Racism & colonialism in engineering & aid.

The Institution of Structural Engineers has recently published guidance for engineers who wish to do aid work. It’s aimed at structural engineers, but is really applicable to any built environment design professionals. It is aimed at those who are thinking about volunteering in another country, working in emergency response, getting involved in a ‘development project’, or otherwise working in cultures and settings they are not so familiar with, but much of it is applicable to more conventional professional practice too.

I should disclose that I had a hand in writing the guidance. So clearly I agree with it. I’m sure there will be those who don’t. What the guidance says may well challenge people’s viewpoints of the world, of aidwork, and of their own role and identity in the work they do. I hope it really makes people think, and reflect. There should be no space for white saviour complex or white gaze in aid work, just as there should be no space for it in the design and construction of the built environment.

For anyone interested in reading further, and thinking more about the issues raised in the guidance, here is a collection of further articles and videos, including a number of highly relevant pieces that have been published since the killing of George Floyd and the global Black Lives Matter protests that have resulted. Together, they present an accessible but powerful selection of testimony and insight which explains why the IStructE guidance says what it does, and lots of scope for further reading and investigation by those who wish to.

If there’s something relevant I’ve missed off the list – do let me know and I’ll add it.

To read:

To listen to:

It is important to note that most (but not all) of the views and articles above come from those who are working in wealthy donor countries, or for large international organisations. The voices of those working in local community organisations, small NGOs, local government – the voices of those from the communities aid seeks to aid – are not widely published, and are not so easily heard, as strongly put in this piece, Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?, by Themrise Khan.

The politics of emergency shelter

On 27/05/2020 I joined a panel discussion on The Politics of Emergency Shelter hosted by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Geopolitics. It was an interesting, if short, discussion. These are my (short) opening words:

Housing is a complex social, economic and political issue in every country. It is intricately linked to land and property rights, to exclusion, to wealth accumulation and inequality. It is almost always strongly gendered, affecting men and women very differently. Emergency shelter is not the same as housing, but it always happens against this complicated backdrop, and it usually turns into housing.

While emergencies are an opportunity to resolve some housing issues, for example by ‘building back better’, what is actually better is contested and tends to be defined by the most powerful: Governments. International organisations. Aid workers. Men. The Tyranny of Experts, if you will.

The aid system is inherently patriarchal and colonial. Power resides with rich donor countries, international organisations, large businesses and governments. The realities of this are particularly stark in emergency shelter because what it does tends to be lasting, and expensive, and interferes with vested interests like land ownership, tenure systems. The sector is rarely able to respond purely in the best interests of the poorest and most vulnerable, and instead tends to provide most support to land-owners and already privileged groups. Renters. Marginalised communities. Those without land or tenure. Women and girls. All often find themselves excluded from decision-making and from resources. This is because of structural reasons in the aid system and in the countries in which responses happen. Redistributive responses that seek equitable outcomes are often limited. Cash distribution is conditional by demand of donors or governments. Receiving anything beyond basic emergency shelter is contingent on land ownership or identity documents. Permanence is forbidden. Support requires a level of input of time or resources that the poorest cannot manage. The continued focus of emergency shelter on construction, on parachuted in shelter products, on designs and technical solutions means people’s own choices continue to be disregarded.

Even thoughtful responders cannot overhaul structural discrimination in a short emergency response, and can instead find themselves compounding and exacerbating existing inequalities and exclusion. Less thoughtful responders actively remove agency and power from those they seek to help, imposing their priorities and decisions upon them, often perpetuating decades of patriarchal and or colonial control.

The shelter sector is important. Solidarity and helping those in great need is vital. But the shelter sector needs to make changes so it is itself less patriarchal and colonial, so it does challenge some of the structural reasons for poor housing, and so it really is giving people safe, adequate, dignified homes and futures.

What is self-recovery? – The challenge for humanitarian agencies

This was first published on CARE Insights in June 2018.

Last year CARE and Habitat for Humanity published a study of six agencies’ ‘support to shelter self-recovery’ programmes after the devastating Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in late 2013. But what do we mean by self-recovery, and what does support to self-recovery look like?

The humanitarian sector, like many others, loves inventing new terminology. Increasingly post-disaster shelter programmes are being described as self-recovery, or support to self-recovery. However, as so often with new terms, it is not well defined and is differently understood by different actors, which makes it difficult to support it in practice.

In previous years the shelter sector has advocated the use of so-called ‘owner-driven reconstruction’ approaches, while more developmental actors have pursued policies of ‘self-help’ housing development. Is support to self-recovery just a re-branding; a result of short memories? Are we re-inventing the wheel?

Formal and informal support for post-disaster recovery

The term self-recovery developed from the hypothesis that the majority of disaster-affected people have to arrange, or rebuild, their own post-disaster housing, without any significant support from the formal humanitarian system. This system is complicated, and is made up of myriad governmental and non-governmental agencies and donors. The system is itself poorly defined, and it is very difficult to say where formal assistance ends and informal assistance starts.

It’s clear, for example, that remittances play a major part in many people’s post-disaster recovery, and are not part of the formal humanitarian system. It is likely many do in fact receive some form of external support, and perhaps the hypothesis that most rebuild without support is flawed. Debt, migration, unpaid labour, changes to gender roles and many other sources of money and capacity contribute to people’s recovery and rebuilding efforts.

Nonetheless, support to self-recovery is now a key approach in post-disaster shelter responses by humanitarian agencies (and governments).

Owner driven approaches

After a disaster large portions of the affected population may receive emergency items, such as plastic sheeting, blankets, etc. In most disasters, very few will receive a completed house from the responding agencies or other institutions. While it’s extremely hard to measure the amount of assistance people get from what sources, it’s reasonable to draw the conclusion that the provision of post-disaster housing by the humanitarian system is patchy, of inconsistent quality, and insufficient scale. In too many cases the number of houses built by external responders number in the 100s and 1000s while the numbers destroyed number in the 10,000s and 100,000s.

Even when agencies do build complete houses for affected people, the outcomes have often been less than hoped for, with houses left unoccupied, or sold, because they don’t meet people’s needs. It’s long been understood that owner-driven approaches tend to lead to better outcomes. But in practice such approaches have remained focused on achieving high quality products, and have not relinquished much control to affected people. They have rarely, if ever, actually been driven by affected people.

Affected people are often required to build to standard design, with careful control of construction quality. There are cases of this approach being extremely successful, but they do require high levels of oversight and organisational capacity, and sufficient resources to allow people to build to the required standards. Where this is not in place, the most vulnerable affected people may be unable to complete the buildings, and may become trapped in limbo, unable to complete a liveable home, and unable to access additional resources.

Control & agency

For CARE, the difference between owner-driven approaches as they have been applied in practice, and self-recovery approaches, is about the level of control exerted by external responders, and the level of agency affected people have to take decisions about their own recovery. Whether support to self-recovery is just re-branding what agencies already do, or actually something different, depends on whether humanitarian agencies and their donors actually change their approaches and expectations. 
Two definitions of (supporting) self-recovery that have previously been proposed are:

  1. Parrack et al (2014) describe self-recovery as “households rebuild or repair damaged or destroyed homes using their own assets.
  2. Maynard et al (2017) describe ‘supporting self-recovery’ as projects which “provide one or a combination of material, financial and technical assistance; during the relief and/or recovery phase; to enable affected households to repair, build or rebuild their own shelters themselves or through using the local building industry.”

The first definition, just of self-recovery itself, focuses on the disaster affected households and the use of their own assets, but does not explicitly include households being able to make decisions for themselves, or exercise agency.

The second definition, of support to self-recovery, focuses on the programmes that humanitarian agencies deliver, but similarly does not mention agency of affected people. It is hard to distinguish between this definition and the established owner-driven reconstruction approaches already discussed.

Self-recovery = recovery with agency

Both definitions focus on the output of a shelter, or house, being built. But is the objective of the shelter sector to provide physical shelters, or is it to contribute through processes of sheltering to making sure vulnerable people are safe, can realise their rights, and have a chance to realise some, if not all, of their aspirations? Seeing the shelter as the ultimate goal, and not as a means to an end, has limited the meaningful adoption of owner-driven approaches, and threatens to co-opt the term self-recovery into another agency-driven, agency-owned thing. Recent research and thinking, including our new study of projects aiming to support self-recovery in after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, has highlighted the importance of affected people’s own choices and decision-making in making self-recovery a meaningful concept.

For CARE, self-recovery means recovery which is in accordance with the choices and decisions of the individuals and groups who are recovering. Self-recovery is recovery with agency.

The role of humanitarian agencies

The role of organisations like CARE is then to support that self-recovery, so that it is not just recovery with agency, but recovery with (1) agency, with (2) resources, and with (3) the best possible enabling environment. Shelter self-recovery is the aspect of this process which is specifically concerned with people’s ability to achieve post-disaster shelter in accordance with their choices. Projects which aim to support shelter self-recovery must therefore maximise the agency of the people they aim to support, ensure they have sufficient resources (money, materials, knowledge and information) and engage in the enabling environment to overcome any barriers preventing their recovery.

A range of interventions and support

Projects may therefore provide material, financial and/or technical assistance as in definition 2 above, but could also provide legal assistance, governance interventions, livelihoods interventions, or other assistance or interventions in the wider enabling environment (such as lobbying to change land and property laws or practice) which allow people and communities to achieve the results they desire as much as possible on their own terms.

To do this, any assistance must be provided with as few restrictions and limitations as possible so it, when pooled with individuals’ and communities’ own resources, ensures sufficient capacity to achieve a recovery in the way those individuals and communities choose for themselves.  Unconditional, unrestricted cash must be a key component of this in practice.

For CARE, having been investigating the promotion of safer buildings after disasters, and support to self-recovery, for several years now, it is becoming increasingly apparent that if we are to make significant changes to the way disaster-affected people are enabled to rebuild after disasters we, and our donors, need to relinquish control over timescales, over location, and over the end product. We need to get better at listening, better at analysis, and better at adapting what we do to what we hear.

Relinquishing control – but not responsibility

The key challenge for CARE, and other shelter actors, is relinquishing control over the recovery and rebuilding process to the affected people and communities, without transferring all the risk and all the responsibility for the outcomes of our programming onto those very same communities.

Self-recovery cannot mean we, or other actors (including governments), absolve ourselves of responsibility for what happens to people affected by disasters. The poorest and most vulnerable must not be, cannot be, expected to achieve a safe, dignified and adequate recovery entirely by themselves. We must still offer serious and substantial assistance. But we must learn how to do that on their terms, not on ours.

If we can do that, then perhaps supporting self-recovery might be something truly different, and not just a rehashing of old ideas.

Linking Aid to Migration: A worrying direction of travel

This blog was written with contributions from Inge Brees, Celine Mias and Chiara Cestaro, and was first posted on CARE Insights in 2018.

Aid, including humanitarian aid, is increasingly being related to, and justified by, a goal to limit migration from poor and fragile countries to wealthier countries [1]. This is a problematic approach for several reasons, so how should humanitarian and development NGOs respond?

EU Trust Funds, though funded by official development assistance, were not established with a vision to reduce poverty or meet humanitarian needs or human rights, but to stem migration flows to the EU. “Addressing the root causes of migration” is a key theme of the UK Aid Strategy, and also features heavily in the 2016 Bilateral Development Review. Similar rhetoric, if not policy, is evident amongst other donor governments in Europe, North America and Australia.

root causes migration

Above: Extract from DFID’s 2016 Bilateral Development Review

While many of the approaches and priorities resulting from funding instruments like the EU Trust Funds can be welcomed (such as a focus on sustainable livelihoods, reducing conflict, addressing climate change, etc), there are some fundamental concerns about the focus on migration; not least the painting of migration as inherently undesirable and harmful.

The trend appears to be one of larger percentage of development and humanitarian funding being spent in migration-producing countries and regions, with the primary purpose to address the internal political challenge of migration, rather than necessarily helping the people most in need [2].This causes both a shift in the geographical allocation of development funding, but also on the selection of its beneficiaries. Funding from EU Trust Funds is partly disbursed based on the assumption that those who migrate are mostly young men, not the poorest people or women. Above all, the discrepancy with commitments to ‘leaving no one behind’ in the Sustainable Development Goalsand the World Humanitarian Summit is stark. 

Furthermore, donors are increasingly explicitly linking development and migration agendas in choosing how to allocate funding; potentially leading to situations where if there is no cooperation on readmission and return, then there will be no more development funding [3].

Myths vs reality

There are some demonstrable fallacies that underpin some of the thinking around using aid to discourage or limit migration [4]. Some of the main ones are:

  • That there is a refugee or migration ‘crisis’. While the number of refugees recorded is increasing year on year (UNHCR, 2017), it is not the case that unprecedented numbers are reaching Europe, and it remains the case that the great majority of refugees are hosted in neighbouring or nearby countries. Overall global levels of international migration have not increased significantly as a proportion of global population. The vast majority of migrants entering Europe do so using formal, regular channels (and thus controlled by the authorities). The idea that Europe, or the USA, or Australia, are unable to cope with the numbers of migrants, including refugees, is false. This myth is repeatedly used to justify wealthy countries not taking their fair share of the responsibility (and opportunity) represented by refugees and migrants.

“Countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan currently host the largest refugee populations. Western societies, by contrast, receive a comparatively low number of refugees, and current numbers are anything but unprecedented. Currently, about 0.4 percent of the total EU population is a refugee. That figure hovered around 0.5 percent between 1992 and 1995.”

  • That development reduces migration. It has been demonstrated by a number of studies that development increases migration until countries significantly higher levels of income and prosperity [5]. Effective development assistance is likely to increase migration in the short and medium terms. The concern is that this myth is used to justify spending of aid money not on effective development assistance, but instead on approaches which deter or limit migration without effectively or sustainably increasing prosperity (such as encampment, exploitative labour arrangements, increased border security, etc).
  • That migration is inherently bad, or harmful. This is implicit in much of the policy to use aid to deter migration. Terms such as ‘mass migration’ and ‘illegal migration’, and the conflation of migration and terrorism, are frequent in the discourse, including in the UK Aid Strategy (in section 3.7 it states that ‘illegal migration’ is one of the ‘drivers of violent conflict which threaten stability and development’). The UK Aid Strategy does not however provide any justification for implying migration is bad; clearly assuming it goes without saying. Well, it doesn’t. There is in fact strong evidence that migrants, including refugees, are in the long term an economic benefit to host countries, where policies allow them to contribute, work, and pay taxes (European Commission, 2016OECD, 2017). It is well established that the flows of remittances from migrants, which are larger than the global aid budget, are highly effective drivers of development and highly important in times of crisis [6]. Furthermore, the discourse that migration is bad obscures the fact that limits on the migration of poor people are a significant symptom of global inequality, which CARE and other development actors seek to eliminate. There is no doubt that coping with inward migration can be difficult and politically sensitive, and can be expensive in the short term, but it is equally clear that migration is not an automatic ill, and that migration itself contributes to international development. The assumption that it is bad must be challenged.

What does this mean for humanitarian & development NGOs?

Migration is unquestionably important. Even if it wasn’t, as limiting migration is currently a key theme of several major donors’ strategies, it is not easy to simply refuse to engage with it, or to avoid all funding with aspects of this agenda. It is however all too easy to just go along with it without question. There are some key things that humanitarian and development agencies must avoid if they are to navigate this highly political area without compromising on their principles and harming the very people they exist to help. They must not:

  • Fall into the trap of using the myths outlined above when analysing or designing projects. If these myths form part of the programme rationale, principled agencies should think twice about taking part without challenging the design and objectives.
  • Engage in refoulement (the forcible return of refugees), or involuntary returns of migrants in any situation. This should include situations where people are given a ‘Hobson’s choice’ where they have no real alternative but to accept, or where their situation is made so unpleasant that return becomes the only viable option, or where the information they are given to encourage a decision to return is biased, untrue or incomplete.
  • Engage in projects (or activities within wider projects) which offer humanitarian assistance or other aid to people which is contingent on them surrendering or limiting their rights, or making agreements which limit their future choices and may not be in their own best interests. For example, this could include programming in which people are offered assistance in exchange for agreeing to return to their place of origin (offering aid in exchange for return to often desperate people cannot be classified as voluntary returns).
  • Engage in projects where participants or beneficiaries are selected based on whether they are ‘potential migrants’, or report on indicators related to the number of migrants stopped due to programming (this is one of the 19 indicators of the EU Africa Trust Fund), or the number of potential migrants reached with programming.
  • Engage in projects with implicit or explicit migration-related objectives unless it’s clear that the activities are in their own right beneficial to the people they seek to help. Projects which aim to make migration safer, or offer sustainable and beneficial alternatives to migration without discouraging or preventing migration, may be justifiable. Nonetheless, great care should be taken to analyse and understand the potential consequences of involvement in such projects.
  • Engage in projects which support reintegration of returnees in their countries or locations of origin unless that return is voluntary and safe, and returnees have adequate protection (including from sufficient access by NGOs). It is critical to ensure that involvement in such projects is not used to provide legitimacy for involuntary or unsafe returns, such as in this case:
Luke de Noronha tweet

Above: Screenshot of Luke de Noronha’s tweet

  • Place consideration of migrants’ or programme participants’ legal status above consideration of what is in their best interests and what their choices are.

At a time when the US is separating children from their parents and locking them up, Australia is interning migrants on remote islands, the UK is deporting long-standing permanent residents and Europe is funding abusive Libyan coastguards to prevent people from travelling over the Mediterranean it is vital that humanitarian agencies take a clear stand and do not become complicit in increasingly outrageous abuses at home or abroad.


[1] Apodaca, 2017Clemens and Postel, 2017LOC, 2011
[2] Bermeo & Leblang, 2018Funk et al, 2017
[3] CNN 2018Adepoju et al, 2017Koenig, 2017
[4] De Haas, 2017Davitti and La Chimia, 2017
[5] Clemens, 2014De Haas, 2007Lanati and Thiele, 2017
[6] CARE, 2016IOM, 2016World Bank, 2016

Do we have a humanitarian innovation problem

This blog was first posted on CARE Insights in 2018

In recent years, innovation has been touted as the way to bridge the gap between the humanitarian and development needs of the world and the capacity we have to meet them. But is the focus on innovation distracting us from the task of actually making a difference, at the necessary scale?

Funding for programmes increasingly requires innovation to be a clear and central part of the project design. There is a proliferation of organisations focusing on innovation in the humanitarian and development sectors, such as the Global Innovation Fund, the Humanitarian Innovation Fund, the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation, the Humanitarian Innovation Project, USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures. The list goes on. At the World Humanitarian Summit, ‘Transformation through Innovation’ was one of the four main themes; a ringing endorsement for innovation as one of the main ways to transform our ailing humanitarian sector.

Innovation has come of age. It is studied and analysed. Treatises and strategies are written. INGOs and UN organisations are investing in innovation departments and experts. But yet we still have an ever growing gap between humanitarian needs and resources, we are facing increases in inequality and increases in global conflict after many years of increasing peace, and we hurtle towards the precipice of catastrophic climate change on our chariot of economic growth. Will innovation lead to ways to steer humanity through these threats?

It is hard not to feel that this focus on innovation in humanitarian and international development is getting in the way of implementing known solutions to the injustice, inequality and resulting poverty and vulnerability that ultimately cause suffering and disasters in the world. Is innovation just the latest distraction from the lack of political will and funding to actually make a difference at the necessary scale?

Is innovation always a good thing?

Good innovation can achieve great things, and make huge leaps forward. Whether we are talking the development of the vaccine, the many mobile technologies making our work better, or the onset of humanitarian cash programming at scale, we can do more, and do it better, with innovation.

But do we really want all innovation? Do we want the type of innovation that’s just about expanding market share and consuming more? Like increasingly ridiculous haircare products, or yogurts? Do we want the type of innovation that’s all about disruption, whatever the cost? Do we want innovation for innovation’s sake, even when we don’t understand the consequences properly?

Innovation isn’t an inherent good. Innovation can certainly do harm, whether as the result of genetically modified grains limiting diversity and sustainability of crops or impoverishing farmers, newly introduced plants wreaking havoc, data breaches from insecure online systems, or over-ambitious deliberately innovative projects that just don’t deliver their aims.

It was supposed to be innovation, but now we’re being told it was experimentation– Papa Omotayo, a Lagos-based architect

Does innovation always live up to its ambitions?

Often, innovation just doesn’t live up to its grand aims. In the humanitarian shelter sector, the development of tens, if not hundreds, of innovative sheds has made absolutely no difference whatsoever to the fact that providing people with decent housing costs quite a lot of money, and the people who need help most don’t have that money. Having won prizes and much fanfare, the Better Shelter (more widely known as the ‘IKEA shelter’), a product of the IKEA foundation and UNHCR’s Innovation Service, has certainly not lived up to its ambition. This innovation, as so many innovations, appears to be more about hype and PR than about delivery.

Talking about humanitarian housing problems, perhaps it’s worth looking at the parallels with non-emergency housing. In the UK housing market, councils are looking for increasingly ‘innovative’ ways to deal with their shortage of social housing. Often an “unapologetically commercial approach, but with a social purpose”, this moves away from taxation paying for services, and towards a market-driven approach. Necessity is the mother of invention, and in this case councils have been forced by public policy to find convoluted ways to meet their obligations. And private sector investment carries risk as well as reward.

Is innovation just passing the funding buck?

In the humanitarian world, the talk is increasingly of innovation around the role of the private sector and new funding models. In a world where there aren’t enough resources, this will be welcome if it leads to more – but it can’t be allowed to lead to a re-arranging of the deckchairs in a zero sum game.

For example, much is made of the possibilities presented by risk-based financing (insurance for disasters), but the premiums for this have to be paid by existing donors. More predictable financing perhaps, for some emergencies, but can it revolutionise humanitarian response? Can we trust private insurance to replace public safety nets and international solidarity? If innovation is used as an excuse by those holding the power to avoid their responsibilities (‘Well, you just have to innovate’) it will be counter-productive.

Innovation can deliver impressive results

There are much heralded success stories of innovation, many in the areas of mobile technology, medicine and energy. MPesa, Frontline SMS, and Ushahidi are all examples of powerful mobile tools developed in East Africa to meet particular needs of East Africa. Private sector startups are driving decentralised energy access in poor, rural areas of the world. There are some enormous successes in the health sector which have capitalised on developments of new drugs and treatments.

The humanitarian sector itself, for all the criticism of red tape and unwillingness to change, is remarkably innovative. Whether developing better materialsbetter approaches, or better technology, it has done some pretty impressive things to better meet people’s needs. In the midst of emergencies, the innovation that is delivered, under pressure, to get essential items and services to people in need is not often adequately recognised.

Humanitarian innovation in action

For example, in Zimbabwe in 2015/16 there was a major drought, and severe food shortages. Building on the now well-established humanitarian innovation of providing unconditional cash at scale, DFID funded CARE International and World Vision to distribute cash. However, there was a major liquidity crisis in Zimbabwe. How do you distribute cash to buy food when there’s no cash? The programme responded by putting more emphasis on e-transactions rather than cashing out, working closely with two mobile operators and traders to set up the necessary systems.

But then it became clear that due to the liquidity crisis, grain importers couldn’t bring sufficient food into the country for people to buy. Realising the problem, DFID worked with Crown Agents and the grain importers to establish the grain import facility. Through the facility, commercial grain traders were able to import 55,000 metric tonnes of maize to sell on the open market, enough to meet over 1.6 million people’s food requirements for three months. The cost to DFID was £200,000, in addition to the cash transfers. It would have cost more than $50m to import and distribute food aid directly.

This innovation was possible because the organisations involved, including the donor, were open to trying new things, and driven by a mutual desire to make things work. Where this culture of openness is not there, innovation is stifled, and important programming is not delivered.

Do the achievements match the hype?

These examples are good ones. Innovative products and systems are enabling big improvements in many areas. But is innovation the panacea it claims to be?

Initiatives like USAID’s Development Innovation Ventures seek to support ‘breakthrough solutions to the world’s most intractable development challenges – interventions that could change millions of lives at a fraction of the cost’. Canada’s Grand Challenges fund seeks ‘Bold Ideas with Big Impact®’. The EU seeks ‘affordable high-tech for humanitarian aid’ as part of its Horizon 2020 Research & Innovation framework. The World Humanitarian Summit seeks ‘transformation through innovation’. The UK’s research funding seeks to address ‘global challenges’.

Some of these initiatives will, hopefully, lead to great improvements in disaster risk reduction, in health, in energy, and in other areas; but the degree of realism between the funding offered and the scale of the challenges varies dramatically.

The rhetoric doesn’t match the achievements. We have better technologies. We have better information management. We have much potential. Innovation is good. It helps, and it will improve things. But are we going to see these breakthrough innovations to ‘change millions of lives at a fraction of the cost’? Do we honestly expect that the complexity of inequality, poverty and disasters can be solved by some lightbulb moments? Do we understand the consequences of this drive for innovation?

Who – and what – is really driving the cult of innovation?

Seeing all this investment, and these initiatives, it’s hard not to conclude that this is the rich North trying to have its cake and eat it. The UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund is ‘tackling global challenges in the national interest’ and deliberately funding a leading role for UK research. It sounds suspiciously like spending ODA money on a UK-led research agenda. By focusing on the cult of innovation, as many have called it, the global North is seeking a miracle cure for the disease it itself is the cause of.

Set against this, social and economic policy globally is not visibly moving forwards. There is little innovation apparent in finding ways to distribute wealth and power more equitably.

Across the public sector, social services are cut, replaced by ‘innovative’ cheaper, and worse, alternatives. Broadly good examples of successfully working with social safety nets in Turkey, Ethiopia and Kenya are set against much wider regressive migration policies, and backpedalling on international commitments. While funding innovative products and technologies to seek miracle solutions to the world’s problems, there has been almost complete failure to find political solutions to conflicts in Syria and Yemen, to deal in an even slightly morally justifiable manner with the relatively insignificant numbers of refugees seeking safety in Europe and a continuation of the systematic extraction of wealth from poor countries. (In 2015, $203bn was taken from the African continent by repatriation of profits, by illegally removing funds, or by other means).

Innovation is welcome – but it is not a panacea

We should grasp good innovation gratefully, with both hands, when it comes along. We should be able to identify it, welcome it, nurture it and make it work. Like the cash programme in Zimbabwe highlighted above, we should be open to finding the right ways to get the right help to people in whatever particular situation they are in.

But let’s stop pretending that we can innovate our way out of every problem. Most of the problems we deal with are really, really hard. Their solutions are nearly always political, and cost money. Let’s continue to listen, to learn, to research – so we can better understand these really hard problems, and better find solutions.

But no amount of innovation funding will make up for an unjust global taxation system, over-consumption, the denial of people’s rights, or the looming climate disaster we all face. We can’t innovate ourselves out of having to do the right thing. The system can’t innovate its way out of structural failings it is unwilling to address.

Innovation – the latest shiny gadget, the latest app, the new approach to doing more with less – is alluring but is not going to solve the world’s problems by itself. A focus on plaudits for quick-fixes and low-hanging fruit will not solve the world’s more intractable problems. Let’s not forget the importance of politics, public policy, decent levels of funding, and bringing existing solutions to scale.

Let’s not forget how much can be achieved with good, boring, existing policies and approaches. Innovation can be good, but boring can be good too.

Like all good things, perhaps innovation is best taken in moderation.

Gender Balance in Engineering

The February issue of the Structural Engineer includes a letter to the ‘Verulam’ letters section on ‘Gender Balance in Engineering’. I wrote a letter in reply, but it didn’t make it into the March edition, so instead I have reproduced it below, with thanks to Suzy Madigan, who checked it for me. The original letter is here:

Cliff Billington’s letter on gender balance in engineering is shocking, but is an opportunity to confront many of the tropes and prejudices that are such a barrier to positive change in the engineering professions. Sadly Cliff’s views are far from rare, and the fact that the editor considers them only “slightly controversial” and does not condemn them outright is indicative of how far our profession is from where it needs to be.

I have sat in meetings where more qualified women are ignored, while the views of less experienced men are listened to. I’ve seen women with considerable design flair and ambition sidelined to focus on business management and project administration while men with egos take the credit and glamour of being the star designer. Fantastically talented women leave the industry, or are unable to return after having children, because of endemic discrimination and inflexibility. I have had repeated conversations with men in the engineering sector where they categorically deny, like Cliff, there is any problem whatsoever. Yet I don’t know of a single woman who thinks all is well. Most shockingly, I have sat in an Institution Council meeting where a young female engineer was dismissed and belittled by an Institution President after highlighting how inspiring it can be to have senior female role-models in the profession. The Institution Council itself is a striking example of the abysmal gender balance in this profession. Two female presidents after 111 years is some progress. It is not enough.

There should be no need to explain why Cliff is wrong. There should be no need to point out the huge reservoir of talent that we miss out on by alienating and excluding women. There should be no need to demonstrate that engineering is short of women not because of women, but because of the multitude of unconscious and deliberate barriers the profession and its members, who are overwhelmingly men, put up to prevent positive change. There should be no need to explain how much more pleasant, engaging and just normal a workplace is that has both men and women – and conversely how weird a “code-drafting committee” without women actually is. There should be no need to justify gender equality. Sadly there is a need for all of this.

The editors “don’t think Cliff is pushing a case for deterring women from becoming engineers, rather than arguing that this should not be seen as problem.” Well, perhaps they should re-read his letter. It is exactly the insidious attitudes epitomised by this writer which deter women from joining or staying in professions which seem like an old boys’ club. Women shouldn’t have to feel like they have to spend their whole careers proving themselves to be just as capable as people with different sex organs.

Inaction is a deliberate choice, and maintains the status quo. It’s not just the job of women to change this. It’s time for the Institution, its (male) members, and their employers, to make more concerted and deliberate efforts for change. This should be top of the agenda of Council, and no longer something that it simply pays lip-service to. Those men who say “but I’m not sexist”, and “I’m not the problem”, but look on and do nothing to change things are part of the problem. Those employers who have lots of female graduates but no women directors are part of the problem. Those organisations and individuals which turn a blind eye to harassment in the workplace are part of the problem. The tired and sexist trope that the profession is a meritocracy must be retired. In fact the profession structurally advantages men at every level.

So let’s build on the positive call from John Nolan, Nick Russell, Ian Firth and Tim Ibell that prompted Cliff’s letter, and see more action from the Institution, from employers, and from both the womenand the men in this profession, and reap the benefits of gender equality in the next decade, not the next century. Cliff’s letter is a clarion call for change.

‘Refuge: Transforming a broken refugee system’ – but into what?

The right to work for refugees is vital. In fact, increasing the economic opportunities for refugees is the only way in which they can become autonomous and productive, escape from long-term limbo and prevent them from being a burden on the state. But this is just one of the ways in which refugees can be supported, and providing the right to work is not an excuse for states to avoid their responsibilities to help people in need. Fundamentally, there needs to be political will and collaboration around a range of interventions and support to resolve refugee crises and an equitable resettlement arrangement should be a part of this.

A ‘broken refugee system’?

Since reading Alexander Betts’ and Paul Collier’s new book Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System, we have been watching the resulting discourse with interest. The publication of this book has been accompanied with a flurry of articles and publicity, and resulted in discussions on Twitter, in the press, and at ODI. This discussion is of great value, and brings a vital focus on the importance of socio-economic activities of refugees to the fore. However, as have many of those who commented, we have concerns about the approaches proposed in the book and some of the analysis on which they are based.

The book presents the “refugee system” as “broken”, and puts forward a number of ways to fix, or replace it. There is some truth to this judgement, and at face value many of the proposals are sensible. The ‘international humanitarian system’ is indeed straining at the seams, and widely acknowledged to be inadequate for the tasks its faces. Nation states, with Western countries in the vanguard, are retreating from their commitments and responsibilities toward refugees. There are ways in which the collective international response to refugees and displacement could be greatly improved.

But the book’s conclusions seem to be drawn from an overly simplistic analysis. Support to refugees is presented as either camps or work and the 1951 refugee convention as an irrelevant anachronism. Historical comparisons with displacement after World War II are superficial and simplistic, as painstakingly emphasised by Dr Benjamin Thomas White’s live-tweeting of his reading of the book. The economics are correspondingly flawed, as explained by Behzad Yaghmaian. Importantly, there is little or no reference to human rights and only lip-service to the political realities in which most refugee crises occur.

The work seems to present false dichotomies between camps and economic opportunities for refugees, between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’, between historical and current refugee crises, and between supporting refugees in neighbouring countries and resettlement in Western countries. All this is reducing complex, nuanced and highly political situations to simplistic rights and wrongs.

The right to work

One of the main premises of the book, that refugees should have economic opportunities and not be denied the means to become autonomous and productive, has obvious merit. The denial of the right to work can exacerbate a sense of alienation and despair, as well as eroding long-term skills and ambition. Not only does the 1951 Refugee Convention support this, it is of mutual benefit to break down boundaries to economic participation of refugees. Encouraging host states to improve working rights for refugees could simultaneously benefit refugees, contribute to the state’s national-development strategy and have the potential to support post-conflict reconstruction.

This idea is not new, however. The claim that the notion of refugees’ need to work is “tragically new to the humanitarian-dominated domain of refugees” is simply untrue. The right to work is inherent in the 1951 Refugee Convention, and in the case of Syria, CARE has been advocating for the right to work for Syrian refugees since at least 2014, and is by no means the only agency to do so.

In particular, in recent years, CARE International UK has drafted a livelihoods position on behalf of the wider INGO community for the London Conference on Syria, convened roundtables with business on their role in refugee livelihoods, and organised other studies and outreach to different actors – including government line ministries and private sector actors in refugee-hosting nations. Also see Lives unseen: Urban Syrian refugees and Jordanian host communities (April 2014).

The proposal to “upend” the current “regime” and put global business “to work”, thereby “bringing to refugees the opportunities to thrive”, reflects a capitalist view of refugees as an economic resource from which global business can make profit, without consideration of the rights of refugees or the significant risk of their exploitation. In pursuing an ill-conceived enlightened pragmatism, the book proposes a refugee support system which could provide opportunities for rampant exploitation and injustice, and has no hope of reaching sufficient scale.

Choice and autonomy – or exploitation?

A key recommendation of the book is to use Special Economic Zones (SEZs) to “offer sufficiently attractive opportunities to attract refugees to choose to work within and live close to these spaces”, “premised upon possibilities that enhance refugee choice and autonomy”. SEZs are areas in which business, trade and tax laws differ from the rest of the country, in order to attract trade, investment and job creation. As the authors (among many others) have noted, SEZs are associated with “exploitative low-wage labour”.

Yet the book argues that “there is no reason why the model could not be adapted to ensure respect for human rights and consistency with a set of ethical practices” and that, “crucially, the model should not function on the basis of any kind of coercion but offer sufficiently attractive opportunities to attract refugees to choose to work within and live close to these spaces.” However, the authors do not address how to actually avoid exploitation, when employing people so obviously open to abuse as refugees, indicating a troublingly naïve expectation of the measures necessary to protect refugee rights to work.

The book places a great deal of trust in the willingness and ability of large multi-nationals to create large numbers of jobs for refugees, without abusing this arrangement. Enticing such companies will require various incentives and special rules which would likely lay the groundwork for exploitative arrangements where companies avoid paying taxes and have access to cheap labour with no protection of rights. SEZs will likely lead to a situation where refugees, dependent on the work and unlikely to get long-term formal support from an under-funded and stretched humanitarian system, are at risk of becoming trapped in conditions akin to bonded labour.

The currently struggling Jordan Compact is the only precedent for this they can draw upon. Part of this deal is to allow Syrian refugees to apply for work permits both inside and outside of the zones, with estimates of this providing 50,000 job opportunities in the first year and 200,000 job opportunities in the ‘coming years’ (while the refugees remain in the country). Approximately 37,000 of the 50,000 work permits promised to refugees by the Jordanian government in the first year have been issued, but only four per cent of these are held by women. There are around 1 million refugees in Jordan. The idea that this approach can ever reach sufficient scale, or indeed that any major refugee-hosting economy can create a large enough number of jobs, is hopelessly naïve.

Entrepreneurism and enterprise

A study, referenced in the book, of how refugees in Uganda have fared when given the right to work and access to land, recognises the potential of refugees to create their own economic opportunities, if only given the right to do so. The entrepreneurism of refugees in Zaatari camp is also highlighted. It is strange, therefore, that that authors settle on large, often multi-national, companies to create employment for so many.

In pursuing the dream of global capitalism coming to the rescue, the book ignores the inevitable exploitation that would result from widespread use of SEZs. It also ignores the hopeless mismatch between the need for the jobs and ability to create them. But perhaps most grievously, a book that claims to want to bring autonomy and self-reliance to refugees doesn’t do justice to the tremendous potential of refugees’ own entrepreneurism and enterprise to bring benefit to themselves and their hosts, in favour of using them as labour for multi-nationals.

The need for political will and collaboration

The book identifies a current opportunity to reform the ‘refugee system’, highlighting that “far from being encouraged to see refugees as potential workers able to contribute productively to their host society, governments are learning to see them as quasi-hostages to be mistreated unless kind hearts with deep wallets pay up. This makes comprehensive reform of refugee policy an urgent necessity.”
It then goes on to propose sweeping aside humanitarian aid and resettlement, sidelining the 1951 Refugee Convention, and starting afresh with market-based approaches and a more politicised UNHCR.

It was very welcome to hear much more nuance regarding the book’s recommendations at the recentODI panel discussion on the subject. Sadly, without this nuance, the book comes across as an apologist for shameful European refugee policy by analysing the recent European influxes and concluding the only way to proceed is more of the same policy coupled with more development assistance. For example, the book concludes that large numbers of migrants (and we note explicitly that refugees are migrants) using dangerous routes means third countries should not accept refugees to avoid a pull-factor. In doing so the book accepts states’ refusal to meet refugee and human rights, and fails to examine the alternative of meaningful resettlement schemes which include safe transit which are more accessible and available to those who need them.

The fact is, as it has always been, that ‘solving’ the various refugee crises that face the world requires political will and collaboration around a range of interventions and support. There should be a right to work for refugees in host countries. There should also be conventional aid or welfare-like systems for those who cannot work and support themselves (and this may need to happen on a large scale). There should be development interventions to support host communities and their economies. There should also be resettlement, and safe, voluntary returns when appropriate. And yes, there should be innovative ideas like repatriating companies, and perhaps, in some situations, SEZs.

No ‘easy way out’ for governments…

We strongly agree that there is a need for reform, but this book appears to propose throwing the baby out with the bathwater and negotiating a new framework at a time of historically low political will to support others in need. In the time of ‘Make America Great Again’, the EU and its members’ abject failure to share any burden whatsoever, the shelving of the Dubs Amendment, and the negligible outcomes of recent conferences, now is the time to stand up for the rights of refugees and responsibilities of all states to play their part in every way they can.

As CARE continues to advocate, the UK government must accept more refugees from Europe, reverse the decision to cancel the Dubs Amendment and deliver on our commitments under the Dublin Regulation to reunite families. The UK should also accept more refugees from outside Europe, bringing forward to 2018 the deadline for resettlement of 20,000 Syrian refugees. The UK government should dedicate political will and budget commitment for the long term.

Wealthy countries should take in a fair share of those seeking refuge so as to form part of a broader meaningful solution not only by supporting those resettled directly, but also by alleviating pressure on neighbouring countries. Importantly, international support must not end at improving refugees’ rights to work somewhere else. Refugee work alone is by no means a straightforward solution and should not form an ‘easy way out’ for governments.

… or for humanitarian agencies

Humanitarian agencies need to improve upon and scale up existing and new approaches to supporting refugees outside camps, such as increased use of cash programming, protection and case management and integration with social safety nets, alongside more conventional humanitarian support.

There are some interesting and valuable proposals in the book, and we hope that the ongoing discussion and political discourse will be able to focus on these, rather than the more simplistic, headline-grabbing suggestions. The UN’s approach to supporting refugees and migrants suffers from competing agencies and mandates, and certainly merits reform. It is an excellent idea for UNHCR to strengthen its ability to analyse and navigate the complex politics around refugees. The value of these ideas is largely lost in the almost vitriolic criticism of UNHCR. Perhaps the most interesting idea in the book is to repatriate not just refugees, but also their employers. But this is not explored or developed, and remains a footnote compared to the main themes of the book. Perhaps the newly formed World Refugee Council, which includes CARE’s Jessie Thomson and co-author of Refuge, Alexander Betts, can explore these themes with all the rigour and nuance they deserve.

The book states at one point that the “default option at the onset of a refugee crisis should not be that nobody does anything, but that everybody does everything”.

We wholeheartedly agree with this.

This blog was co-authored with Rebecca Gibbons, and first appeared on CARE International’s Insights Blog. 

Flying razor blades

It is frequently claimed that corrugated galvanised iron (CGI) sheets are ‘flying razorblades’ in storms, and that they shouldn’t be used in reconstruction. This has caused their complete prohibition, for example after the 1991 Cyclone in Bangladesh. However, they are durable, relatively cheap, and usually very popular with affected people. So what is the truth, and should they be used in recovery and reconstruction projects?


Having looked for evidence, I have found absolutely no evidence that CGI is any more dangerous than any other flying debris in windstorms. In fact the leading causes of death in windstorms are drowning (due to storm surges and wind-induced flooding), falling trees and falling debris (walls falling over, tiles falling off roofs, etc). Where data is available there are cases of injury and death (more injuries than deaths) from windborne debris, but not one that cites windborne CGI as the cause.

There is no reason to avoid the use of CGI in post-disaster reconstruction. Rather than banning CGI, reconstruction efforts should focus on effective evacuation of flood-prone areas and on stronger, safer buildings in general.

Details of the evidence I found are below:

Wind-borne debris is extremely hazardous for buildings

It is well established that wind-borne debris is a serious hazard for buildings. Objects carried by the wind can puncture the walls and windows of buildings, allowing the wind to get inside, potentially destroying the building. However, none of the literature or evidence states that CGI is any more dangerous than anything else.

From http://www.hurricanescience.org/society/impacts/windsatlandfall/:

“Wind-borne debris generated from loose-laid ground materials and/or from dislodged building components can fly an unbelievable distance, up to several hundred feet, and impact neighboring buildings. Almost all building envelope materials, particularly windows, doors and skylights, as well as most wall sidings and roof coverings used for homes, are at risk for impact from such high-energy projectiles. Breaches to the building envelope by such projectiles will allow rainwater intrusion and subsequently damage the building interior. It may also pressurize the interior of the building, increasing the uplift on the roof and the outward forces on the walls, making them more likely to fail. In high category hurricanes (e.g. category 3 or higher), wind-borne debris damage occurs essentially in parallel with the damage due to differential pressures.”

1992andrew6 Gabriel_Fernandez_del_Pino_CARE (66)
Flying debris from hurricane Andrew (left) and Typhoon Phailin (right). Clearly if these hit you, it will cause injury or death.

Damage to buildings from windborne debris (Tamura 1991)

Wind Debris TableStructural design codes have special provision to ensure that fixtures, fittings and cladding of buildings is well enough attached so it does not become detached and form flying debris (see right, for example, from IBC 2009).

Is is well established that in built-up areas windborne debris from one building can hit the next, and so on, causing what is know as the damage chain.

Capture1Damage to roofs, and the damage chain (Tamura 1991)

See also:

But does wind-borne debris kill lots of people?

The description of the effects of different category hurricanes mentions wind-borne debris injuring or killing people, and common sense says that any solid object flying at 60+mph that hits people will severely damage them. But what’s the actual evidence?

  • Category One Hurricane: Loose outdoor items will become projectiles, causing additional damage. Persons struck by windborne debris risk injury and possible death.
  • Category Two Hurricane: Loose outdoor items will become projectiles, causing additional damage. Persons struck by windborne debris risk injury and possible death.
  • Category Three Hurricane: Persons struck by windborne debris risk injury and possible death.
  • Category Four Hurricane: Windborne debris will cause extensive damage and persons struck by the wind-blown debris will be injured or killed.
  • Category Five Hurricane: Severe injury or death is likely for persons struck by wind-blown debris.


Most of the studies I can find focus on disasters in rich countries, as it is only richer countries that have systematic collection of mortality and morbidity information.

  • One paper, notes that 23% of the 63 fatalities from Cyclone Mireille, which struck Japan in 1991, were due to flying debris (Tamura 1991). The paper also gives a good overview of the damage chain. The paper does not mention CGI.
  • A systematic review into the health impacts of windstorms (Goldman 2013) in the UK concludes that becoming airborne, being struck by flying debris or falling trees and road traffic accidents are the main dangers, with a number of secondary effects like electrocution also being significant. The review also finds that flying debris causes far more injuries (mainly fractures and blunt trauma) than it does fatalities. Most of the fatalities from flying debris are due to head injuries. The review does not mention CGI, but largely only references research from the UK and USA.
  • A 1984 paper reviewed the multiple casualties caused by a gale in the UK: “Four patients were injured by falling slates and twelve by other falling or flying objects, including window glass, a tree, a milk-crate and a dust-bin.” This was out of a total 116 injuries treated. (Illingworth 1984)
  • Another similar paper found 36% of injuries were due to flying debris and falling masonry (Cugnoni 1992)
  • Medical examiner reports in the US report that 9 deaths were caused by blunt or penetrating trauma in Hurricane Andrew (1992) and 2 of 18 deaths were caused by flying debris in Hurricane Charley (2004).
  • Hurricane Katrina killed over 1,200 people in the USA in 2005. One study, looking at 971 deaths in Louisiana, found that drowning (40%), injury and trauma (25%), and heart conditions (11%) were the major causes of death. The mechanism of injury was unspecified for 226 trauma or injury deaths; specified injury-related causes of death included heat exposure (n 6), unintentional firearms death (n 4), homicide (n 2), suicide (n 4), gas poisoning (n 3), and electrocution (n 1), but numbers due to flying debris are unfortunately not mentioned. (Brunkard 2008). Interestingly the paper strongly links likelihood of death to age, poverty and social exclusion.
  • Hurricane Sandy in 2012 killed around 160 people. The CDC examined the causes of 117 deaths captured by American Red Cross Mortality Tracking. Of the 117 deaths, 67 (57.3%) were classified as directly related deaths, and 38 (32.5%) were indirectly related to the storm. Of the directly related deaths, the most common mechanism was drowning (40 [59.7%]), followed by trauma from being crushed, cut, or struck (19 [28.4%]). Poisoning was the most common indirectly related cause of death; of the 10 poisonings, nine were caused by carbon monoxide. Most directly related deaths occurred during the first few days of the storm, whereas indirectly related deaths continued from the day before the storm into the middle of November. More information is provided in an Earthsky article, based on data from the New York Times. Flying debris was not one of the top 7 causes of death: Capture

So what happens when you look at the most deadly windstorms, which don’t tend to happen in rich countries, but for which the data is much harder to find:

  • The 1970 Bhola Cyclone in Bangladesh killed up to 500,000 people. Sommer and Mosley undertook two surveys after the cyclone looking mainly at mortality, but also at morbidity. The primary causes of death were drowning, although they did note a ‘cyclone syndrome’ where trauma was caused by hanging on to trees and being buffeted by the floodwaters. (Sommer, 1972). In fact six of the top ten deadliest windstorms of all time have hit Bangladesh, with the lead cause of death drowning. (Washington Post, 2013)
  • Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda hit the Philippines in 2013 and killed 6,300 people. The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Agency final report states simply that most deaths were caused by drowning and trauma. It includes an extract, but not the entirety, of the deaths reporting, containing details of 163 deaths. The cause of over half of these is unknown and the leading known cause of death is drowning. Falling debris and blunt or penetrating trauma represent only 6 of the known deaths:Yolanda cause of death


Windborne debris is dangerous, but it is not the leading cause of death or injury in windstorms. Drowning, falling trees and collapsing walls/roofs are more significant causes of death.

CGI, rather than general windborne debris, is not cited as the cause of injury in a single one of the papers or reviews of storm mortality and morbidity I have found. There is no evidence that CGI is any more dangerous than any other windborne debris. The only way to limit wind-borne debris, especially important in built-up areas to avoid subsequent damage to adjacent buildings, is to ensure all parts of a building are tied down and robustly attached.

There is no reason to limit use of CGI in post-disaster reconstruction, but there is every reason to ensure it is used correctly and buildings are well-built.


KBrunkard J; Namulanda G; Ratard R, Hurrican Katrina Deaths, Louisiana, 2005, American Medical Association (2008)

Cugnoni & Whitworth, Injuries related to wind speed, Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (1992)

Goldman A. et al, The health impacts of windstorms, a systematic literature review, Public Health (2013)

Illingworth R N; Illingworth K A, Multiple casualties caused by a gale, Archives of Emergency Medicine (1984)

Sommer A; Mosley W H, East Bengal Cyclone of 1970 Epidemiological Approach to Disaster Assessment, The Lancet (1972)

Tamura Y, Wind-induced damage to buildings and disaster risk reduction

Thanks to the ‘community of shelter geeks’ for the discussion that started this off!

Does ‘building back better’ mean what you think it means?

This was first published in a slightly different form on CARE International’s Insights blog. 

After natural disasters the phrase ‘Build Back Better’ is a constant refrain from politicians, donors, aid agencies and the media. This short, alliterative phrase has captured the imagination, and seems at first glance to be a simple, powerful and necessary principle.

Sitting on the panel of a recent event at the Overseas Development Institute looking at the response to Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in the Philippines, I said that CARE doesn’t use ‘Build Back Better’, and for want of a better phrase it prefers ‘Build Back Safer’. Why is this, and what could possibly be wrong with it?

For the comprehensive answer, the best thing you can do is read The Meaning of ‘Build Back Better’: Evidence From Post-Tsunami Aceh and Sri Lanka. It’s behind a paywall though, so here’s a shorter explanation:

Evidence from a succession of disaster responses has shown that the simple rhetoric of building back better is extremely difficult to apply in highly complex situations. While better sounds good, it means very different things to different people.

The media tend to represent it as building houses that will never again fall down in a storm, or earthquake, or flood. Earthquake-proof, wind-proof and other guarantees are frequently mentioned. Unfortunately there’s no such thing (as evidenced by the consequences of Hurricanes Katrina & Sandy in the US and the 2012 tsunami in Japan – even the best-prepared, richest nations cannot build strong enough to resist all hazards).

Humanitarian aid workers tend to think it means reducing risk and increasing resilience: building stronger homes in safer places, with access to sustainable livelihoods, health and social services, and involving and ensuring the protection of men, women, girls and boys from any dangers they may face.

But many disaster-affected people, when told someone is going to (help them) build a better house, might think of modern materials like concrete or masonry instead of timber, or mud, or wattle & daub. They might think of a second storey, a bathroom and an indoor kitchen, with running water and electricity. They might think of artistry and decoration on their houses that will show them to be more successful and wealthy. They might think of internet access, or somewhere to entertain guests, or glazed windows. And who is to say they are wrong? We, as aid workers, here today and gone tomorrow, do not get to decide what is better.

There’s a strong ethical obligation on those who come to give help after disaster to be honest and transparent about what they can and cannot do, and what they will and will not do. The word better gets in the way of that. It raises very high expectations and leaves us unable to deliver what people think we have offered.

The shelter sector now prefers to say that we (humanitarian shelter actors) will seek to ‘build back safer’. Still not a perfect phrase, it is less ambiguous, it is easier to explain, and it more accurately reflects what we can actually achieve with the funding and time typically available to us. Building back safer involves building houses which have improved capacity to survive hazards, and working with the community to improve their ability to respond to and recover from shocks themselves. It involves making achievable, steady, incremental improvements in the safety and resilience of communities and their infrastructure. It involves making people less vulnerable and putting them on a firmer footing from which they can continue to build what they know is better for themselves.