Across the Pond: Attending the 22nd UK Shelter Forum

What is the future of shelter?

Shelters provide refuge for families displaced by conflict and violence, drought and inhospitable lands, or sudden on-set disasters. Beyond survival, shelters are one of the first and most meaningful steps in restoring a sense of safety, privacy, protection, comfort, and hope. The “past” of shelter includes fast and compassionate responses across the globe, but also examples of sectorally segmented, donor-driven, and poorly designed shelters and programs.

At the 22nd UK Shelter Forum, a biannual meeting of shelter practitioners, donors, and academics, organizers kicked off the event by challenging attendees to contemplate how old practices can best adapt to a changing world and asked what is the future of shelter? 

Prompting questions such as Will there be continued incremental change or major disruption? and, how much does the shelter sector need to challenge itself to change? invited us to consider leverage points change is desirable and feasible.


Christina Bennett set the tone for the morning with her presentation of ODI’s Constructive Deconstruction research, an ambitious reimaging of humanitarian practice. She argued that past calls for reform have “tinkered around the edges” and failed to address the core architecture of humanitarian shelter. In response, her team has been piloting what they see as three complimentary future visions: the new humanitarian basics, network humanitarianism, and humanitarian anchoring.

The first, the basics, suggests we rescope to a rapid and nimble response by aiming to be gap-fillers, much like the international humanitarian community filled gaps in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. The second vision sees networks as the 3.0 following (1.0) bureaucratic and (2.0) market-based humanitarian approaches. Finally, the third approach suggests anchoring need identification and delivery on the social economy. It was understandably a mile-a-minute session, but overall exciting to learn that ODI is prototyping various digital tools, finance mechanisms, and operations schemes to test their ideas. They also published a podcast episode for each of their three visions for humanitarian action.

Following the morning keynote, we broke out into smaller discussion groups to get into the nitty-gritty of issues such as urbanization, cash programming, and the Grand Bargain. I joined the group prompted with What are the measures of success? led by Victoria Maynard.

Victoria challenged us to not only question typical measures but who chooses measures of success versus who should. Past success in shelter programs has commonly been measured by the number of housing kits distributed or shelters built. The cluster of mini-group discussions bounced around measures addressing tenure, health, resilience (of both house and household), the ratio of external programmatic aid to household contributions, and longitudinal performance.

After lunch, I was humbled to follow presenters from the Norwegian Refugee Council to share some of the findings emerging from our research in Tacloban City. In connection with my USAID/OFDA Shelter and Settlements Fellowship, I’m indebted to Iru Serra-Lasa and Jake Zarins of Habitat for Humanity for making it possible to steal a few minutes.

The conversations towards the end of the day were less distinct in my mind, but rather weavingly addressed ongoing issues and the need to collectively develop improved practices. For instance, there’s a push among donors to return to more meager basic relief aid, so humanitarians need to get better at justifying why we do what we do—and backing it up with data. At another moment, one attendee suggested scrapping the notion that we do relief at all—international agencies are rarely on-site in the first 48 hours after a disaster—and instead accept that humanitarians do recovery.

A sister event to the UK Shelter Forum, the Shelter Meeting coming up in a few days in Geneva. If only it was a little easier to jump across the pond everytime I wanted to go to an exciting meeting!

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