Which way is up? Flatpacks alone can't solve global shelter crisis*

Paul Currion

Regular IRIN columnist and independent consultant to humanitarian organisations. A recovering aid worker, Paul has responded to crises in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Indian Ocean Tsunami.

Aid workers get the same spam email as everybody else – apparently I have a budding online relationship with the daughter-in-law of deposed Liberian warlord Charles Taylor – but, after working in the 2008 Pakistan earthquake, I started to receive a whole new sub-genre: shelter spam.

Every week, one of these emails would arrive with the same message: somebody somewhere, often with no experience of humanitarian work, had “solved” the shelter problem by building a low-cost alternative to the classic tarpaulin and toothpicks model (which always seemed pretty low-cost to me, but now I realise the error of my ways).

These emails were well-intentioned but badly targeted. If they thought I was an influential voice in the sector, they were setting their sights pretty low.

In the bad old days before innovation in the humanitarian sector was a thing, we all just pressed Delete when those spam emails popped up. Still, the basic premise of spam is that it's so cheap to distribute, all you need is one sucker out of 1,000 to reply and it's been worth your time. So when the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and IKEA announced their Better Shelter a few weeks ago, my first thought was: who is the sucker?

Better shelter?

One of the few things I've learnt since 2008 is that the correct response to those emails is not to press delete, but to form a private-public partnership. Such partnerships, in this age of austerity, have become core to UNHCR's resource mobilisation strategy, which is why UNHCR contacted the IKEA Foundation first. I'm sure everybody was relieved to find out that IKEA isn't the corporate equivalent of a 419 email scam, but I do think this merits a lot more public scrutiny if IKEA is “the single largest private donor to the United Nations ever.”

The biggest surprise about their new prefabricated building system is that UNHCR's own handbook for emergencies states that “[n]either prefabricated building systems nor specially developed emergency shelter units... have proved effective in accommodating refugees.”

That handbook was published in 2007, however, and perhaps the arguments UNHCR presented against this approach – high unit and transport costs, long production and shipping times and so on – have been solved through a combination of the Better Shelter design, UNHCR's supply chain, and the IKEA Foundation's deep pockets. And gosh, those pockets are plenty deep: the Foundation invested €3.4 million (or about $3.8 million) in the Better Shelter company.

For that sort of cash, I expect these to be the Tesla Roadster of shelters. What you get, according to the press release, are kits that cost $1,150 each. Apparently, that's three times more than a standard UNHCR tent, although, if you want to buy a knock-off “UNHCR relief tent,” they're going for under $200 on Alibaba (Note: I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS).

A big selling point reported for the IKEA-supported shelters is that they will “last for a minimum of three years in harsh conditions, and up to 20 years in more temperate climates.” UNHCR have tested these shelters in Iraq and Ethiopia, but I'd put money on them lasting for a lot shorter time than advertised. That claim of minimum three years isn't backed up by any published evidence and the small print in their original specification gives an expected lifetime without maintenance of 1.5 years.

I come here not to bury IKEA, however, but to praise them. (I'm as surprised as you are by that.) This looks like a good design within the constraints of the brief, with features both low-tech – a lockable door might seem obvious to you, but it's a big advance on no door – and high-tech, including built-in solar PV panels. Nobody flat packs like IKEA, although you can expect to see a lot of bewildered refugees standing around looking at incomprehensible instruction leaflets and wondering why there aren't enough screws to finish the job.

Product vs. process

The other thing the IKEA money bought was media attention, which demonstrates how we fixate on the product – it's easier to see and therefore easier to sell – rather than on the process of affected households sheltering themselves.

The idea that shelter is a process (rather than a product) was introduced in Ian Davis' 1978 book “Shelter after Disaster”. The subsequent 1982 UNDRO Guidelines for Shelter After Disaster pointed out that "assisting groups tend to attribute too high a priority to the need for imported shelter.” Yet, 40 years later, an article on shelter recovery underlined the fact that “process-oriented approaches to post-disaster housing are still rarely implemented on the ground.”

Shelter, as a process, is a tough sell. Displaced communities usually want to return home quickly and host governments often don't want them to take up permanent settlement in their new location. Meanwhile, the vagaries of aid funding mean that agencies have no incentive to plan long-term, despite the fact that the number of forcibly displaced people reached a record 38 million in 2014, and the average length of a refugee stay is now approaching 20 years.

The IKEA shelter is a better product, but a better product is no substitute for a better process.

The situation for displaced populations has never looked more precarious than in 2015: when the Kenyan government threatens to close Dadaab refugee camp, and then backpedals, creating even more insecurity for the 330,000 Somalis living there; when European governments work overtime to blame everybody except themselves for the mass death of migrants in the Mediterranean sea; when as many as 10 million Syrians remain displaced by war.

In the fable of the Three Little Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf huffs and puffs and blows their house down. In the real world, refugees and other displaced communities have to face many wolves, but the biggest, baddest wolf of all is an aid system that can no longer cope and remains persistently underfunded.

Rather than welcoming the latest public-private partnership uncritically, we should be demanding to know why our governments refuse to seek alternative solutions that might save the creaking edifice that's been built on international refugee law, and why they are failing to invest in the preparedness measures that might prevent displacement in the first place.

*An earlier version of this article misstated the size of UNHCR's annual budget. The reference has been removed in this version.

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Paul Currion is an independent consultant to humanitarian organisations. He previously worked on responses in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Indian Ocean Tsunami. He lives in Belgrade.