The Post-Haiyan Shelter Challenge and the Need for Local, National and International Coordination

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 local authorities and those who remained in emergency shelters.

What accounted for this situation? To an extent, it was explicable. Shelter programmes can take longer to plan and implement,4 and the shelter response was chronically underfunded; seven months after Haiyan, the cluster was just 42 per cent funded and in need of an additional $178 million.5 There were complications over housing, land and property, including slow decision-making regarding the 40-metre zone along the coast designated by the Government as “unsafe”, wherein rebuilding was initially restricted and then, over time, partially permitted based on the results of hazard mapping and local government discretion. A related concern was the identification of land to which those in bunkhouses, or those who lived in the unsafe zone, could relocate and build. Then there was the question of whether the sites to which displaced families might relocate offered them the potential for livelihoods.6

At weekly meetings for inter-cluster coordination and the Humanitarian Country Team, there was a strong desire to shift to the recovery phase, but the focus was on transitioning the coordination machinery rather than the programming content.7 Such a transition would require closer consideration among partners about which needs had been met and which had not, and a willingness to shift funds and resources accordingly. Achieving the latter would be a challenge in itself, as funding is largely produced on the basis of mandates or partnerships, and donor practices are often not flexible enough to adapt to evolving needs and contexts.8

There were differences in understanding about the phases of emergency response and early recovery and the boundaries between them. For example, the international community tended to focus on emergency response activities for the first three to six months, while the Filipino perspective had a short disaster response phase and recognized a fast evolution towards recovery. There was also uncertainty regarding parallel government capacities and timetables, creating the potential for overlaps in the response. Here again, the lack of adaptable programming prevented what could have steered the evolution of national-international coordination into the recovery phase, particularly in locations where there existed a competent governing presence or national staff who could be maximized.9

Indeed, it was the Filipino context that highlighted the slowing momentum, and how it might have been avoided had there been greater priority placed on working with local and national authorities. In the Philippines, self-recovery is commonly used to deal with the aftermath of disasters, and Haiyan was no exception. While humanitarian partners chipped away at important causes such as managing displacement centres and advocating for the rights of their occupants, much of the affected population had returned home, often within days of the disaster, and rebuilt at least a makeshift shelter.10 Thereafter, their need was for quality materials to reconstruct their homes in a way that could withstand future hazards.

The international response did focus on self-recovery, but perhaps not on a big enough scale or at a quick enough pace. In June 2014, for example, OCHA reported that Shelter Cluster partners had provided about 570,000 households (approximately 3 million people) with tents and tarpaulins, compared with just 162,000 households  (approximately 842,000 people) who received support for shelter self-recovery through durable roofing solutions, tools and building materials to repair their own homes.11

Essentially, sustained cooperation between international, national and local actors leads to a more coherent response among humanitarian partners; increases awareness around actual needs and longer-term strategies; reduces duplication in assistance; and helps ensure the link between shelter assistance and the construction of more resilient dwellings.

Some Haiyan successes may be reapplied towards context-appropriate shelter responses in the future, however. These included the use of Communication with Community and Accountability to Affected Population mechanisms; the use of cash-transfer instead of in-kind assistance, which allowed recipients to purchase the goods they needed while also supporting local economies; the use of thematic advisers, which could extend to shelter, and perhaps even to housing, land and property; and the development of Recovery Shelter Guidelines and “build back safer” key message posters, produced by the Shelter Cluster in conjunction with government and agency partners.12

The Haiyan case is instructive, not least because the Philippines—one of the most hazard-prone countries in the world—is a lower-middle-income country with a well-developed national disaster management system. The response benefited from large-scale public sympathy and media coverage, long-standing links with aid donors, the absence of a high-profile “competing” disaster, and a host Government that accepts its responsibility to protect its citizens.13 It is therefore even more important to take a closer look at the challenges that persisted despite the existence of these favourable conditions.

The concerns described herein are not uncommon, and they were well identified in Haiyan response evaluations. In one such report, recipient satisfaction with the assistance for shelter self-recovery was found to have diminished over time,14 a trend illustrating the importance of ensuring that the initial emergency shelter assistance is strong and appropriate, and gives families a chance to restore their homes and build back better from the outset.

It is therefore encouraging that the Secretary-General, in advance of the World Humanitarian Summit, calls for international actors to ask themselves, in the post-disaster context, what they can do to add value to what people and communities are already doing. Engagement and cooperation with national authorities and local people will make international aid more relevant to the capacities of the host population, and allow actors to work towards collective outcomes that reduce need, risk and vulnerability. The emergency approach cannot be a sustainable long-term mode of operation and should be the exception, even when certain assistance and protection needs remain.15 When it comes to shelter, this advice couldn’t hit closer to home.


1       Teresa Hanley and others, “IASC Inter-agency humanitarian evaluation of the Typhoon Haiyan Response.” Prepared on behalf of the Inter-Agency Humanitarian Evaluation Steering Group (New York, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), October 2014), pp. v, viii. Available from

2       Shelter Cluster, “Response to Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda)”, Shelter Cluster Brief (19 June 2014), p. 1. Available from

3       Philippines Shelter Cluster, “Shelter Sector Response Monitoring, Typhoon Haiyan, Philippines, 2013. Final Report: Monitoring Assessment 2”, September 2014, p. 30. Available from

4       Ibid., p. 31.

5       Shelter Cluster, “Response to Typhoon Haiyan”, p. 1.

6       Hanley, “IASC Inter-Agency Humanitarian Evaluation”, p. 59.

7       Ibid., p. 58.

8       Report of the Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit, “One Humanity: Shared Responsibility”, 2 February 2016 (A/70/709), p. 38. Available from

9       Hanley, “IASC Inter-Agency Humanitarian Evaluation”, pp. vii–viii, 51.

10     Ibid., pp. vi, 29, 46, 59, 71.

11     Ibid., pp. 26–27; Shelter Cluster, “Response to Typhoon Haiyan”, p. 1.

12     Hanley, “IASC Inter-Agency Humanitarian Evaluation”, pp. viii, ix, xiii, 57, 59; Shelter Cluster, “Response to Typhoon Haiyan”, p. 1.

13     Hanley, “IASC Inter-Agency Humanitarian Evaluation”, pp. ix, 18, 70.

14     Philippines Shelter Cluster, “Shelter Sector Response Monitoring”, p. 30.

15     Report of the Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit, pp. 30, 36.