Learning from programming in humanitarian crises

Shelter Projects is a Global Shelter Cluster publication compiling case studies of shelter and settlements assistance to people affected by crises. Over the past thirteen years, it has shared more than 250 case studies from more than 60 partner agencies working in 71 different countries.

Looking back across these case studies, there are multiple points of learning and of good practice that arise time and time again. Here we distil these points into a series of recurring messages. Extracts from a wide range of Shelter Projects case studies illustrate examples of how these messages have been applied in a variety of crises and contexts.

Shelter Projects Essentials can be downloaded in full from the Shelter Projects website

All Shelter Projects case studies are available free of charge and are available to download at www.shelterprojects.org

The scale of shelter and settlements assistance

By the end of 2019, 177 million¹ people were forcibly displaced² by conflict or persecution or had been affected by disasters.³ Of these people, it was estimated that 37.8 million people had new needs for shelter. This is equivalent to a family losing their home every 5 seconds throughout the year. 2019 was not an exceptional year.

In the same year, Shelter Cluster partners delivered some form of assistance to 14.2 million people globally.⁴ 80% of these people initially received this assistance in the form of Non-Food Item (NFI) distributions.⁵ This assistance was delivered with 403.4 million USD.⁶

The funding received amounts to just 28 USD per person to meet all shelter needs. Not all crises are funded equally, so many crises remain significantly underfunded in comparison to others. This is particularly the case for protracted crises and crises that receive less global attention. In 2019 the Shelter Cluster was only able to reach 57% of the people that it intended to. Lack of resources compared to the level of needs is a clear constraint in most, if not all, shelter programming.

Although every year humanitarian organizations support over 10 million people with shelter and settlements assistance, tens of millions more people remain unassisted by humanitarian organizations. For the majority of people who do receive assistance, the assistance received is not comprehensive. Many people in need of assistance will receive support through other key humanitarian actors – such as through community and civil society groups, through government support, and through receiving remittances from diaspora. However, many people affected by crises will simply not receive the level of assistance required to effectively meet their basic needs and support their recovery.

These figures demonstrate the need for more adequate funding of shelter and settlements assistance. They also highlight the importance of effective coordination and good programming.

Recurring messages from Shelter Projects

There are multiple overlaps between each of these messages. This is because these messages are inter-connected and reinforce one another.

Go to recurring messages : A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L

Why is shelter and settlements assistance important?

Shelter and settlements assistance is the foundation of humanitarian response, crucial for rebuilding communities and family life. When people are forced to flee from their homes, shelter and settlements assistance aims to support them at every stage: at the onset of the crisis; while they are displaced; and as they recover and re-establish a sense of home and community. Shelter and settlements assistance can be both lifesaving and life-enabling.

The primary objectives of shelter and settlements assistance are to safeguard the health, security, privacy and dignity of families and communities affected by crises. Beyond lifesaving, shelter and settlements assistance is fundamental in rebuilding the psychological, social, livelihood and physical components of life – in short, all the aspects necessary for people to move on from survival to being able to effectively exercise their rights and fulfill their potential.

Shelter and settlements assistance provides:⁷

i. a physical dwelling that protects the health, security, privacy and dignity of families and is designed to bring communities together. It provides protection against threats – including those associated with gender-based violence (GBV), theft, climate and disease.

ii. a stable location, and an ‘address’ where other services can be accessed including healthcare, education, nutrition and safe and dignified water and sanitation facilities. Essential to this stability is a strong sense of secure tenure – that the occupant’s rights to live in a place will not be infringed, encroached, nor arbitrarily extinguished by another actor. In some cases, a dwelling can be a valuable asset that can be the beginning of a bigger investment. It provides a place to re-start livelihoods and economic recovery.

iii. a sense of identity, a place to gather belongings, family and community, a neighborhood to belong to, a place in which one can consider the past and rebuild a sense of future.⁸

The phrase “shelter and settlements” is used because it is not possible to talk about individual dwellings without consideration of the place and context in which they are located (see Message G.).

A. Context is everything

Shelter and settlements assistance must take a wide range of different forms. This is required to ensure that assistance is appropriate and impactful, depending on specific conditions and contextual factors. Of all the Shelter Projects case studies, no two are the same. There is no standard template for a shelter and settlements response that will work in all contexts. Even projects in the same response usually differ.

The 250 case studies illustrate that shelter and settlements assistance can take many forms and include multiple components. These include, but are not limited to:

  • distribution of cash, vouchers or materials for shelter construction, repair or rehabilitation;
  • training and awareness raising on hazards and improved construction methods;
  • rental assistance;
  • advocacy and wider support relating to improving the security of housing and land tenure;
  • market-based interventions to improve access to quality construction materials;
  • facilitation of participatory planning processes at the community-level;
  • community infrastructure rehabilitation or construction.

The case studies provide practical examples of how shelter and settlements assistance must be grounded in the context of the people and the place. A wide range of contextual factors must be considered. These include the resources, needs, capacities, vulnerabilities, intentions, priorities and barriers faced by crisis-affected people.

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B. Shelter and settlements assistance is part of a process. It has long-term impacts

Shelter and settlements assistance is part of a process and crisis-affected people are active participants in that process. How and where assistance is provided in an emergency can have long-term impacts on people’s ability to improve their situation and eventually recover.

People will start to improve and upgrade their living conditions as soon as they can get access to land, materials and other resources, especially in post-disaster contexts where often 'recovery begins on day 1' – immediately after the disaster. Many case studies illustrate how shelter and settlements assistance can remove barriers and support incremental recovery.

In contexts of conflict and prolonged displacement, crisis-affected households are often in a state of flux for many years. Multiple case studies show how shelter and settlements programs can be designed to support people during their displacement. They also show how to support an end to their displacement, for example by helping people return to their original homes and communities and rebuild their lives. This is especially the case when people can gain secure access to land.

How assistance is provided also has lasting impacts on host communities. Many case studies illustrate how projects can be designed to reduce social tensions and mutually benefit host communities.

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C. People are active participants in their own response and recovery

When a crisis strikes, the first responders and the principal providers of shelter come from within the affected communities. Effective shelter and settlements assistance reinforces local community structures without duplicating any actions that are best undertaken by crisis-affected people themselves.

From reading the “strengths and weaknesses” of case studies, it becomes immediately clear that in order to best support people, shelter and settlements assistance needs to be "people-centered". This means that successful projects meaningfully engage with crises-affected people to better understand their intentions, resources, needs, capacities, vulnerabilities and priorities. They also plan with crisis-affected people what shelter and settlements assistance should look like. Many case studies show how shelter and settlements assistance can take an enabling approach to identify what support is needed and how assistance can remove barriers to achieving durable solutions.

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D. Shelter and settlements assistance must be inclusive

People affected by crises are not a homogenous group. They have differing needs and priorities and varying levels of resources, influence and power. Crises can exacerbate inequality and marginalization. People’s ability to access appropriate assistance may be affected by their gender, age, marital status, health, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, sexual orientation and whether they have a disability.

Different groups within the affected population have different needs, use services and utilities in different ways, and face different risks. Projects that neglect these differences may exclude the most vulnerable people in society, or put them at further risk of being exposed to harm.

Many case studies highlight the need to understand the social structures in each context. If all segments of the population, especially the most marginalized groups are not consulted, do not receive adequate information, or are not represented in humanitarian programming and decision-making, they risk being (1) less likely to be able to access life-saving services and (2) more likely to experience unintended negative consequences as a result of humanitarian activities.

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E. There is a balance between scale, coverage, quality and impact

Effective shelter and settlements strategies are based on an analysis of the overall scale and nature of needs and support required. Resources in humanitarian responses are usually limited, so shelter and settlements assistance must be applied strategically and fairly. It must consider the impacts on both those who will receive assistance and those who will not receive assistance.

The diversity of case studies illustrates how project design should take into account how to maximize the capacities and strengths of both affected people and humanitarian actors. Case studies also demonstrate how strategic interventions – such as infrastructure improvements and targeted technical support – can maximize impacts. Where small scale projects are undertaken, whilst they do benefit a few households, their impact is increased when significant effort goes into ensuring scalability. The biggest, fairest and most consistent impact is achieved when there is coordination and partnership involving local and national government, humanitarian and development organizations and civil society groups.

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F. Security of tenure underpins all shelter response

Tenure is the relationship between people and land, that determines who can use which resources, for how long, and under what conditions. Tenure security comes from the certainty that people’s rights to their home or a parcel of land will be respected. This is essential to people’s sense of safety, dignity, and confidence that they can (re)build their lives around their home – improve it, invest in it, and engage in its surroundings.

Well-designed projects can enhance tenure security and lead the way for durable recovery. Poorly designed projects that fail to pay attention to tenure issues, can expose people to major protection risks, including creating new layers of conflict or exacerbating existing issues. Poorly designed projects can also undermine the rights of host communities and rights holders, setting the stage for conflicts between host communities and displaced people.

Many case studies demonstrate ways in which humanitarian actors have successfully worked with local communities to understand local tenure dynamics, identify appropriate sites, avoid overlapping claims, and use appropriate tenure arrangements to secure the rights of the parties. Case studies also highlight the importance of avoiding reinforcing existing inequalities by ensuring that people who are tenure insecure are not excluded from shelter and settlements assistance.

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G. Shelter and settlements go hand in hand

Shelter assistance must always be considered in the context of settlements and the people who live there. By considering settlements, projects can build upon crisis-affected communities’ social and support networks, and tenure relationships. Settlements-level thinking also ensures access to infrastructure and services (such as schools and healthcare), access to markets, and access to livelihood opportunities.

In contexts of displacement, as the situation allows, displacement should always be minimized, both in terms of the distance that people are displaced from their homes, and in terms of the duration of time that people are forced to be away from their homes. Setting up of camps is always a last resort. Where camps are the only option, case studies demonstrate that shelter must be considered in the context of settlement planning. Additionally, the more successful projects considered the relationships between camps and surrounding settlements. For example, they considered access to services, livelihoods, infrastructure, and relationships with host communities.

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H. Shelter and settlements assistance must link to other sectors and priorities

People’s lives do not fit neatly within the sectoral divisions of humanitarian organizations, clusters or government line ministries. Shelter projects that ignore other areas of assistance risk creating gaps, and can miss opportunities that can arise from more integrated support.

Shelter and settlements assistance can have much wider positive impacts than simply ensuring people have a roof over their heads. For example, shelter is clearly linked to safety and security, disaster risk reduction and physical and mental health. Many case studies highlight in the weaknesses section that they did not work closely enough with other sectors – for example where shelters were constructed without water and sanitation facilities, leading to problems. Conversely, there are many good examples of where this was done well.

There are also multiple case studies that demonstrate how approaches to shelter and settlements assistance – which often involves large-scale construction works – can create livelihoods opportunities and invigorate local markets. This can be for example through supporting local procurement, training construction workers in safer construction practices, and improving the quality of construction materials produced by local manufacturers.

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I. Local environmental damage is long-lasting

The natural environment can be severely damaged by humanitarian crises and by the ensuing humanitarian response, including shelter and settlements assistance. Environmental damage can have severe and long-lasting effects on both displaced populations and host communities. Local environmental degradation can impact livelihoods, damage access to natural resources that people rely upon, increase the likelihood of hazards such as flooding and landslides, and have wider impacts on biodiversity. Environmental damage can also strain relationships between host and displaced communities.

Case studies illustrate that good projects assess and monitor the potential environmental impacts that would be created by assistance (or lack of assistance). Examples of areas in which projects considered local environmental impacts include; the sourcing of materials and other resources (such as water) for construction, the impacts of large-scale clearing of vegetation from land to create sites for shelter, the sourcing of fuel for cooking and heating, the risks of pollution, and the wider strain on resources that can be created by an increased population living in an area. Whilst most case studies have primarily humanitarian objectives, many have shown that there is also the potential for shelter and settlements assistance to promote positive environmental interventions.

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J. Locally appropriate technical solutions work best

People build homes in their own way, incorporating old traditions and new methods. Local housing typologies are specific to each context. They can be made up of a mixture of traditional, vernacular design and construction approaches that have been used for generations, and newer construction approaches and materials that may have become common more recently. Many case studies show that shelter assistance needs to learn from and support the use of local techniques, which have been shaped by the local culture, climate and environment.

Many case studies also show that if local building techniques need improvements it is better to adapt and strengthen local methods, rather than introducing unfamiliar construction approaches. For example to better withstand earthquakes, storms or flooding, bracing and joints may need to be improved. Using local building techniques often means using locally available materials and supporting local markets. Promoting and strengthening local building techniques means that people are better able to recover, and to maintain, repair and extend their dwellings in the future.

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K. Good projects reduce the impacts of future shocks

Shelter and settlements assistance can support people to build resilience to future shocks. Many case studies demonstrate how shelter and settlements assistance, even when conducted with emergency and lifesaving goals, can increase physical resilience to natural hazards. For example, shelter and settlements assistance can reduce crisis-affected people’s vulnerability to hazards such as fire, flooding, earthquakes and storms through hazard mapping, improving infrastructure such as drainage channels, ensuring dwellings are located on less vulnerable sites, and through promoting safer construction practices.

Many case studies also show how shelter and settlements assistance can contribute to increasing crisis-affected people’s resilience to future shocks through increasing community resilience, social cohesion, and tenure security. This can mean strengthening civil society and community-based groups, supporting livelihoods and economic recovery, creating a greater sense of stability and security, reducing social tensions, and improving the integration of displaced people in host communities.

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L. Effective projects are coordinated and planned

Well-planned projects with strong monitoring are repeatedly able to deliver within timeframes and budgets, despite the challenges of working in the volatile and changing context of a humanitarian emergency. Shelter and settlements responses take time, so planning and implementation needs to begin as early as possible. Projects that are not designed to take account of the needs of affected people and changing contexts seldom deliver on anticipated objectives and are often very late. Case studies show that it is vital to consider multiple scenarios and plan for all eventualities.

As illustrated in multiple case studies, successful projects coordinate and establish partnerships between local and national government, the affected people, supporting organizations, civil society groups, and other partners throughout the project cycle. This coordination is vital to ensure that projects avoid duplication, address gaps, and maximize impact as well as effectively serving the people that they seek to assist. Coordination saves lives.

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  1. Breakdown of figures: 97.6 million people were affected globally by disasters in 2019. 79.5 million people worldwide who had been forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order.
  2. Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2019, UNHCR https://www.unhcr.org/statistics/unhcrstats/5ee200e37/unhcr-global-trends-2019.html
  3. World Disasters Report 2020, IFRC https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/20201116_WorldDisasters_Full.pdf
  4. Note: Shelter Cluster data excludes information on assistance delivered for refugees.
  5. Global Shelter Cluster: https://www.sheltercluster.org/operations
  6. Ibid
  7. For further research on the importance of shelter and settlements assistance see this report by InterAction: The Wider Impacts of Humanitarian Shelter and Settlements Assistance (2019): https://www.interaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/1.-Wider-Impacts-of-Shelter-Key-Findings_Final1.pdf
  8. Global Shelter Cluster Strategy 2018-2022 p7. https://www.sheltercluster.org/strategy-2018-2022/documents/gsc-strategy-2018-2022

Copyright for images at top of page:

  • © Abdullah Al Mashrif / IOM
  • © Muse Mohammed / IOM
  • © Olav A. Saltbones / IFRC
  • © Charisse Mae Borja / CRS
  • © Mildred Beliard / CARE
  • © Manoocher Deghati
  • © Wan S. Sophonpanich

Copyright for section divider images:

  1. © Muse Mohammed
  2. © IOM Bangladesh 2021
  3. © Muse Mohammed
  4. © F.Zanettini / ADH
  5. © Rawan Baybars / NRC
  6. © Christian Jepsen
  7. © Charmalee Jayasinghe
  8. © P. Hübner / UNHCR / SDC
  9. © Nadine Al lahham
  10. © Øyvind Nordlie
  11. © Brett Morton / UNICEF
  12. © Charmalee Jayasinghe
  13. © Chiara Jasna Vaccaro
  14. © Sandra D’Urzo / IFRC
  15. © CRS Nepal

Acknowledgements: Shelter Projects Essentials was led by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and overseen by the Global Shelter Cluster’s Shelter Projects Working Group. The project was funded by the U.S. Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (USAID-BHA) and by IOM. For a full list of acknowledgments see the full Shelter Projects Essentials publication here.

Disclaimers: See full Shelter Projects Essentials publication here.