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Settlements Approach Guidance Note: Where boundaries and action merge, December 2020

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The Settlements Approach Guidance Note is a tool for changing humanitarian circumstances.

The humanitarian landscape is transforming quickly. Uncontrolled urbanisation, environmental pressure, and protracted armed conflicts present new challenges. They affect the built and natural environments, protection systems, essential services, governance capacities, markets, and livelihoods in unprecedented intersecting ways. Indeed, such stressing factors often occur simultaneously. That in itself increases the need for humanitarian response, especially in vulnerable territories. This growing complexity demands localised, multisectoral, collaborative and inclusive approaches to address multi-faceted vulnerabilities. It also demands aid organizations prioritise interventions in the most affected territories.

In the face of these challenges, the humanitarian community has made some important commitments in recent years. Initiatives such as the Grand Bargain, the Localization Agenda, and the Nexus have prompted us all to reconsider how we deliver humanitarian assistance. They call for a more integrated approach to humanitarian response, more tangible links between emergency and development interventions, and to empower local stakeholders to play a more prominent role in crisis responses. Place-based, community-based and multisector undertakings are hence quickly regaining traction in humanitarian action. Such efforts come with a pressing demand for dedicated technical guidance.

The settlements approach offers both principled and practical guidance to operationalise such commitments. It uses the human settlement as the primary unit to build meaningful and collective solutions. It aggregates sector and project-specific expertise at the local level. It addresses needs across multiple sectors and assists all population groups. It paves the way towards longer-term outcomes.

By providing a clear socio-spatial framework to work from, the settlements approach guides aid agencies to plan and deliver more efficient, targeted, and localised interventions.

The Settlements Approach Guidance Note consolidates current practices and experience, drawing on more than 30 case studies. It was collaboratively written and peer reviewed by subject-matter experts, under the auspices of the Global Shelter Cluster, with financial support from USAID Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance, and in consultation with and contribution from other cluster partners, NGOs and donors. We hope it is a base for further discussion and operationalisation in appropriate contexts, including better collaboration between sectoral actors, national and international stakeholders, and humanitarian and development agencies.



Drawing upon existing good programming practices and frameworks, the Guidance Note includes the following content:

Chapter 1, INTRODUCTION TO THE SETTLEMENTS APPROACH, describes the settlements approach, reasons to use it, its key benefits, when it is appropriate, and how it complements existing approaches and principles. The chapter highlights how the approach benefits not only the affected population, but also local stakeholders, and humanitarian agencies. While the settlements approach might be more appropriate to use in some contexts than others, the chapter demonstrates its flexibility and emphasises that it is compatible with existing humanitarian architecture.

Chapter 2, CORE CHARACTERISTICS OF THE SETTLEMENTS APPROACH unpacks the four core characteristics of the settlements approach:

  • It targets specific geographic areas of high needs

  • It is multisectoral

  • It recognises and engages with multiple stakeholders

  • It considers the whole population.

The chapter explains the concepts behind the settlements approach by outlining 12 key principles. The guidance here explores why applying them in combination at a more localised level can achieve improved program outcomes. It also highlights a number of challenges that practitioners might need to overcome. The chapter provides a rational basis for putting the settlements approach into practice; by understanding the principles that underpin it, practitioners are more likely to make it work.

Chapter 3, OPERATIONALISING THE SETTLEMENTS APPROACH gives practical suggestions for implementing the settlements approach. Key actions are suggested for the project management cycle. These actions show how to identify settlements of concern, undertake fit-for-purpose needs assessments, use the generated evidence to plan a strategic response that will guide a collaborative approach to implementation and monitoring.

Case studies throughout Chapters 2 and 3 present examples of the settlements approach in practice. They show how a traditional focus on administrative boundaries can lead to missed opportunities and misunderstandings. They also highlight the importance of collaborating with local stakeholders and of engaging them in any humanitarian response. Several emphasise the value of involving the whole population, including marginalised groups, throughout the project management cycle.

The chapter includes notes and resources to support practitioners implementing the actions. Each section in Chapter 3 includes indicators that can be used to track the effectiveness of the settlements approach.