Long term impacts of shelter programmes

Author: Charles Parrack, Oxford Brookes University

Earlier this year, the Centre for Development and Emergency Practice (CENDEP) at Oxford Brookes University in the UK welcomed people from various backgrounds to a workshop on longitudinal studies in shelter. Longitudinal studies are by no means a new concept but the shelter sector rarely embeds them in practice, and we hoped to find out why not and whether this might change. That day in March provided an opportunity for people from the humanitarian sector, shelter and academia to advance discussions on a more organised approach to methodology, procurement, dissemination and sectoral learning/evidence from these studies.

We tackled questions such as: How would impact measurement benefit the sector? and How would it benefit affected communities?, reaching consensus that the outcomes of impact studies would encourage institutional learning, particularly if disseminated and shared as best practice. This would help the sector to see the long-term consequences of our actions; to understand how beneficiaries take ownership of shelter and how safety is enhanced or reduced after implementation. Using longitudinal studies to follow programmes two, five or even ten years after completion can enable agencies to better understand and engage with prevention, sustainability, resilience and cost-efficiency. The findings would feed back into and improve future programming and lead to important benefits for many actors.

Longitudinal studies involve repeatedly gathering data on the same focus area over a long period of time. They look at how a pre-specified unit, be it a person, shelter, household or community, changes over time, with time being the best test of a programme’s viability, effectiveness and sustainability.

When considering such studies in our sector, it’s important to remember that shelter is delivered in various forms; both soft and hard interventions. It is not necessarily a structure in the physical sense of the word. Perhaps 90% of what the shelter sector delivers in the humanitarian context is provided to meet short term emergency needs. It does not take into account the future long-term consequences and may therefore, be difficult to locate, let alone measure. With this in mind, the workshop was an opportunity to discuss certain shelter interventions (such as transitional shelters) that are quick and common enough for us to be able to find out what their impact has been. Transitional shelters are intended to be transformative in their nature, and one way to assess their impact is to track this transformation. In doing so, it’s important that the residents in the affected communities document their own recovery, with their qualitative data being used in a quantitative way by agencies if preferred. Participation from affected communities is key to the sector’s learning, allowing us to continue to develop and improve programming that meets the needs of the user.

As long-term studies are not standard practice in the shelter sector, several challenges and questions surrounding their implementation were raised:

  • What is the criteria for success?
  • Do long-term studies link with the localism agenda?
  • Changing the building culture takes time and is not part of the emergency programme
  • How should studies with long-term intentions be funded, when the programmes are inherently short-term?

Long-term effects of shelter programming can be both positive and negative but these effects require time to develop and change in response to the intended user. Many organisations are willing to carry out long-term studies, but do not have the time or indeed the funding to do so. However, understanding the consequences of our actions will enable better design and implementation of improved shelter programmes at lower costs and with greater effectiveness. We need to find reliable ways to measure shelter and the workshop developed a shortlist: safe shelter and settlements, user satisfaction, enabling informed decisions, adaptability, saving lives and value for money. Uninterrupted sleep and beauty were shortlisted as overall proxy indicators of a successful shelter, while it was generally agreed that the Sphere Standards offer good indicators for security, peace, dignity, security of tenure and protection from forced eviction.

The conversations from the workshop are continuing and it seems clear that the studies would have a varied audience including funders, agencies and university courses with wide opportunities for learning and improving practice. Whether called ‘longitudinal studies’ or ‘long-term impacts’, the interest for putting this research into action is strong and we look forward to the next steps in their implementation and use.

About the author:

Charles Parrack leads research and teaching on Shelter after Disaster at the  Centre for Development and Emergency Practice (CENDEP) at Oxford Brookes University. He runs the postgraduate course in Shelter after Disaster and is active in the shelter community of practice, holding working group positions in the Global Shelter Cluster.