A mother of 12 and her carpenter husband rebuilt their house after Typhoon Yolanda with support from CARE Philippines and a local implementing partner. A mother of 12 and her carpenter husband rebuilt their house after Typhoon Yolanda with support from CARE Philippines and a local implementing partner. Photo credit: CARE UK/Marta Echegaray
Whose recovery? Power, roles and ownership in humanitarian shelter assistance
by Holly Schofield and Luisa Miranda Morel June 2017

The term ‘self-recovery’ in the humanitarian shelter sector refers to the process whereby disaster-affected households repair, build or rebuild their shelter themselves or through local builders. However, despite its apparent acceptance and increasing use – and despite being seemingly self-explanatory – there is no agreement as to its definition, and as a process it is little understood. This article critically engages with the concept of self-recovery, drawing on CARE’s experience of supporting shelter self-recovery in the Philippines and Nepal to show the steps disaster-affected communities take in order to recover, regardless of whether humanitarian shelter assistance reaches them or not.

Supporting self-recovery in recent practice

CARE Philippines responded to Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda in 2013 with extensive shelter and livelihoods programmes. Almost 16,000 families were provided with cash, materials and tools, alongside technical assistance to reconstruct their houses. The response has been praised for supporting disaster-affected communities in rebuilding their homes in ways that made them safer than before. It also allowed people more autonomy in the design of their housing, which often resulted in families expressing a real sense of pride, satisfaction and ‘ownership’, and left behind a legacy of learning around build-back-safer techniques. This was considered more appropriate than the alternative contractor-built ‘whole-house’ approach.

CARE observed that families were quick to initiate the process of self-recovery without waiting for external assistance. Using a combination of salvaged, bought and donated materials, people began reconstructing their houses and/or building makeshift temporary shelters immediately. Some of these households were subsequently excluded from the shelter repair programme on the basis that their houses had not been completely destroyed by the typhoon. Their immediate selfrecovery actions may have had a negative impact on their longer-term recovery by placing them at a disadvantage in relation to other eligible households that had been unable to reconstruct immediately, and had received newer, higher-quality materials as well as technical advice.

CARE Nepal’s shelter response following the 2015 earthquake also aimed to support people’s autonomy in the process of reconstruction. Yet the Nepalese government played a central role in the process, initially developing new housing models and not allowing NGOs to support the reconstruction of other housing typologies. CARE’s response therefore consisted mainly of the distribution of materials and tools, technical assistance and training (for local carpenters, plumbers and masons), followed by cash grants, winterisation and housing design.

Following the disaster, it was clear that, by the time the materials and cash grants reached households, they had already begun to rebuild using salvaged materials. Earthquake-affected households used the materials provided according to their immediate needs, for example sheltering goats, expanding shelters they had already built themselves from recycled and salvaged materials and insulating shelters in preparation for the approaching monsoon. Whether or not these decisions were in line with build-back-safer messages and policy is debatable, though it was evident that people were following a process of self-recovery that was unique and appropriate to them, rather than what the government or humanitarian agencies assumed to be appropriate.

In both of CARE’s shelter responses support for self-recovery has been operationalised as a three-pronged approach involving material, technical and/or financial interventions. This has obvious practical benefits for donors and humanitarian organisations engaging in shelter response because of the operational clarity that it provides. However, it is based on assumptions about how disaster-affected households recover, and how much ‘safer’ they are as a result. Furthermore, despite presenting itself as a more desirable bottom-up alternative to top-down shelter responses, support for self-recovery is still a delivery-driven approach to humanitarian aid.

Critique of self-recovery in theory and implications for practice

The Philippines and Nepal experiences highlight two themes that run through our critique of self-recovery, both in theory and in practice. The first is that disaster-affected communities do not wait for assistance to self-recover. This suggests that a number of possible recovery pathways may exist, but these are less understood because existing documentation focuses on self-recovery after a shelter and/or livelihoods intervention has taken place.

In the past decade humanitarian organisations have rarely reached over 30% of shelter needs within the first year following major disasters, with single figures not uncommon. In the case of Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh in 2007, as little as 1% of shelter needs were met.+C. Parrack, B. Flinn and M. Passey, ‘Getting the Message Across for Safer Self-recovery in Post-disaster Shelter’, Open House International, 39(3), 2014. The great majority of recovery is done by households with little or no shelter assistance. This is the pathway of recovery implied by the term ‘self’, yet it is also the one that we know the least about, often because those who carry it out are very hard to reach or do not fall within the beneficiary selection processes used by humanitarian organisations. Current knowledge relating to self-recovery is based entirely on feedback mechanisms and data from evaluation reports relating to beneficiaries, rather than the population as a whole. Understanding self-recovery from the perspective of this missing group of disaster-affected households and communities, and then reconciling this with humanitarian objectives and standards, is a major challenge.

The second theme is the need for disaster-affected individuals, households and communities to be given the opportunity to play a more active role in their own recovery when an intervention does take place, making better use of humanitarian assistance. This signifies an inevitable shift in decision-making power (between humanitarian agencies and disaster-affected communities) that supporting selfrecovery approaches will bring about, affecting the sectoral approach of responses, relationships with donors and funding characteristics.

When we analyse self-recovery, unavoidably we begin asking, recovery to what? Where and when is the line drawn, and by whom? These questions open up further ones. Can families really be said to be recovering if using salvaged and damaged materials for reconstruction leaves them more vulnerable than they were prior to the disaster? Has a family recovered once they live in a structurally ‘safe’ or ‘safer’ house, even if, several years later, they still feel a sense of insecurity and trauma? If a family has put their photographs back up on the wall, piecing the sense of home and security back together, can we say they have recovered? Which of these actions are more relevant and why? Who justifies this? These questions make the practice of self-recovery difficult to measure and concretise – a major challenge considering that indicators are central to efforts to improve programming and evolve as a sector.

The practice of recovery led by affected households is notsectoral. It follows organic pathways that integrate different elements of recovery (basic needs, shelter, health, livelihoods, protection, security, education and culture), each with different and shifting levels of significance. Some elements are prioritised over others, and this order of priorities can change rapidly according to changes in the social, economic, environmental and temporal context in which recovery takes place. In Nepal, for instance, while practitioners were distributing non-food items and providing technical training to local carpenters, people were using the tarpaulins they had been given to provide shelter for their goats, an important livelihood resource. The monsoon season was approaching and so were seasonal festivities. Both these factors became household priorities. People chose to spend a day farming their rice field instead of collecting shelter or kitchen kits.

The direction and characteristics of current and future shelter assistance, and the mechanisms that fund them, will be shaped by potential changes in decision-making power and ways of working, by the increasing push towards localisation and multi-sector and multi-disciplinary approaches. Within the shelter sector, this may imply a shift from the traditional and quantifiable ‘recovery through shelter’ line of action to a ‘recovery with shelter’ approach motivated by a shift towards sometimes subjectively valued activities that go beyond the walls of a shelter. These changes present an uncomfortable reality, as they may require activities that, by their very nature, are more difficult to measure and standardise, and are undoubtedly less palatable to donors.


Self-recovery is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. Despite increasing interest in and support for self-recovery approaches in humanitarian shelter response, the sector still knows very little about the process from the perspective of the people actually involved in it. Although this is undoubtedly a consequence of the infancy of self-recovery approaches in practice, it also signals a need for increased engagement with disaster-affected communities to understand their lived experiences, values and priorities in recovery.

This brief discussion raises a number of questions relating to the actors, decision-making processes and power dynamics that self-recovery involves. By placing self-recovery within this broader context, we have suggested that the process is more organic and multi-sectoral than many shelter responses currently provide for or act upon. The shelter sector must be willing to learn from, and work in coordination with, other key sectors and actors in more complex ways, so that responses can be integrated into people’s realistic and holistic self-recovery trajectories. This implies a redistribution of power and the transfer of ownership over the self-recovery process to the people who are actually doing the recovering, and who will inevitably continue to do so long after humanitarian agencies have moved on.

Holly Schofield is a shelter researcher with CARE UK. Luisa Miranda Morel is a shelter research assistant at CARE UK.