What is “Adequate Shelter?”

“Shelter is a critical determinant for survival in the initial stages of a disaster. Beyond survival, shelter is necessary to provide security, personal safety and protection from the climate, and to promote resistance to ill health and disease. It is also important for human dignity, to sustain family and community life, and to enable affected populations to recover from the impact of disaster.” Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response

Everyone has the right to adequate housing. This is not just my opinion. This right is affirmed in dozens of international treaties, conventions, charters, policies, and laws. It is a widely recognized standard that humanitarian organizations strive to provide for their beneficiaries. But what does adequate actually mean? Is it purely subjective, or are there standards to which we can hold one another accountable?

In 1997, a group of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) teamed up with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to form the Sphere Project. This project is an ongoing effort to consolidate all the mandates outlined in international law into one document that includes the basic, core principles that we can all agree on. The result is The Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response. Among many other topics covered in this 393 page document, minimum standards for adequate shelter, settlement, and non-food items are outlined in great detail.

The SPHERE standards first point out that in order to be adequate, housing provisions must at minimum fulfill people’s right to live in security, peace, and dignity, with protection from forced eviction and the right to restitution. Practically speaking, this includes:

  • Sufficient space and protection from cold, damp, heat, rain, wind or other threats to health, including structural hazards and disease vectors.

  • The availability of services, facilities, materials and infrastructure.

  • Affordability, habitability, accessibility, location and cultural appropriateness.

  • Sustainable access to natural and common resources; safe drinking water; energy for cooking, heating and lighting; sanitation and washing facilities; means of food storage; refuse disposal; site drainage; and emergency services.

  • The appropriate siting of settlements and housing to provide safe access to healthcare services, schools, childcare centers and other social facilities and to livelihood opportunities

  • That building materials and policies relating to housing construction appropriately enable the expression of cultural identity and diversity of housing.

There is a lot to consider beyond just a roof and four walls to keep people dry, clean, and safe! Where will people bath or use the toilet in a culturally appropriate and hygienic way? Where will people cook, and is there proper ventilation? Is it a cold climate, like the harsh winters in Lebanon and Jordan? Is it a rainy climate prone to monsoon rains and landslides, like Bangladesh? Is there sufficient access to water? Waste elimination? Electricity? All this and more must be taken into consideration when planning for shelter that can adequately meet the needs and rights of occupants. And it’s important to note that these are the very minimum standards. The foundational base to build from and continually improve.

How this plays out varies greatly by the cause of the crisis. In the case of natural disaster, the primary focus is to quickly provide temporary shelter and then help communities rebuild their original homes and settlements as soon as possible. But for people displaced by ongoing conflict, people who cannot return home for many years on end, other solutions must be found. Let’s look at some of the methods in use today and the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Prefabricated Shelters

Two types of prefabricated shelters in a Syrian refugee camp. Photo by Benjamin Rasmussen.

One approach has been to create high-quality, standardized shelters that can be quickly deployed and used worldwide in a camp setting. When entire shelters are imported and provided, NGOs naturally have the most control over materials and construction to ensure that recipients will have sturdy shelters and sufficient access to resources. While this is the best option in some cases, it’s also very expensive, sometimes culturally inappropriate, and can dampen the growth of the local economy or ongoing development of the host and displaced populations.

Local Materials

Shelter made from locally sourced bamboo using traditional construction methods in Kutapalong Refugee Camp, Bangladesh. Photo by Nicole Iman.

Sometimes shelters are constructed with a hybrid of local materials and imported supplies (such as using local wood for framing and imported tarpaulin to cover). This helps the local economy and gives displaced people agency to play a role in building their own homes and providing for themselves and their families while using construction methods with which they are already familiar. However, sometimes local resources are scarce. For example, a sudden influx in harvesting of wood or bamboo in the immediate region could have massive environmental repercussions. It’s also more difficult to ensure that all homes are constructed in an effective, durable design that can withstand the elements.

Urban Dwellings

Burj al Shamali Refugee Settlement, Lebanon. Photo by Claudia Martinez Mansell.

While millions of current displaced people and refugees are living in camps or temporary shelters like those described above, millions more are finding shelter in urban settings. In many cases, cash or subsidies are given for people to rent housing in urban areas. This gives people greater independence and opportunity to integrate in the host community, but it’s also very difficult for NGOs to ensure that people are actually residing in suitable housing and are not being exploited due to the sudden, competitive demand for housing. Refugees could end up paying a premium to rent a tiny, concrete room with no electricity, sewage, heat source, or ventilation, but supporting NGOs may not be aware because monitoring everyone’s living conditions in this situation is exceedingly difficult.

No One-Size-Fits-All Answer

Whichever of these methods is pursued, shelter response in protracted displacement must take an approach that moves beyond meeting immediate, emergency needs and includes consideration toward rehabilitation and development. The situations discussed here are just the tip of the iceberg of the many complex factors that go into planning and designing a response that provides adequate shelter. As you can see, it’s not as simple as just shipping in a few basic provisions! With each new crisis comes a surge of displaced people, and some crises continue on and on for decades. In each case, aid agencies themselves must ensure that they are responding in ways that meet our shared ideals and goals. This is not an easy task!

We at Every Shelter are committed to working closely with our partners who are providing these life-saving shelter services. We don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer for providing adequate shelter, because we know that there isn’t one. Instead, we come alongside our partners to navigate the specific and unique challenges they are facing in each particular location or situation, building new designs and innovations around actual, contextual needs. We emphasize collaborating directly with the refugees and displaced people we serve to address their specific situation.

There are 68.5 million displaced people in the world, all living in or in need of adequate shelter. That can be a daunting number, and thinking of it as a statistic or problem to be solved can lead to solutions that are very generalized. We choose to think about 68.5 million individuals. Humans. People we can talk to, hear their stories, and learn from their creative ideas. We recognize general solutions and systems are necessary for large global action and response, and we love to come alongside to supplement general solutions with an individualized approach, knowing that sometimes it’s the small things that can have the biggest impact.

Written by Nicole Iman for Every Shelter – 12.05.2018

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Joseph Otika

Shelter Depot Coordinator

Kampala, Uganda

I have a great passion for sustainable community development initiatives and strive to  position myself where my career can positively contribute towards improvements of the quality of life of disadvantaged people. As a Certified project management professional, I have had opportunities to work in both development and humanitarian contexts in Uganda for over 10 years. I have also worked in the post conflict situation in Northern Uganda. I am passionate about serving vulnerable communities and excited that Shelter Depot offers me a platform to do so. Supporting vulnerable persons and households is something I love to do and seeing smiles on beneficiaries' faces as a result of an intervention I am involved in, makes me happy. My biggest motivation to work with Every Shelter in the Shelter Depot project is the unique and innovative ideas around enhancing access to shelter improvement items through a social business model coupled with a humanitarian approach. I am excited about learning and expressing new positive ideas and look forward to ably supporting the Shelter Depot project to see it replicated and scaled to other places and refugee settlements.

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Noella Kabale Kalu

Advisory Board Member

Kampala, Uganda

Noella Kabale Kalu is a Congolese by nationality, living in Uganda as a refugee registered in the urban setting since 2011. She is the founder of REAL Uganda and Refugee Women Voices, a member of the Refugee-led Network (RELON), Refugee Representative at the CRRF steering working group. She aspires to build a society where women, men, and young females are treated with dignity, fairness, and respect, regardless of their status & and vulnerable conditions they find themselves in due to war, conflict, or other atrocities.

Andy Agaba

Advisory Board Member

Kampala, Uganda

Andy Agaba is a Praxis Fellow and the founder of Hiinga, a Christian Impact Investing Fund working across a spectrum of sectors including healthcare, financial services, education, agriculture, and manufacturing in East Africa. He graduated from Harvard Kennedy School where he was a Gleitsman Innovation Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership. At Uganda's Makerere University, he was a Poli sci major. Andy advises at the MIT Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship and is an award-winning documentary photographer.

Marie Nyiraneza

Advisory Board Member

Nakivale, Uganda

Marie is a Social Worker, currently working with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) as a Community Paralegal in Nakivale Refugee Settlement, and Interpreter for Refugee Resettlement Programs. Marie is a refugee from Rwanda and has lived in Nakivale Refugee Settlement since 2008. She holds a Bachelor in Social Work and a CEFE Licence for Entrepreneurship Trainer. She is passionate about contributing to the improvement of refugee livelihoods and is also a Master Trainer for the MarketPlace Literacy Program in Nakivale.

Sam Brisendine

Co-Founder and Board Member

Houston, Texas

As a designer from the private sector, I'm passionate about ideas that improve the lives of those in need. My experience designing buildings, products, and art has taught me an important lesson: The most meaningful work is produced when partners work hand-in-hand on a common mission. Over the past 5 years, I've watched Every Shelter transform from an academic pursuit to working (and learning) alongside world-class organizations to design solutions that bring dignity to displaced communities. I have never been more proud of the work we're doing and look forward to seeing how we can continue to collaborate to solve the challenges ahead.

Stefanie Cortez

Communications Specialist

Dallas, Texas

At Every Shelter I have the unique opportunity to use two passions in my life, mathematics and parenting, in one position. As a mathematician, I appreciate effective, elegant, and well-developed solutions to a problem. As a mom of two little ones, I also know the importance of sharing the stories, challenges, and successes of my life with my kids and others. As Communications Specialist for Every Shelter, I have the opportunity to inform the public about innovative designs as well as share the stories of people who are resolutely rebuilding their lives in new communities and countries despite overwhelming challenges. I believe that every person who reads about our work has the ability to impact people’s lives across the globe as they follow along with the journey to help people rebuild their lives from the floor up.

Lauren Hanson

Development Officer

Houston, Texas

As a mother to two young children, I cannot imagine the fear and despair I would feel if I was forced to leave the comfort of my home and community. The fact that this is a growing reality for so many people around our world is truly heartbreaking. I believe our compassion can make a significant impact in the lives of these displaced populations. As Melinda Gates writes, “Philanthropy is not about the money. It’s about using whatever resources you have at your fingertips and applying them to improving the world.” Therefore, it is my privilege to mobilize people to make a global impact with their time, gifts, and resources through partnering with Every Shelter as we labor to bring better provisions and life dignifying solutions to forcefully displaced populations.

Loise Wambui

Program Coordinator

Kampala, Uganda

I am deeply committed to advocating for joint solutions to economic and social development issues. I consider myself a global citizen with cross-cultural experience working as an economist in Eswatini, a Girl Scout volunteer in rural Switzerland, and teaching in Mathare, one of Kenya's largest slums. My desire to work towards dignified shelter solutions for vulnerable people started while working in Mathare Slums. Four years later, I am now working with and for refugees in Uganda. I have loved using my many abilities in this new sector, and my favorite thing has been working with local small enterprises and refugee organizations to sew the tarps! As someone conscious of how my own actions affect the wider community, I am always learning new ways to help make things a little better.

Nicole Iman

Co-Founder and CPO

Ras al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates

I’ve been traveling the globe in development-related pursuits for more than 20 years, working with people throughout the varied stages of displacement. During my tenure in Afghanistan, I saw first-hand the challenges my Afghan colleagues faced that caused them to flee for their lives. While studying in northern Uganda, I met families struggling through years of displacement despite multiple attempts to return home. Through volunteer resettlement work in the US, I welcomed resettled refugees hoping to rebuild their lives in a new place while mourning the loss of friends and family they left behind. I am keenly aware of the human tendency to look at images of displaced people and refugees and immediately categorize them as “other.” Through joining Every Shelter, I have the chance to share stories that can change that category to “one another” and help us work together toward dignified, human-centered solutions.

Scott Key

Co-Founder and CEO

Houston, Texas

The process of designing new approaches and solutions to grave issues drives me. I believe the private sector and its vast reserves of professional skills and resources can fruitfully add to the productivity of ongoing humanitarian efforts to create a more just and merciful society. We all have a responsibility to do our part, but I firmly believe that in giving of ourselves we receive far more back than we give. Wendell Berry writes, “life is a gift we have only by giving it back again.” As a father of two young daughters, I want to model the intelligent, diligent, and hard-working compassion toward our neighbor to which I believe we are all obliged. It’s urgent and important work that we do.