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Shelter and Sheltering

An Essay by Aaron Chan

Humanitarian responses to the sheltering of refugees have often prized
product-driven solutions, but drawing upon anthropological insights
and taking an ethnographic-led approach could provide more wellplaced responses to tackle this humanitarian problem.

Online searches for the best refugee shelters often pull up results of the award-winning,
UNHCR-endorsed Better Shelter. And judging from the countless media reports on this 1
“life-saving” humanitarian device, it would appear that the perfect refugee shelter exists.
Developed in collaboration with Swedish furniture powerhouse IKEA, the Better Shelter
has become a kind of tour de force in the humanitarian design sector, lauded as a
“heartwarming example of philanthro-capitalism, good design, and humanitarian
innovation” and embodying a social democratic spirit that combines Swedish design 2
sensibilities of simplicity, functionality, and affordability, with a pared-down, modernist
aesthetic. Especially when compared to the standard-issue tents, the Better Shelter offers
increased security and privacy, improved communication and connection, and has greater
durability . It is this confluence of factors which has won it much praise, commended for 3
providing refugees with a safer and more dignified home away from home 4 .

Yet, for all its worth, the Better Shelter epitomises much of the fundamental problems
associated with humanitarian design responses to the sheltering of refugees. In attempting
to provide a “one-size-fits-all” solution, the 2017 Design of the Year award winner has
been met with criticisms from humanitarians and architects alike, attacked on both fronts
— for being both overly-ambitious and not doing enough. Humanitarians argue the shelter
does too much in providing a “fully integrated flat-packed solution” to a problem that does
not exist 5 , and chided designers and architects as “utopian dreamers” who are “completely
out of touch” with the reality in refugee camps, thus misunderstanding the nature of the
problem and lacking the necessary pragmatism to provide a comprehensive and viable
sheltering solution . In contrast, architects saw the Better Shelter as doing too little, 6
disparaging the Shelter’s claim to universality as not responding to the site and local
environment. In failing to create sensitive and carefully planned responses to specific
problems that are grounded in finding holistic solutions, the Better Shelter does not deliver
as an architectural enterprise. But while both camps seem to be at loggerheads, their
criticisms appear to agree that the designers’ assertion of the shelter’s capacity to be a
universal solution is, to put frankly, missing the point.

1 Keller 2016; Wainwright 2017
2 Scott-Smith 2019b
3 Scott-Smith 2019a: 509-510
4 Scott-Smith 2019b 5 Scott-Smith 2019a: 514
6 Scott-Smith 2017: 67

IKEA Better Shelter – Image Credit: Better Shelter

Humanitarian ‘neophilia’: the fetishisation of product-based solutions

Even when on-the-ground accounts have highlighted their disconnect in addressing
local needs, humanitarian designers have pressed on with single and singular solutions.
An anthropological understanding of shelters, as a prime agent and site of socialisation,
has already elucidated that design responses must be culturally- and contextually situated. Local ethnography of the Goudouba Camp in Burkina Faso have demonstrated
how the standard-issue Tuareg shelter and ‘Blazing Tube’ stove have been unsuitable for
the wetter and cooler seasons there, with designers’ failure to take care for local conditions
rightly met with the scepticism towards ‘universal’ humanitarian technologies . For 7
Professor Tom Scott-Smith, who researches on refugee and forced migration issues, such
responses reflect the ‘neophilic’ market logic that has permeated humanitarian action,
which privileges novel, product-driven approaches. Such reverence for a product-centred
solution had not been pulled from thin air, but resulted from past successes where the
provision of tangible, material ‘things’ provided critical relief in humanitarian aid. This is
especially in the early stages of an emergency, where basic commodities such as sanitary
items, food, and shelter are scarce . 8
Yet, it is these same successes that have made humanitarian objects vulnerable to
fetishising. If left unmitigated, this can force humanitarian objects to shoulder unrealistic
expectations and become increasingly relied-upon, resulting in inflexible approaches to aid
work. This can happen when the worth of humanitarian objects are measured solely by
their biological value — the extent to which they can save or sustain lives — and
consequently shrouds these objects in a false mystique by ascribing them with “magical
powers” or “spiritual properties” . 9

In borrowing from the Marxist theory of commodity fetishism, it becomes clear that the
product-first approach to humanitarian relief draws parallels with the capitalist system. In
conceiving humanitarian problem-solving through an economic framework, relief work is
quickly depersonalised as a transactional relationship between humanitarian workers and
the refugee community, and allows a market-driven logic of “innovation” and
“maximising returns” to dominate. Resultantly, the humanitarian sector has been
avalanched with designed objects, stemming from an optimistic faith in the power of the
market and the self-assured hubris that innovators can design humanity out of its most
intractable problems . This is reinforced by the prevalence of corporate jargon in 10
humanitarian discourse, where “incentives”, “business models”, and “untapped markets”
are thrown about, and where “suppliers” provide “end-users” with the “humanitarian
goods” . Taking a Whorfian understanding of language, it is only consequential when the 11
nature of humanitarian interventions becomes preoccupied with an “instrumental delivery
of objects” rather than “an act of compassion motivated by human solidarity” 12.

7 Martin et al. 2020: 226-230
8 Scott-Smith 2013: 914
9 Scott-Smith 2013: 913-922 10 Scott-Smith 2019a: 512; 2016: 2229
11 Scott-Smith 2016: 2234
12 Scott-Smith 2016: 2235

Away with ‘standards’, centering the local

Like all other provisions of humanitarian aid, the sheltering of refugees is premised
upon impartiality, where discrimination in distribution can only be accorded on a ‘needs’
basis. But as a relatively recent humanitarian sector, there has been little progress in
developing a common metric which sheltering needs can be measured upon, and what
constitutes a “well-balanced” response has not yet been stabilised . The complexities of 13
sheltering needs quickly unravel themselves with each attempt to set a standard. Not only
must guidelines consider the spatial and temporal dimensions of the conflict in which the
sheltering becomes necessitated, but they must also take into account the volatility of
conflicts and be adaptable to the changing realities on the ground . Without a 14
comprehensive list of ‘What Every Human Needs To Be Sheltered From’, there is growing
awareness to the false promises of ‘universal’ solutions. This had already been noted for
the Better Shelter which while gunning for universal acclaim, had instead experienced
limited success, and was met with resistance amongst refugee populations. When the
standardised product was distributed to “vastly different landscapes”, it quickly became
apparent that the Better Shelter was not adequate in shifting contexts nor well-suited to
the “infinite complexity of refugee crises” . This provokes the very notion of 15
humanitarian standards, problematising the ‘universal solution’ approach, and critiques
the neophilic fixation on product-based solutions.

The fundamental disconnect between universal aspirations of the shelter and the
specifics of the environments they were inserted into proved helpful in pivoting focus to
local conditions and situated adaptations to sheltering practices. This is unsurprising,
given already extensive anthropological work on house and home. The perspective that
our sociocultural environments shape our forms of shelter have been countlessly attested
for, and it is commonplace to interpret shelters as vernacular adaptations to localised
cultural needs . Still, contextually-developed responses cannot just depend on cultural 16
knowledge. Crucially, it also benefits from insights gained from “being there” — a key
tenet in the anthropological canon . A keen engagement with how refugees appropriate, 17
improvise, and adapt these provisions will enable designers to better calibrate to cultural
and functional needs. This suggests that anthropological methods can play a central role if
humanitarian sheltering practices hope to effectively meet the needs of the communities
they are in service of.

13Scott-Smith 2019a: 517 14 Parrack et al. 2019: 7
15 Scott-Smith 2019a: 511; 2019b
Oliver 1969;1987; Vellinga 2011; Rapoport 1969; Rudofsky 1964, cited in Scott-Smith
2019a: 509
17Watson 1999

From shelter-as-product to sheltering-as-practice

Given that the global refugee population continues to reach unprecedented numbers, an
emphasis on local, ad hoc responses to humanitarian housing and shelter seems even more
pertinent today . By reflecting an ever-broadening range of political, geographical and 18
social contexts of displacement, humanitarian responses to sheltering must begin looking
toward locally-grounded solutions. There must also be a complete paradigm shift, beyond
devising yet another “Band Aid” or “Magic Bullet” that is merely palliative, rather than a
properly curative offering to the sheltering of refugees . When humanitarian solutions are 19
centred around a product, they risk defining the entire humanitarian system by the
delivery of objects, resulting in an inflexible, impersonal, and top-down procedure that is
founded upon efficiency.

Instead, humanitarian responses can benefit from considering ‘sheltering’ as a verb, an
undertaking that is process-driven and people-centred. This borrows from Martin
Heidegger’s philosophy, who asserted that building was necessary for us to establish our
place in the world “as somebody, with an identity and history” . Put this way, it is a 20
fundamental human instinct to establish one’s own sheltering practices in order to “gather
[one’s] environment into a meaningful presence”. So, even when refugee communities are
faced with exceptional circumstances, humanitarian action must acknowledge that they
have their own techniques for finding and building shelter, and redirect relief efforts
toward sheltering programmes that are anchored in providing these communities with the
basic building blocks for them to rebuild their homes and livelihoods. In engaging local
agency, sheltering can be part of a process for recovery — rebuilding homes, selfconfidence, and mutual trust.

Like humanitarian action, designers and architects must acknowledge their work to be a
form of intentional intervention on the lives of other humans. As the design theorist Victor
Papanek characterises, “[design] is the conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful
order” . Determining standards and developing guidelines for shelter and sheltering 21
practices will have real impact on refugees’ lived reality. In this way, architectural practice
is deeply-enmeshed in imbalanced power relations, the architect becomes the ultimate
decision-maker in how refugees should and can exist in the world. Therefore, to mitigate
this, a consultative approach is imperative. When architects embark on a conversation-led
and ethnographic ‘deep hanging out’, they inch closer towards achieving a humanist kind
of design that accounts for refugees’ lived cultural worlds, closer towards being truly
responsive to refugees’ needs.

18 Ian Davis 1978: 40, cited in Martin et al. 2020: 229, 231
19 Redfield 2019
20Heidegger 1971, cited in Young 2005: 3-5 21 Papanek 1984: 4

Further reading:

  1. EXPLORE The Guardian’s infographic-rich report on the Rohingya refugee camps in
    Cox’s Bazaar, which includes personal accounts on life in the camp amidst the
    COVID-19 pandemic.
  2. LISTEN BBC Radio 3’s ‘Free Thinking’: A special podcast on refugees, including
    discussions on the complexities of language and communication for refugees, and
    the temporality of shelters in refugee camps.
  3. READ ‘Structures of Protection? Rethinking Refugee Shelter’: A collection of
    academic essays exploring refugees’ relationships with shelter, from multiple
    disciplinary perspectives. Co-edited by Tom Scott-Smith, of the Refugees Studies
    Centre at the University of Oxford, and Mark E. Breeze, of Cambridge University’s
    Centre for the Study of Global Human Movement.


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Cadena and Mario Blaser, October (Vol. 30).
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the Other.” Etnofoor 23 (1): 171–92.
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Guardian. Accessed on 27 March 2020.
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Pluto Press.
Young, Iris M. (2005). House and home: Feminist variations on a theme. In Motherhood
and space, 115-147.

Article by Aaron Chan. All Rights Reserved.

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