim the rights to politics, to practice it oneself, and not be the political object of others”. In doing so, he may well be suggesting avenues for a post-interventionist mode of Humanitarian Urbanism, echoing what Harvey calls a “genuinely humanizing urbanism” (Harvey, 2003). As Harvey notes, “a different right to the city must be asserted”, further stating that “derivative rights (like the right to be treated with dignity) should become fundamental and fundamental rights (of private property and the profit rate) should become derivative” (Harvey, 2003). Perhaps this is what is required for humanitarian enclaves to become cities, and for cities to become true asylums.


Harvey, D. (2003). The right to the city.International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27(4), 939-941.

Weizman, Eyal. (2012). The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza. Verso, 2012.

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