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Humanitarian shelter and home-based work

Victoria Maynard7 July 2022

The future of humanitarian response is urban.  More specifically, the future of humanitarian response is in informal settlements in urban areas in the Global South.  In these contexts 20-50% of households run small home-based enterprises from within or around their home.  It is also estimated that home-based enterprises generate 50-75% of household incomes.  Home-based enterprises can take many forms.  They can be as simple as a table or chair—from which to cook, sew or provide haircuts; or the use of a room or window to make or sell goods and services. They include kiosks and extensions, to the use of a whole floor of a home for a shop, café, or workshop.

Despite the prevalence and importance of home-based enterprises to households living in informal settlements, they remain largely overlooked within the humanitarian shelter and settlements sector. The latest edition of the Sphere Handbook (2018) states that shelters must be “located to provide access to livelihoods opportunities” which should be “close to the shelter”. Similarly, Shelter Projects Essentials (2021) includes a diagram which states that shelter should be “near my work”.  However, for many families their home is itself the place where they earn a living—so shelter recovery plays a critical role in their ability to restart their livelihoods.

In addition, if we ignore home-based enterprises then we are ignoring women. Most home-based enterprises are run by women and at least 50% more women work in households with home-based enterprises than those without.  We are also missing a massive opportunity to help women restart their livelihoods. In 2005 Sheppard and Hill argued that home-based enterprises are “the single most important income source for the populations most affected by disaster”.  While the contribution of shelter to home-based enterprises is “the most important way that shelter can support economic development in post-disaster societies”.

5 years after the Indian Earthquake Ocean and Tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia, a woman uses the porch of her reconstructed home as a shop. Source: Maynard et al 2014.

Recognising the importance of this topic, in 2021 Beth Simons, Elizabeth Wagemann, and I published a chapter on ‘Supporting the Recovery of Home-Based Enterprises’ in the Roadmap for Research for Humanitarian Shelter and Settlements Assistance.  In April 2021 we hosted a breakout group at UK Shelter Forum 27, during which participants shared lots of examples from practice. These included: using porches as small shops or places of work; using the space around shelters for growing crops for sale; using the space inside the shelter for making crafts; and using the roof for food storage. One participant commented that “every single woman” in a project in Burkina Faso was engaged in home-based enterprise and “most of the requests for housing improvements are linked to those activities”.

We have since completed a scoping study to examine the relationship between housing and home-based work (HBW) in development contexts.  The study considered (1) The effects of housing on HBW and (2) The effects of HBW on housing. 1837 potentially relevant studies were identified in academic and grey literature and 12 studies from Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) were then selected for further study.  Each of the LAC studies were read and coded, using a combination of inductive and conductive approaches. Results were then presented in terms of: effects identified at household or settlement scale; and those identified in multiple studies with consistent findings, multiple studies with inconsistent findings, and single studies.

Our results reaffirmed the “symbiotic relationship” between housing and HBW—with livelihood and household activities taking place at different times of the day in the same space.  We also found that households are more likely to engage in HBW if they:

  • Live in advantageous locations within the city, neighbourhood, or building;
  • Are subject to favourable regulation (or lack of regulation);
  • Do not feel at risk from natural hazards or security threats;
  • Live in larger houses on larger plots, with adequate appliances and services;
  • Have greater tenure security.

We suggest that these can be called the characteristics of ‘supportive housing and settlements’.  In settlements where these characteristics are present more households are likely to engage in HBW. Households which engage in HBW develop more sustainable and resilient livelihoods—as a result of increased financial assets and greater diversity of income sources. Income from HBW is often invested in housing improvements such as purchasing appliances, installing services, or improving the quality or quantity of space in or around the home. Improvements like these in turn generate more supportive housing conditions, enabling the household to sustain, expand or diversify their HBW.

Figure: The symbiotic relationship between housing, settlements and HBW. Source: Authors

While these results are based on literature from development contexts, they are relevant to humanitarian shelter and settlement programming. For example, is the type and prevalence of HBW included in vulnerability and capacity assessments?  Do humanitarian shelter programmes allow enough space within and around shelters to allow households to engage in HBW? Do they enable households to take on HBW to finance shelter self-recovery or build their long-term resilience? Do they consider the positive contribution of HBW to meeting the day-to-day needs of their communities?  Or do restrictive policies, regulations, and lack of tenure security limit the ability of households to engage in HBW?

Our next steps are to: gather empirical evidence from humanitarian contexts in LAC; compare the results of the LAC scoping study with the documents we found from other continents; and undertake a broader literature review to investigate the relationship between HBW and shelter recovery and/or resilience in humanitarian contexts. Join us at the Shelter Meeting in Geneva (or online) on Friday 8th July for an update on our ongoing research in LAC or join our mailing list for future updates.


Victoria Maynard is a PhD Student in the UCL Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering (UCL CEGE).

Refuge and Asylum: An obligation rather than beneficence!

Savin Bansal17 May 2022

Refuge and Asylum: An obligation rather than beneficence!

Time to shed insouciance and prevarication

Globally, over 80 million people are displaced forcibly to escape violence, conflict, persecution, deprivation and human-rights abuse as of 2020 end. They are now refugees, asylum-seekers, or internally-displaced who yearn for protection, safety and dignified existence.

Owing to dramatic spikes in inequities, disruptive-technologies, political-disorder and vulnerabilities, the risk landscape is becoming complex and protracted leading to the displaced’ figures getting doubled since 2012.

Besides, the policy inaction towards carbon-emissions reduction is poised to set-off distress migration of climate-refugees from SIDS (Small-Island-Developing-States) and mainland-coasts.

Essentially a developing world crisis, every four-in-five of displaced are hosted in low-and-middle-income-countries and every two of three refugees hail from just five countries (Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar).

While the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol guarantees asylum as a right, the reprehensible pushbacks at the borders, forced-expulsions, tactical obfuscations in resettlement and local-integration, persistently subvert asylum obligations, endanger lives and ethical integrity.

The 2015 Europe-migrant crisis across Aegean-Mediterranean seas, continuing 2017 US-Latin America border standoff and 2021 Belarus-EU disgrace serve as blatant violations of the ‘non-Refoulement’ principle and ‘Global Compact on Refugees’. This fuels makeshift squalid-settlements, health-disasters, regional disharmony, lawlessness, social injustice and savagery across the borders.

Rather than only a humanitarian crisis, this is fundamentally a socio-economic-political disaster. By 2030, up to two-thirds of the global extreme poor will be living in FCV (Fragility-Conflict-Violence) settings, driving 80% of humanitarian needs. Without intensified action, global poverty goals will not be met. The intergenerational human- capital losses shall dent victim’s lifetime productivity and socioeconomic mobility.

Framing refugees into national development planning rather than relegating as separate populations would aid shedding statistical darkness. Early detection of fragility in FCV economies, and reinforced engagements among humanitarian- development-peace partners are critical to stimulate stability, conflict de- escalation and support social safety nets.

Overall, reconciling to the right to refuge-asylum cannot be shunted or prevaricated. It’s high time to institute adequate reception conditions, expeditious asylum rights determination, integrative assimilation and dignified voluntary returns, in particular by the Global North. The bottom line is that the victims risked by life-threatening environs don’t deserve the gratuitous procrastination and shrewd craft.


Savin Bansal is an Indian civil servant (Indian Administrative Service), Uttarakhand Cadre and presently pursuing Masters in Risk, Disaster and Resilience at Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London on Commonwealth Scholarship (FCDO, Govt. of United Kingdom)

He has served the Government as a field administrator, public policy practitioner and Disaster-Climate Risk Manager.

The Disaster of War

David Alexander17 March 2022

Bombs bursting on the Fortress of St. Malo, France, 1944. Photo from Lee Miller.

By convention, when we study disasters we exclude warfare. It is not easy to find a completely logical reason for this. It is more a matter of convenience and a feeling that to conflate the two phenomena would lead to problems because not all generalisations about the one are applicable to the other. At the same time, there is always the basic truth that war is a disaster in its own right because of the casualties, suffering and destruction that it causes. Moreover, as we are seeing in Ukraine and surrounding countries, it is all too often accompanied by a major humanitarian emergency.

In recent years there has been increasing interest in trying to understand the intersectionality between war and other forms of disaster. The other forms are natural hazard impacts (please do not call them ‘natural disasters’ as they, too, are largely the result of human agency), technological failures, social movements (riots, crowd crushes, unplanned mass migrations, etc.), intentional disasters (essentially terrorism) and composite events. Such is the complexity of modern life that the last of these categories predominates. We live in networked societies and disasters tend to be events with cascading consequences.

In recent days, vast numbers of women, children and the elderly have crossed international boundaries as they have fled the fighting in Ukraine in what has become Europe’s fastest mass migration since the 1940s. As a result, we have a humanitarian emergency that encompasses primarily Ukraine itself and six countries on its western borders but potentially the whole of Europe. In Ukraine the challenge is to provide basic necessities under highly dangerous conditions and via an infrastructure that is becoming more and more damaged and fragmentary. Outside Ukraine it is a matter of accommodating hundreds of thousands of refugees, most of whom come from families that have been split up by the war.

Gone are the times when war was fought on a battlefield between assembled armies. There is no room any more for a Napoleon or a Wellington. In modern warfare everyone and everything is a target. Grain, fertiliser, gas, oil and minerals are casualties as well as people, and so are those who depend on these commodities and are deprived by shortage or rising prices from accessing them.

In a world that faces grim challenges in dealing with climate change, ecological catastrophe, loss of the carrying capacity of the land and problems with the vulnerability of technology, the last thing we need is a major war. Nothing can compensate for the loss of life and destruction of people’s living conditions that it causes, but it may yet accelerate the transition towards more sustainable consumption and more rational ways of living. Amid the lies and manipulations that lie behind the aggression, there is also solidarity and rationality. Let us hope that in spite of everything these admirable qualities will prevail. We need them so that we can confront the next disaster.


David Alexander is Professor in UCL’s Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction. He is a citizen of Britain and Italy.

Corona Wars: The Cost of Calling Disasters ‘Wars’

Patrizia Isabelle Duda4 May 2020

Written by Patrizia Isabelle Duda and Navonel Glick

War on Coronavirus poster

On March 17th, U.S. President Trump began calling the Covid-19 pandemic a “war”, to wide acclaim by supporters and scathing condemnation by critics.

The reasons for using the war metaphor are straightforward. By calling the pandemic a war, Trump is appealing to a familiar scenario that we feel we ‘know’ how to relate to. It ostensibly simplifies the crisis, mobilises the public, and calls for unity.

The war metaphor is a powerful and effective tool that is often used in politics, but it is also pervasive in the world of disaster risk reduction and response. The historical links between disaster management and the military are well-documented. Today, from operational frameworks like the Incident Command System (ICS) that were inspired by military management structures, to the extensive use of military terminology like ‘deploy’, ‘mission’, or ‘surge’ by even the most ‘military-averse’ NGOs (e.g. IRC, Plan International), the connection remains.  Even the widely revered (and much maligned) ‘logical framework’, meant to improve transparency and accountability in the aid sector, originated in planning approaches for the U.S. military.

At first glance, the war metaphor makes sense. The chaotic images from disaster areas that make the headlines are reminiscent of war zones, and the associated urgent, high-stress, life-and-death decisions demand composure, bravery, and decision-making attributes that we have learned to equate with our armed forces.

Yet, the analogy quickly crumbles. For one, as most disaster practitioners would confirm, the period immediately following a disaster which might require such an approach, at best, represents only a fraction of any disaster response effort, let alone long-term recovery or disaster risk reduction (through sustainable development).

In addition, as our experience in the field shows, armed forces are notoriously poor at interacting with vulnerable civilian populations, particularly in complex situations of unrest. More importantly, the war analogy is plagued by a core contradiction. While it can be argued that armies engage in war to ‘defend’ or ‘protect’ a population, destruction is often their main tool for doing so. This is not what disaster response or humanitarian aid are about, much less how one reduces disaster risks and builds disaster-resilient communities.

So why does the war metaphor continue to dominate the field? The simple answer may be because it works. It appeals to the pleasure-pain principle, triggers our basic fight-or-flight instincts, and provokes a reaction.

Yet, this strategy may be poorly suited to pandemics. We rightfully celebrate our health-care workers and other front-line personnel as ‘heroes’—yet another war term—and many of them may be faced with ‘war-like’ situations of urgency and life-and-death situations. But for the rest of us, “wash your hands” and “stay at home” are woefully anti-climatic ‘weapons’ to ‘fight’ the ongoing coronavirus ‘enemy’.

Photo credit: hairul_nizam / Shutterstock.com

Furthermore, the ‘war metaphor’ may succeed in the short-term during a crisis, but such bursts of energy (or adrenaline) cannot be maintained over time. Pandemics are not addressed by acute, short-term measures or bursts of adrenaline, but instead, by a complex web of systematic health and public health initiatives, drawn out over a long period of time.

The most damning trait of the war metaphor is, therefore, the focus on the disease itself, instead of the systemic issues that allowed it to become a pandemic. Diseases, much like earthquakes or hurricanes, are natural hazards. They only become disasters when we are left exposed and vulnerable to them by insufficient preparedness and poor risk reduction measures. Thus, tackling the underlying social, economic, and political systemic issues that drive disaster vulnerability should be our priority.

The analogy of a marathon instead of a sprint comes to mind, except that in this case the race has no end. In fact, it never was a race to begin with. This may be the biggest fallacy with using the war metaphor for disasters: wars are arguably won or lost; at least they (should) end. Disaster preparedness and reducing risks do not—they are an ongoing process of achieving and maintaining sustainable practices.

The war metaphor, therefore, from the very beginning, begs to disappoint, because there will not be the closure it promises. Calling our health workers and other frontline workers ‘life-saving heroes’ is an admirable title they deserve, but were they any less worthy of it before the pandemic? And will they not continue to perform the same essential role once the coronavirus pandemic has passed?

In this time of acute crisis, when the lack of preparedness and risk reduction is painfully exposed, we may be glad to have the war metaphor for the action that it catalyses. But by continuing to prioritise response over prevention, and perpetuating the myth of the ‘race’, what social habits will we continue to reinforce, and at what cost?

What would an alternative look like?