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How Can Communities Gain Greater Capacity for Self Recovery? Reflections from the UK Shelter Forum

Re-Alliance participated in the annual UK Shelter Forum, held at Arup on 14th May. Our presentation introduced the Guidelines Project we are currently working on, piloting regenerative approaches to settlement design with partners in the field, and compiling materials from these that can be shared with community members and local practitioners elsewhere and adapted for other contexts.

Re-Alliance was almost a lone voice in prioritising regenerative rather than sustainable or climate resilient approaches, or in looking at how we might better support local responders when international help is scarce. There was also scant mention of the excellent Sphere Unpacked guide to Nature Based Solutions, which, alongside ourselves, is geared towards community practitioners. The Shelter Cluster seems well aware of the challenges they are facing, but like much of humanitarian assistance, continues to focus more on giving to and less on working with.

Regeneration and Community Involvement in Shelter and Self Recovery

Re-Alliance's Mary Mellet shares her reflections below.

Following on from my visit to the shelter forum I have been musing on what exactly ‘Regenerative’ shelter can look like in the displacement context. Shelter is the point at which people are separated from their immediate natural surroundings, the point of division between the natural and the human realm. Necessarily so; total exposure to the increasingly harsh elements of extreme heat, heavy rainfall, bitter cold and wind will kill people.The needs for privacy and security are also paramount to give safety in dangerous times.  

Building shelters requires resources. Even natural resources, such as lime, mud, timber and straw still need to be extracted from the environment; so ending their part in any regenerative cycle, beyond composting down at the end of their use. Usually, they will not produce seed, increase water retention, build soil health or create an abundance of biodiversity within their footprint. Yes, there are mitigation measures, such as reducing the carbon footprint using renewable resources, maximising biodiversity through green roofing, rain water harvesting using gutters and storage tanks. But all these measures are within the sphere of sustainability - minimising impact -  not regeneration. They do not usually add net gains to the natural environment. It is the people within the buildings that can actively engage to improve the environment and become part of a regenerated whole system. It is they who can grow plants, compost wastes and improve soils. And thus the shelter sustains the life of the people who are embedded in a regenerative whole system. Shelter can only be regenerative within a whole-system which creates a home for the regenerative humans who become integrated within the natural, self-sustaining systems of life. Without the whole, there can be no ‘regenerative’ shelter. The below diagram visualises the differences between aid, sustainability and regeneration.

So how do we apply these lofty ideals of regenerated communities to the pressurised context of disaster and displacement? Political tensions, lack of funding, degraded unsuitable lands and limited time seem to limit choices and restrict activities to the siloed shelter delivery model, often resulting in imported tents, and distributed tarpaulins with limited lifespans. I was genuinely inspired by the dogged, pragmatic and experienced women working for INGOs in shelter provision who stood to talk about how they balanced these competing needs and who were well aware of the complexities and limitations of the system and the compromises that must be made to keep people alive. The pioneering cross-sectoral work undertaken by Save the Children and fire-safety academics felt like a paradigm shift that transcended the usual siloed boundaries. There is also much work being done at the design level for imported solutions, the academics at the Shelter forum were doing complex work in analysing building performances, organisations were proving that funding more resilient designs were both more sustainable and cost-effective and there was more of an emphasis on using natural materials. 

However, in many ways some of the academic work felt like using a teacup to bail water on a sinking ship. The teacup is excellently researched, they have consulted on its design, it has been proven to be water-tight, light to ship, easy to use and resilient to chipping, it is even made of natural materials and printed with culturally appropriate decorations. For the few that use the teacups it is a great help in bailing water and is sustaining life while they stay afloat a while longer. But a smaller and smaller proportion of those in need will ever be given teacups and meanwhile the boat is going down.

In this age of polycrisis, the available share of funding is decreasing. Self recovery is now by far the largest proportion of shelter provision following displacement and disaster. Perhaps the root question is: 

“how do we effectively work with communities to enable greater capacity for self recovery?”

For this we need to look at where self recovery is working, where community participation is at its most engaged, and also at where it fails. 

At the next Shelter forum, I would love to hear from social scientists who understand how resilient communities work, community activists who banded together to get the resources their people needed and householders who have built their own shelters following disasters. The plethora of technical solutions could be enhanced by a clearer understanding of how to enable community involvement which leads to good decision making, access to resources and increased self recovery. 

My question to myself and colleagues at Re-Alliance, is how do we empower communities to make decisions that will best serve them in the long term, to a place within the self-sustaining regenerative systems of life and away from the trappings of modern solutions. As the climate crisis worsens, we all need to transition our ways of thinking and being in the world. How can we work together in this transition in a way that is truly empowering of local decision making? 


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