In region Global and in group Global Shelter Cluster

Promoting Safer Building Working Group



Poorly constructed buildings are often the largest cause of serious injury, trauma and death in the event of a disaster. After disasters, most families rebuild their houses relying on their own resources, with little or no support from formal institutions or the humanitarian community. They “self-recover”.  An analysis of statistics shows that the impact of aid agencies on housing recovery rarely reaches more than 20% of affected families and is frequently in single figures[i]. Moreover, much of that support is in the form of temporary or transitional housing that is not intended to last more than a few years. Therefore, we know that 80%, or more, self-recover.

Currently, shelter professionals lack an understanding of the recovery process and therefore of the inherent opportunities for appropriate and effective support. Families choose when and how to rebuild based on a series of little-understood circumstances. Empowering them in the exercise of informed choice is integral to assisting self-recovery. There are neither tools nor knowledge to effectively support this process at scale.

The impact is huge: any one emergency can leave hundreds of thousands of families without a home[ii] with women and girls being disproportionally more affected than men and boys. The challenge for the humanitarian community, as well as national and local institutions, is to support this inevitable process of self-recovery. As things stand, these homes are too often rebuilt using the same pre-disaster bad practice that caused so much death, injury and economic damage in the first place.

We know that simply informing people does not result in better, safer building[iii]; we also know that there are no universal solutions. The evidence of many post-disaster needs-assessments shows that families rapidly rebuild with little or no knowledge of safer building techniques[iv]. However there is also evidence that the demand for technical assistance can be very high in the early days after a rapid onset disaster. Only 12% of respondents interviewed for a CARE Nepal survey were able to name any potential techniques for improving the seismic performance of a house, but 60% listed building safety as a top concern[v].

Identifying and analyzing what people actually do by themselves (i.e. their building cultures) makes it possible to improve them while endorsing endogenous capacities for adaptation and evolution and, most importantly, building on local strengths and dynamics. It contributes to placing inhabitants at the core of a process with a central aim to support their empowerment and the development of their capacity to make informed choices.

It is in this regard that a number of humanitarian organizations recently came together to find alternative, highly context-adapted solutions; the solution being mostly the process of seeking to generate an enabling environment for the reconstruction of safer shelter rather than the building the shelter itself.

Many recent experiences in the field (Africa, Latin America, Caribbean, and Asia) have confirmed the relevance of such an approach and of the tools that have been developed so far to support it (e.g. the country profiles, methodological guide and catalogue developed by CRAterre). But it is not yet properly shared amongst agencies involved in post disaster shelter response and implemented during field operations. In order to answer most of the needs of implementing agencies regarding these tools, they need to be redefined and a standard protocol agreed on how to select and communicate, in a timely manner, best technical messages for supporting self-recovery.

Moreover, the understanding of self-recovery and self-building processes is a recognised gap in the area of post-disaster recovery[vi].

In November 2016, a consortium of CARE International UK, Overseas Development Institute, British Geological Survey and EpiCentre (University College London) won a grant from the Global Challenges Research Fund to initiate a 9-month practice development research programme. This was matched with funds from CARE UK. Taken together this is seen as the first stage of the Promoting Safer Building project. Funding is being sought for further stages.

The overall Promoting Safer Building proposal addresses the needs of those who self-build. It specifically addresses three important gaps:

  1. Understanding the recovery process: how to understand and support both the needs and choices of disaster affected people, support them to overcome obstacles to recovery, and allow them to take control of their own recovery. Where do we as external actors support and intervene?
  2. Technical best practice: what are the key construction best practice messages that will make a substantial improvement to the safety and robustness of houses, in different contexts (hazards; building typology; social, cultural and economic contexts)? How do we assess local contexts and decide what technical messages to prioritise?
  3. Changing construction practices both before and after disasters: Learning from and improving on current technology transfer and public education approaches, what communication, teaching and promotion methods really work? How do we make promotion of safer building effective and central to shelter programming?

The Promoting Safer Building project has been granted the endorsement of the Global Shelter Cluster, by becoming a working group that is now co-led between CARE International UK ( and CRATerre ( As part of its activities,  a common protocol on the selection and communication of contextualised key technical information for the promotion of safer reconstruction will be developed. The WG will also work on the country profiles developed so far by CRAterre as one of the deliverables of this protocol.

By increasing effective support to self-recovery and self-building, communities become more resilient, housing both stronger and more suited to people’s needs, and injury and loss of life are reduced. Programmes will become more cost effective by incorporating effective DRR and mobilising the capacity of affected people.

Other agencies, academic and private sector institutions that have been actively involved include: IFRC, IOM, CRS, Christian Aid, Save the Children, Habitat for Humanity, Arup International, CENDEP Oxford Brookes University, among others.

It is hoped that they, and others, will continue to be involved as the programme develops. The programme is intended to be an umbrella for research and development that will add rigour and quality to the technical assistance and support to self-recovery offered by the humanitarian shelter sector to disaster-affected people.

In summary, the purpose of the working group is to:

  • Guide and challenge the parts of the wider PSB project that relate to technical coordination.
  • Develop policy and practice for the cluster, based on the research.
  • Act as a forum to bring other organisations into the wider project.
  • Define a common protocol on the selection and communication of contextualised key technical messages while testing it through the production of several deliverables, including country profiles.

Proposed Outputs

The outputs listed here relate specifically to the GSC workign group activities:

  • Review of library of existing technical and IEC materials, guidelines and manuals; referenced by country, hazard, building typology, context, climate etc. (Note that work is already underway on compiling this library, so the Working Group will have limited input on this, but it is hoped that the Working Group will review it and it will be of use to the shelter cluster).
  • Develop a cluster protocol for appropriately rigorous and evidence-based identification, review and selection of key build-back-safer messages for endorsement by national clusters; to be integrated with national cluster technical working groups.
  • Min 3 country profiles produced according to the protocol and the inputs from the working group partners.
  • Produce a Global Shelter Cluster report highlighting key technical areas where there is uncertainty or lack of knowledge, or a lack of effective intervention, to help guide (the resourcing of) future research and development.
  • Disseminate findings through the workshops and events of the Promoting Safer Building project and future Global Shelter Cluster meeting(s).
  • A scoping review on knowledge engagement pathways for promoting safer building in post-disaster reconstruction. 

[i] Parrack, C; Flinn, B and Passey, M (2014) Getting the Message Across for Safer Self-Recovery in Post-Disaster Shelter. Open House International.

[ii] 1.8 million houses were destroyed by floods in Pakistan in 2010; 580,000 in the 2014 Typhoon Haiyan, Philippines. Sources – IFRC and Global Shelter Cluster. See also table on slide 9.

[iv] “99% of respondents across all districts reported they have not received technical training, assistance or information materials”

[v] CARE Nepal, IRDC (2015) Multi-sector recovery Needs Assessment

[vi] Maynard, V & Parker, E & Twigg, J. (2016) ‘The Effectiveness and Efficiency of Interventions Supporting Shelter Self-Recovery Following Humanitarian Crises’ Humanitarian Evidence Program. Available:


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Coordination Team
Step Haiselden
Working Group Chair
Bill Flinn
Working Group Chair
Olivier Moles