Haunting are the images of Tacloban, Philippines, in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, or indeed of any human settlement ravaged by calamity. In the course of a day neighbourhoods become wastelands. Homes are reduced to scraps. Essential for saving lives and easing the suffering of affected populations, the task of sheltering millions of people made suddenly homeless and vulnerable can seem daunting to even the most hopeful responder.
I landed in Manila in February 2014 as a Reporting Officer with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). I was part of the second wave of surge staff deployed in response to Haiyan, which hit the central Philippines on 8 November 2013, killing at least 6,300 people and leaving 4 million homeless in some of the poorest areas of the country It was the deadliest typhoon on record for the Philippines, and it remains the strongest storm recorded at landfall. This was my first direct humanitarian experience, and I was eager to observe how international-national cooperation can help people in crisis.
By the time I arrived, a massive and largely successful disaster response had been carried out, with emergency coordination mechanisms well-funded and rapidly established, excellent civil-military coordination and no serious coverage gaps. Assistance came from the United Nations and its partners, the Government of the Philippines, the private sector, civil society and the Filipino diaspora. (1) Each had respective plans and priorities, but common goals included supporting the recovery of communities and local governments, building back safer and strengthening resilience. Shelter--provided in a way that aided the self-recovery of the affected population--was integral to realizing these aims.
During the emergency phase, humanitarian organizations provided emergency shelter to over 500,000 households. The remaining families were assisted by the Government, (2) including through relocation to evacuation centres or bunkhouses. Yet during my time in the country, including the six-month post-disaster mark, shelter assistance slowed, to the increasing frustration of affected communities. Challenges surfaced that emergency response programming had not factored in and could not easily bypass. Households felt limited in their capacity to self-recover. (3) Help was still needed, but in a more customized way, requiring a deeper understanding and engagement with national and...