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Humanitarian Sheltering: Analysing Global Structures of Aid



Change log



The provision of shelter is an integral part of humanitarian response, in aiding communities affected by crises, in post-disaster, post-conflict and complex situations. Indeed, prior research has identified the wider impacts that shelter can have in these situations, across health, livelihoods, economic stimulation, education, food and nutrition, and reducing vulnerability. However, there is still a lack of understanding of the processes involved in shelter programming, the key decisions directing shelter response, and the influence that different stakeholders hold over those decisions.

This thesis analyses the global shelter sector though a systems-thinking approach, including the structures which affect behaviour in this system, the relationship between different actors, and the relationship between decisions taken over time. It identifies key decision makers and decision moments which directly and indirectly influence outputs in shelter projects, analysing controls on decision-making and the complexity of humanitarian governance in shelter projects. This is achieved through expert interviews, analysis of historic cases of shelter and current guidance, and participant observation.

This research reveals that community involvement in decision-making is often a very constrained exercise, despite repeated rhetoric over its necessity for project success. It also illustrates the top-down power dynamics that exist in decision-making, oftentimes hidden behind the supposed technocratic focus of the shelter and settlements sector. This includes influence over projects by donors, governments, the humanitarian system, private sector, and public opinion. It examines perceived constraints in-depth, including donor policies and funding timelines, political priorities of national governments, humanitarian mandates and priorities, private sector partnerships, iconography of shelter, and the role of affected populations themselves.

This thesis will show that humanitarian shelter should be re-defined at a policy level as ‘an enabled process to facilitate a living environment with crisis-affected communities and individuals to meet their current and future needs, whilst also having due consideration for the needs of the host communities and environment’. This is required to shift perceptions of shelter across actors who are traditionally outside of the shelter sector and incorporate the learning in shelter and settlements that has occurred over the last forty years.





Orr, John


humanitarian, humanitarian aid, humanitarian shelter, shelter


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (1946850)
Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851