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.