Image adapted from © Jeffrey Beall

In recent work with the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement (UN-HLP), JIPS together with the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and UN-Habitat highlighted the specific challenges and opportunities that characterise urban displacement and the need to rethink our response (Nunez-Ferrera et al., 2020). Their work reiterated the call for a paradigm shift in addressing urban response and displacement, put forward by global policy debates – from the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit to initiatives such as the Localisation Agenda of the Grand Bargain, the New Way of Working, the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus, and most recently echoed by the UN-HLP (UN-HLP, 2021, p.13, 28). They converge around global-level priorities, that are pointed out as being specifically relevant in urban settings: i) the centrality of local governments in responding to urban displacement; ii) the need for more integrated emergency and development interventions that support urban systems; and iii) the importance of investing in durable solutions for internally displaced, while considering the social cohesion of local communities (UN-Habitat et al., 2021; UN-HLP, 2021).

Effectively addressing displacement in urban areas requires a shared understanding of the systems, forces and actors shaping the complex urban environment. It also necessitates an analysis of the vulnerabilities and socioeconomic conditions of displacement-affected and host populations, their intentions and the factors shaping their integration. This is key “to arrive at a more evidence-based, strategic and contextualized humanitarian and development response to crisis” that can both address acute needs and accelerate recovery, while taking long-term impact into account (GAUC, 2019, p.7).

Urban profiling is being highlighted as a particularly well-suited approach for analysing displacement in a holistic way within the context of systems that organise a city (GAUC, 2019, p.5) and is thus expected to effectively deliver on the above-mentioned global-level priorities. Nevertheless, as stressed by the Global Alliance for Urban Crisis and JIPS, there is currently a critical knowledge gap on how urban profiling is used by stakeholders and what impact it can have. A clearer picture of both can contribute to its wider use and improved implementation (GAUC, 2019; Loose & Maguire, 2020).

To address this gap, and in line with its strategic efforts to link field practice with global policy, JIPS conducted research on the use of urban profiling, and on the pathways that link it to global priorities for urban displacement response. Building on the work that fed directly into the UN-HLP’s final report, the analysis draws on profiling exercises that JIPS has supported in Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq (2015-2016), Mogadishu, Somalia (2015-2016), 21 cities in Syria (2018-2019), 7 cities in Yemen (2018-2019), and in Luhansk Oblast, Ukraine (2019-2020). A desk review was combined with semi-structured key informant interviews to put the views of local authority representatives and development practitioners front and centre. While its limited scope does not allow for broad generalisations, the research findings can shape a more impactful design and implementation of urban profiling, and enhance the practice of local and international actors working on analysis of displacement and response in cities.



The global discourse demonstrates a change in the attitudes and perceptions of international actors when thinking about internal displacement in urban areas. It has also prompted a revision of how actors may assess displacement situations in urban areas, or the needs of the affected populations and the urban environment around them. This is captured in new guidance papers that either put forward new analytical tools or strive to improve existing ones. Common analytical strategies believed to be better adapted to urban settings are area-based, context-sensitive, whole-of-population and multi-stakeholder approaches. They aim to provide information on both people and places, that is useful to all the actors involved in displacement response – whether local authorities, humanitarians or development practitioners – in the hope to support local leadership, to inform complementary and coherent humanitarian and development interventions that benefit both displaced and host communities as well as the places they inhabit, and to underpin durable solutions and social cohesion. These analytical approaches have also been brought together in urban profiling practice (see info box on urban profiling).

For example, recent urban profiling exercises supported by JIPS included area-based analysis (Erbil, multiple cities in Syria and Yemen); context analysis (several cities in Syria and Yemen); and whole-of population analysis (Erbil, Mogadishu, Luhansk Oblast). In addition, urban profiling exercises have continuously refined multi-stakeholder approaches to facilitate consensus on, and ownership of the data gathered; to share capacity; to disseminate the results; and to encourage the coherent use of data by local and international stakeholders alike.

By combining these approaches, profiling can bring together analysis of a city’s systems and its diverse population, to “support the joint actions, plans and strategies of local governments and other crisis response partners” (GAUC, 2019, p. 17). Building on this premise, the research undertaken by JIPS found that urban profiling practice feeds directly into urban response priorities such as local leadership, a more integrated response, and durable solutions.

Importantly, local government officials and urban practitioners involved in this research saw a direct relationship between the collaborative nature of the profiling process and the use of its results, with its contribution going primarily into informing planning and decision-making.

In some cases, urban profiling even motivated system-wide changes by highlighting institutional gaps in the local institutional systems and opportunities for innovating governmental practices and programmes, and by providing a basis for addressing social cohesion. It also pushed for advancements in research practice. Let’s take a deeper look into the findings and key insights on each of the global-level priorities:


Local actors and specifically governments need to be fully integrated into international and national government responses to urban internal displacement (UN-HLP et al., 2021, p.2). They are often the primary responders and remain long after external actors have left (UN-Habitat et al., 2021; UN-HLP et al., 2021, p.2)

While progress has been made, more needs to be done to transform programming on urban internal displacement – and international humanitarian initiatives in particular – to adequately incorporate local governments' viewpoints, plans and needs(UN-HLP et al., 2021, p.2).

Google Earth (CNES / Airbus Maxar Technologies)

Urban profiling exercises helped local authorities better direct their strategic planning and decision-making to address displacement, including the financing of interventions. In Mogadishu, Erbil, and Luhansk, the profiling data enabled targeted programs by the local governments that addressed the needs of the displaced and host populations as well as the urban environment around them. It further served more broadly as reference in their strategic urban planning and programme documents. The profiling was also a much-appreciated opportunity to strengthen their approach to decision-making based on the evidence generated.

Profiling data also helped sub-national authorities to communicate their needs to higher levels of government and donors, and to inform investment plans. In Mogadishu, this enabled them to mobilise resources for a more coherent, predictable response to population needs, such as for adequate and more secure tenure.

In addition to supporting fundraising efforts, urban profiling practice also boosted local capacity, facilitated by the multi-stakeholder nature of the process. In Mogadishu and Erbil, for example, local authorities’ technical capacities were improved as a result of the profiling process.

In Mogadishu, the profiling furthermore helped bring about systemic change by identifying gaps in the institutional landscape that, when filled, would enhance local leadership in addressing urban displacement. Thanks to financial incentives and political support, the momentum was harnessed to create new institutions such as the Durable Solutions Initiative at the federal level and the Durable Solutions Unit at the local level, to strengthen cross-sector linkages, and to enhance existing programming and practices through innovations such as new partnerships with private sector actors for improve tenure security.


  • Aligning the profiling exercise with national or sub-national policies or strategies can enhance local uptake and evidence-based decision-making

The profiling exercises in Mogadishu, Erbil, and Luhansk provided an opportunity for local governments to make decisions based on sound evidence related to displacement in their cities or regions. But key informants also noted that there is room for improvement, by better aligning data collection to national or local planning cycles to avoid findings becoming out of date by the time the bulk of the planning and budget allocations are done. Aligning the profiling to national or subnational planning cycles helps ensure a better uptake of its outputs, while giving local authorities more opportunities to streamline evidence-based decision-making across their internal planning processes.

  • The momentum created by collaborative urban profiling, when harnessed, can lead to enhanced local institutional leadership

Profiling exercises help identify capacity gaps in the local systems by pointing out key issues and their magnitude – for instance of a protracted displacement situation linking to overall poverty levels –, that the current system doesn’t have the capacity to handle. When these insights are met by financial incentives and political support, the momentum can be harnessed for systemic change by supporting the creation of subnational institutions or policies aimed at tackling displacement, and by generating cross-sector collaborations and innovations in local practice and programmes.


The piece-meal, short-term, and uncoordinated interventions observed in many crisis responses are inappropriate for urban internal displacement contexts (UN-Habitat et al., 2021, p.4).

Integrating humanitarian and development interventions in a coherent and shared vision should go towards improving local systems. It should go beyond the humanitarian model designed for the provision of lifesaving assistance, towards a development-oriented approach (UN-HLP, 2021).

Image adapted from © Chad Nagle

Urban profiling processes also provided a valuable platform for joint data collection, analysis, and programming across the humanitarian, development and governmental sectors involved in addressing urban displacement.

In Syria and Yemen, the profiling applied an area-based approach and used an urban functionality index to understand which areas were most in need of humanitarian and/or development interventions. This also allowed to ground operational planning in the context and in a shared knowledge base. Similarly, the area-based approach of the profiling in Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, allowed to align subsequent development investments by focusing them on areas with high concentration of vulnerable populations, thus paving the way for collective outcomes.

“On a global level you have pretty abstract concepts, […] protecting people in places for example, or involving local governments, or improving multi-level governance. […] What you can do with an [urban profiling] is to see how it is actually happening and how these high-level concepts actually play out in a place. […] You need to first have this in-depth analysis of a city – what’s the history of the tribes, how do the tribal relations play into national politics –, and then how, within this context, can we design something around social cohesion. And so, without the urban profiling, you sort of miss that whole translation layer” (Development Practitioner, Yemen).

In Mogadishu, the multi-stakeholder profiling exercise made joint relief and development programming possible: “What the [urban] profiling did was to bring together the humanitarian and the development actors to start to build programs that were multidisciplinary and also were both development and humanitarian work. One of the programs [engaged] development actors, including UN-Habitat for urban planning and city development, to lead on the medium to longer-term activities such as livelihoods to [enable the absorbing of] the scale of displacement. And then it brought in UNHCR to look at the protection violations that were still persistent. So, it allowed for the first wave of programming that would bring together these different components” (Local Authority Representative, Mogadishu).

Profiling practice also brought about a shared knowledge base leading to system-wide improvements through increasingly reliable tools and methods for data collection. Profiling outputs were acknowledged as a reliable source of information that other research can build upon, avoiding the duplication of efforts to collect data. In Syria and Yemen, the urban profiling tools and methods of data collection and analysis were applied to different cities, which helped save time and obtain more comparable and reliable results.

The urban profiling sets a base upon which each agency can decide how to move forward, with more sophisticated analysis or the actual development of a project concept” (Development Practitioner, Iraq).


  • Keeping up with the changes of a displacement situation and the urban environment asks for an iterative and layered approach

Displacement in urban situations are typically dynamic and evolve over time. This also comes with changing information needs, which require that the analysis approaches and tools are adapted to keep up with these changes. As seen by the key informants, urban profiling has the unique value added of allowing for such an iterative and a layered approach.

Accordingly, data can be systematically updated and enriched to monitor and continuously improve the analysis of a situation over time. “Obviously data changes especially during the crisis, so it should be updated very regularly. That’s why I think more people are now moving towards the [online data] portals that can be updated online” (Development Practitioner, Iraq). In addition, it can be layered to capture both slow-evolving aspects, such as with remote sensing data on the built and natural environment as well as infrastructure, and faster-paced elements, such as demographic data, displaced people’s movements, vulnerabilities and preferences for solutions, natural disaster mapping, administrative boundaries, and settlement densities at different moments in time. This helps build a shared understanding of urban displacement from the outset, and ensure the results are relevant and useful to both humanitarian and development responses over time.

  • Response coordination cannot happen without local governments’ inclusion and adequate dissemination

It was highlighted that specifically in urban environments, it was critical to coordinate relief and development interventions with local authorities, as well as with other urban actors and local stakeholders. Moreover, identifying and including local actors that can champion the uptake along the entire data life-cycle was considered essential so that the profiling outputs could outlive the initial data collection and analysis process. In contrast, the use of profiling outputs by international agencies was seen as being mainly driven by a well-planned dissemination that involves humanitarian and development actors with mandates in different sectors.

I think the most important part comes after the [profiling] is done. What you do with the [profiling] is what is actually going to create change. […] When you ask the question on […] what are the things you can do with it right now and what we can do with it later on and who needs to be doing something with it. And that process needs to be supported somehow by actors like JIPS, but also by local champions that can move it forward” (Development Practitioner, Syria).


IDPs, cross-border displaced people and host communities, especially urban poor, are often mixed in urban environments. Protracted displacement further blurs the lines. Solutions for IDPs must thus consider their specific vulnerabilities, while being viewed alongside solutions for other groups.

This requires a holistic, whole-of-displacement approach that takes into account the needs of the communities in areas of both displacement and origin (UN-Habitat et al., 2021; UN-HLP, 2021, p.9).

Image adapted from © AU-UN IST Photo / Stuart Price

Urban profiling directly informed durable solutions strategies. In Mogadishu, the 2015-2016 profiling results were used as a baseline for the city’s Durable Solutions Strategy 2020-2025. The results also served advocacy efforts to target funding and increase the saliency of durable solutions locally. Similarly, due to its “durable solutions lens” highlighting barriers to IDP return, the profiling data and reports on Syrian cities were used for advocacy-related research by the Durable Solutions Platform (DSP), an initiative with a focus on generating evidence and convening dialogue around durable solutions as they pertain to the Syria crisis.

In Luhansk, the profiling provided evidence about the composition, situation, and intentions of IDPs residing in the urban and peri-urban areas of the region (NRC et al., 2020). Among other aspects, the data underpinned critical advocacy activities targeting different branches of the government and helped reshape local employment support programs.

“The information received from the datasets of the profiling was used to better design employment programs. Before the profiling was conducted, local authorities in the Luhansk region [assumed] that in order to employ IDPs you should create programs that require unqualified labour. […] After the data was released, and after our advocacy work based on this data, this program has been adjusted because the majority of IDPs in the Luhansk region have higher education and they are qualified specialists which requires different job opportunities” (Development Practitioner, Luhansk).

The urban profiling exercises furthermore contributed to more equitable programming and improved social cohesion. An area-based approach proved very useful to understand and address the social cohesion challenges in Erbil, where profiling outputs were used to focus on rebuilding social ties between different population groups (IDPs, refugees and host communities) and to strengthen the resilience of urban areas confronted with a massive influx of displaced populations. In Mogadishu, the profiling helped local authorities compare the needs of IDPs to other displaced and host community groups, including urban poor, to better define vulnerable categories and allocate assistance.

“You have people who have been here for 30 years. Yes, they have been displaced but now, they are themselves urban poor rather than an – quote unquote – internally displaced person, because they are not going back. So, even the definition or how we measure all these things, for us as a government is important so that we understand […]. At the end, it is about service delivery from the municipality’s perspective, about making sure that the basic needs of both displaced and urban poor are met and not just those who by definition are called IDPs” (Local Authority Representative, Mogadishu).


  • Approaching IDPs as citizens, not as a humanitarian caseload, can pave the way to social cohesion

Rather than a humanitarian caseload, local authorities interviewed for the purpose of this research regarded displaced individuals as current or future local citizens, and preferred to look for “win-win” interventions that improved the life of both the displaced and host communities, as interconnected and interdependent population groups (also see Earle & Ward, 2021, p.1-2). This approach avoids singling out IDPs at the expense of other vulnerable categories and has the potential to support social cohesion. To support this paradigm shift, practitioners of urban profiling should continue to refine the comparative analysis of vulnerabilities across all urban population categories. As profiling practice in Mogadishu and Erbil shows, consulting local community actors who are aware of the relevant socioeconomic and socio-cultural cleavages can greatly enhance the relevance of comparative analysis.

 “To us as municipality it doesn’t really make a difference from the perspective of making sure that both indigenous residents and those who now made Mogadishu their city of choice to stay in, have the same dignity and equitable access to resources and services. […] In the end, the municipality is to serve the needs of everyone, displaced or not. […] We are able to differentiate who is an urban poor versus who is an IDP, but also come up with a collective response, a development approach rather than humanitarian intervention” (Local Authority Representative, Mogadishu).

  • A process that is inclusive of communities and non-traditional stakeholders can lead to local innovation

While the exercises reviewed as part of this research have engaged displaced people in the profiling process, such as in Luhansk, IDPs also need to be included in the decision-making process. This research reveals a significant gap in this regard, pointing to the absence of mechanisms for the participation of IDPs in such processes. Civil society and the private sector are also largely overlooked. Local authorities pointed out that leaving out these key stakeholders can lead to the loss of an important potential for innovation and bottom-up solutions to displacement. Through its multi-stakeholder approach, profiling can promote and protect the political participation and representation of IDPs by including them, whenever possible, as stakeholders rather than just information sources. The local IDP Council in the case of the profiling in Luhansk Oblast constitutes a unique set-up in this sense, enabling displaced populations to participate in the displacement response. Another example is Mogadishu, where innovative partnerships with private sector actors helped explore ways to overcome key displacement-linked vulnerabilities related to housing and tenure.

I always found that a lot of the innovation that is already happening within internally displaced communities, that they are using to address their own protracted displacement challenges, are often overlooked by the federal government, municipal authorities and certainly by the international community. Because a lot of the time, they are stuck at a macro level of addressing the challenges of displacement. […] Agencies or donors […] continue to prioritise the state-building aspects of it. The state-building aspects ­– as important as they are – don’t provide day-to-day solutions” (Local Authority Representative, Mogadishu).


Through this research, JIPS hopes to inform a more impactful profiling practice by providing evidence on what enables local uptake and by revealing pathways to a more localised, integrated urban response and longer-term solutions. Local authorities and development practitioners both regarded urban profiling as a useful process that contributes to effective planning and decision-making at different government levels. Its uses ranged from advocacy to operational planning; from coordinating collective outcomes to financing interventions. In some cases, it influenced system-wide change, pointing to institutional gaps in the local institutional systems and to opportunities for innovating governmental practices and programmes, and providing a basis for addressing social cohesion. It also pushed for advancements in research practice, such as transferable methodologies and substantive knowledge that prevent the duplication of efforts across the sector.

JIPS’ research showed that the uptake of urban profiling outputs was driven by a combination of internal and external factors. These include inclusiveness and dissemination, timing and costs, which are aspects of the process that can be adjusted in the profiling planning and design to encourage a better use of profiling outputs. On the other hand, external factors such as the institutional context (resources, political will and ownership of the various stakeholders critical for carrying out displacement responses) and the broader situation (disruptions such as changes in the political regime, the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of follow-up, political instability and the external infusion of funds associated with it) are not under the control of the profiling exercises. Nevertheless, JIPS’ study showed that they can be positively influenced, for example through collaborative processes and capacity building. Together with environmental disruptions, the institutional context can be anticipated and factored into the profiling planning process as threats or opportunities of profiling use.

Overall, this research revealed that urban profiling is much more than the sum of its parts and analytical approaches. There are numerous positive externalities of collaborative processes, such as the embedded capacity building or capacity sharing. But it was also the tailored analytical approaches to stakeholder information needs and context constraints that helped urban profiling support a better response. The below visual summarizes how the analytical components of urban profiling have supported the different global-level priorities:

Moving forward, expanding the research to other urban profiling exercises and displacement settings would allow further testing the relations uncovered by this study, for more generalisable findings. This could also explore how the inclusion of IDPs and non-traditional stakeholders can be strengthened; how the findings can be disseminated more effectively and broadly among the diverse stakeholders involved in responding to displacement in urban settings; how applying an iterative and layered approach to urban profiling can be used to enhance the analysis and keep the data updated and useful over time; and how to better embed the profiling exercise in, or align it with, national and sub-national planning and budgeting cycles, particularly in contexts with ongoing humanitarian interventions and thus diverse information needs.


JIPS is an interagency service set up in 2009 and dedicated to bringing governments, displaced persons, host communities and national and international actors together to collaborate towards durable solutions for internal displacement. JIPS is a globally recognized neutral broker that supports collaborative and responsible approaches to data collection and use in internal displacement contexts, with a particular focus on developing national capacities, protracted displacement, durable solutions, and urban displacement.

This is done through technical and collaboration support to field partners, by providing quality guidance and hands-on tools, and by advancing global discourse towards sound global action and standards. JIPS is overseen by an Executive Committee comprised of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), and the Office of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of IDPs

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Research and story editing: Silvia Gugu, Ph.D. (independent researcher); Corina Demottaz, Ola Samarah (JIPS)

Infographics and illustrations: Corina Demottaz (JIPS)

Web development: Matthew Lukin Smawfield (M&D Smawfield Consultancy Ltd)

Appreciation also goes to Wilhelmina Welsch (JIPS), Dr. Isis Nunez Ferrera (UN World Food Programme), Melissa Weihmayer (London School of Economics and Political Science), Lucy Earle (International Institute for Environment and Development), Christopher Ward (independent researcher), and Stephanie Loose and her team (UN-Habitat) who reviewed this publication and provided important feedback.

This publication was made possible through the generous support of the American people through the Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA) of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Danish Development Cooperation Agency (DANIDA). The contents are the responsibility of JIPS and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or DANIDA.

Suggested citation: JIPS. (2021). Working With Cities to Deliver Solutions for Displacement: What We Can Learn From Urban Profiling Practice.

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