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!

Reflections on 4ICUDR

Mid-October I had the amazing opportunity to attend the 4th International Conference on Urban Disaster Reduction in Wellington, New Zealand.

The conference venue, photo kindly borrowed from Architecture Now

I hope the original conference founders forgive me if I get this wrong, but the conference series began in the early oughts as a collaboration between American and Japanese researchers, expanded to Taiwan in the next round, and the third conference was held in Boulder two years ago. For the 4th, New Zealand researchers jumped into the mix, which was really special because many of the local presenters were able to speak from their recent experience with the Canterbury earthquakes. On top of the diversity in nationalities, I really loved the eclectic mix of practitioners and academics at the conference. There was a troop of fellow engineers as well as accountants, public policy folks, sociologists, economists, psychologists, public health experts, and even a law professor.

Me, likely talking way too fast

I presented on the initial analysis of interviews and observations from July and August in Tacloban City. In this phase of research, I’m really digging into understanding the institutional environment influencing relocation and construction decisions. In the same session another graduate student, Sam Penta from the University of Delaware, presented on her work to analyze post-disaster decision making and it was really fun to connect with her on our varying strategies. Her advisor at the Disaster Research Center, Tricia Wachtendorf, predicted research partnerships between us once we’re grown up academics with PhDs in hand. I’m totally on board. Sam is great, and I really loved the conference-wide emphasis on feedback and networking for young researchers. There was clearly a tradition of long-lasting relationships founded at previous ICUDR events, and I’d be thrilled to join the family.

There were a few presentations that have stuck in my mind, I’ll share them briefly in case any fellow hazard nerds find inspiration like I did. First, Tricia presented on a little-known part of 9/11, the waterborne evacuation of hundreds of thousands off of Manhattan Island. It was organic and spontaneous, smartly coordinated by the Coast Guard but lacking any pre-arranged plan. Working with James Kendra, also from the Disaster Research Center, Tricia found that many of the responders gravitated to help in “the only way they knew how”, acting off their expertise and identity as mariners. She compared it to a puzzle so large that individual actors could not know what the picture looked like and only had the means to stitch together a few pieces, but they trusted that others would be working on the puzzle pieces they couldn’t see and solve. For instance, ferry operators had no idea what would happen when they dropped people off in New Jersey, but it turned out a legion of bus operators was standing by to handle that piece of the puzzle. I thought it was a great analogy for emergency management, but I also realized that after an emergency, during long-term recovery, improvised and unassisted puzzle construction slows. In long-term recovery, actors can no longer operate under the assumption that random and unknown others are also working on the puzzle. Coordination is hard and requires purposeful, habitual, communication. I’d also argue that for successful recovery, the best outcomes will be derived from a shared picture of the puzzle while the individual actors work on their few pieces.

James Kendra also had a presentation, a bit of an off-the-cuff reflection of the needs and growing trends in the disaster research field. The biggest need in disaster research? More. Simply more. James cited a shift in hazards, changing recovery strategies (re: relocation, holla!), degradation of infrastructure and critical interdependencies as drivers for more disaster research. He also responded to common criticisms of disaster research, particularly critiques of the researcher’s impact in the emergency environment. He shared stories over his decades of disaster research that pushed back on negative myths and demonstrated researchers are not in the way, they don’t consume scarce resources, and they are not manipulating interview participants who are too distraught to provide informed consent. He argued that quick reconnaissance research should be kept informal and low impact, and in doing so is not a drain or detriment to the response effort.

Dr. Kendra delivering his thoughts on changes in the disaster field

Dr. John Hopkins, a Scotsman uprooted to New Zealand, provided an impassioned argument “in defense of red tape” from his perspective as a lawyer and law professor. He explained legislative controls, the bureaucratic processes that counter executive discretion, exist for good reasons and those good reasons don’t disappear during disaster recovery. Rather, in the exact moment we may most direly need good governance structures, we come to label those structures “red tape” in the way of swift and valiant recovery actions. I was intriguing because I’ve found the degradation of several conventional regulatory processes in Tacloban City has had unintended and unfavorable consequences on the quality and timing of the relocation project overall.

My favorite presentation was by Dan Neely, a community resilience manager for Wellington. He talked about the city’s efforts to draft a post-disaster recovery framework now, in the pre-disaster time. The average reader might not be so impressed, but I was elated. Wellington’s plan is rare and wonderful. Thinking about the recovery environment ahead of time allows for an alignment of expectations. It’s an opportunity to decide power distribution depending on the scale of the disaster and put careful thought into communication and coordination. Honestly I failed to take good notes on the talk because I was just wrapped up in listening.

There were many, many more stellar researchers and plenty of newcomers like me. The executive director of EERI, Jay Berger, is extraordinarily kind and noticeably took time to reach out to all the young researchers. I was stoked to meet economist Ilan Noy, who recently published an article with World Politics Review that I really loved. Keynote Dr. Kimiro Meguro shared lessons from Japan and emphasized the need to act smartly in a disaster regardless of how your location is coded on a hazard map; “some people misuse hazards maps as safety maps.” John Vargo from Resilient Organisations kindly invited me to dinner with several New Zealand researchers. I found a kindred spirit in Marc Azotea because he’s also from the Philippines… then I remembered oops no, I’m not a Filipina I’ve just been surviving on adobo and kinilaw the last few months. Marc moved to South Korea for his graduate studies even though he doesn’t speak Korean, mastering civil engineering and a new language at the same time!

I made many of them promise to try their best to attend the Natural Hazards Workshop in Colorado next July—hopefully I can keep my end of the deal and attend as well!

I Heart Meetings

I know, I’m some sort of freak of nature. Something inside me lights up when I gather with others to share knowledge and solve problems. I glow after a particularly high-energy or productive meeting. I even love meetings with friction and a little healthy contention. Lucky for me, the last two weeks have been filled with meetings where skills grew, wicked problems were stared down, and I witnessed the making of impactful decisions.

First, Oxfam connected city and NHA engineers with experts on decentralized wastewater treatment systems and everyone came together for a capacity-building workshop. On the first day the consultant team, Basic Needs Service Philippines (a partner organization of the BORDA network), presented introductory knowledge on the global sanitation situation and walked the team through the basics of wastewater treatment. Then we piled into multi-cabs and headed up north to check out the site we’d be using as our example design layout for the remainder of the week. The next day was the core of the workshop, learning how to design anaerobic baffled reactors and planted gravel filters. I was desperate to learn about the assumptions BNS recommended. Without any way to test the BOD and COD, central design parameters for ABRs, I’ve felt like an engineer with my hands tied behind my back. The decision to select ABRs followed by PGFs was made before I arrived, but I’m told they were favored because they are relatively simple to design, construct, and maintain – and not too painful on the budget either. So far the city engineers have proved at least one of those aspect to be true, everyone caught onto the design process extraordinarily fast.

Two design groups, one for a 100 household design and one for 250, hard at work

At the workshop we all collectively learned on one example site, we didn’t actually design the systems that will eventually be built on the relocation sites throughout Tacloban North. For that, the bulk of my job will be encouraging all of us to put our new skills to work before they have a chance to atrophy.  On Tuesday of the next week we set out to keep the wastewater momentum going and held the first sewage technical working group since the inauguration of the new city administration on June 30th. At the technical working group we had a chance to re-engage leadership at the City Health Office, and I was happy to see how motivated they are to be a part of the process. Ted relaxed while I led the meeting and it felt really good to begin moving out of the role Ted’s tagalong and into that of a contributing team member with my own scope of responsibility.

Except I was a little disappointed at the timing of my independence… UN HABITAT was simultaneously leading the third installment of Tacloban’s local climate change action plan. Leaders in the city government and international organizations met to discuss emerging threats to Tacloban’s environment and discussed the city’s adaptive capacity in major thematic areas such as social capital, infrastructure, and the economy. A less integrated me, unburdened by conflicting tasks, might have been able to plop down for the entirety of the event and soak it all in. When we had a few spare moments over the three day event Ted and I would drop in and engage where we could, but we were disappointingly unable to be permanent participants. However, I was able to spend a few blissful hours with the infrastructure group discussing how resilient the city’s urban infrastructure is to any flood, tsunami, earthquake, high wind event, or increased temperature extremes.

My final meeting was in Manila, hosted by the National Economic and Development Authority. Ted and I boarded a plane out of Tacloban at six in the morning and were walking up the steps of NEDA by ten. We were both overcome by how grandiose it felt compared to our usual meeting locales. I really don’t think Ted knows who Drake is, but he turned to me and said “stared in the province now we’re here” in a way that was so strikingly on beat it’s like he was truly referencing the song. First to arrive in the meeting room, we took several giddy pictures of our name tags and the beautiful space.

2016-07-21 10.02.30Working alongside the Leyte Metropolitan Water District, we were there to advocate for our recommended mid-term water solution for Tacloban North resettled communities. In the long run a fully connected pipe system will be laid, but such systems take considerable time and we need a decent windfall of funding to deliver water in the interim. With the Department of Budget and Management, the Local Water Utilities Administration, and the National Housing Association all in attendance I necessarily took a near fly-on-the-wall role. But a very happy fly-on-the-wall fantastically awed to be included in the room at all. And good news! The project can continue marching on now that we’ve secured approval to construct an urgent piped system. This will be different from the long-term network, which is drawing and transporting water from an ample source in the mountains. The mid-term plan will rely on source development to construct reservoirs. These reservoirs won’t have enough capacity to fully supply Tacloban North, in fact they’ll often need to be manually filled. Rather each of the three source points will serve as a water hub, with the spokes consisting of a pipeline extending to the nearest communities. It’s not ideal as a permanent solution but much better than the alternative, endlessly trucking in water tankers from a town 30km away.

Outside of all these really exhilarating [to me] meetings, I did spend some brief time in the sunshine. Ted, Lila, and I were invited out to a friend’s newly purchased island to visit his rehabilitation of the island’s hatchery. He’s an Australian man with a hobby of starting businesses around Leyte. Just before departing for the island we stopped at the market to see a stall selling tilapia from his company’s fishery in Tacloban North, the first entrance of local tilapia in the market. The hatchery was build 20 years ago through bilateral aid with several European countries. Beautifully constructed, the community wasn’t properly trained on it’s delicate management and the concrete has since been overrun by the jungle. Visiting the refurbished hatchery was a bit of educational eco-tourism, but I think we were really there for the food. We had a feast of local seafood, the mussels in particular were harvest barely only 50 meters away.

Life in Tacloban is turning out to be a rhythm of hard work and great food. Visit if you can, keep reading either way!