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:

  1. Sufficient space and protection from cold, damp, heat, rain, wind or other threats to health, including structural hazards and disease vectors.
  2. The availability of services, facilities, materials and infrastructure.
  3. Affordability, habitability, accessibility, location and cultural appropriateness.
  4. 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.
  5. 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
  6. 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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