/ Teaching

How to find your way in the humanitarian shelter sector?

You are definitely not the first to ask this question. Students and recently graduated often contact me because they would like to work for "some NGO" or do "something with shelter" or to "find a job in shelter". The main problem is often that your question is still too broad and it is difficult to help you find your way and connect you to people in my personal network. I recommend you to find out what you really want to do and to specify you aim for. That enables organizations to consider you for a certain tasks, or position.


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Try to answer some of these questions for yourself:

  • Do you consider yourself flexible and adaptable to a totally different context and sometimes very uncomfortable situation?
  • Where do you want to work abroad? In which continent or which country? If you want to stay at home, how will you make sure you understand what you are talking about?
  • What is your ambition? For how long do you plan to work or study in the shelter sector? Do you consider it a once in a lifetime experience or do you plan to develop yourself in this field?
  • Is it only for an internship or for a graduation? Could you combine the two and spend more time, deepen your work and make your contribution more valuable?
  • What would you be able to contribute? What skills do you have? Can you picture a possible added valued? Or do you have supervisors that can ensure the added value of your work? How will you make sure that the effort that an organization will invest in you pays off? Do you need a lot of introduction before you can contribute to deliverables?
  • Can you bring an interesting perspective to the work of an organization such as structural engineering, construction management, sociology, architecture, civil engineering, information management, data science, innovation science or something completely different?
  • Are you interested in the emergency phase, the recovery phase or development phase?
  • Are you interested in training and communication strategies, capacity building, improving material strength, experimenting with alternative materials, increasing structural safety, developing and optimizing emergency shelters, pre-casting of disasters, prevention measures, risk assessment, collaboration mechanisms, preserving cultural heritage, .....?

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If you don't know the answers, start with some research. I recommend you to start here:

  1. Attend a shelter conference such as the UK Shelter Forum twice per year or attend lectures at universities that have your interest. It is a good place to meet people that work in the field and the presentation will give you a better understanding of what you would like to do and who inspires you. You can also attend the Shelter Meeting online. It gives you a good idea of relevant topics and mostly help is requested from the participants, so this gives you an idea of what topic you could work on together with some of these organisations as a volunteer or for a thesis project.
  2. Academic literature is not always the easiest way to get started. It is always good to see some examples of others. I can recommend you to read some thesis projects of my students and speak with them. This one is about the self-reliance of an indigenous community in Mailaysia. This one is a bachelor thesis about a imaginary refugee city in the Mediterranean sea. This one is about social networks in the reconstruction in Nepal. This one is about the optimization of and emergency water tower. You can see that the scope of projects is very broad. If you find any thesis that you like, contact these students for a coffee to find out more.
  3. The Humanitarian library is a large database with important documents related to shelter managed by the Shelter Centre. You can narrow down you search by selecting types of disasters, country, type of document, organization and language. Save those documents that have your interest and try to define what they have in common.
  4. Follow as many Facebook pages related to shelter and automatically become up-to-date on the latest developments and insights. I recommend to join for example the group Humanitarian Shelter and Disaster & Development Research Group - University of Newcastle, Australia. Some other Master Degrees are interesting to follow too such as the Master of Disaster Design and Development or Sustainable Emergency Architecture. Some organizations give you a broad overview of topics; UNISDR, UNDP, Humanitarian Practice Network. There are many more from all kinds or organizations. Personally, I do not actively use LinkedIn or Twitter, but humanitarian organizations share updates frequently.
  5. Subscribe to newsletters of institutions that help you gain access to the latest information. I would suggest subscribing for example to the newsletters of Shelter Projects, CENDEP, UCL Disaster Risk Reduction, Shelter Centre, UK Shelter Forum. These give you an overview. However also aim for more specific information about what has your interest!
  6. An easy way to work in this sectors to respond to assignments that are already prepared for students or young professionals. I share information related to architecture and shelter on BorderlessEngineering. Technology for Global Development and TGD Solutions from the Eindhoven University of Technology, Engineers Without Borders, and Students for Sustainability, all shares updates, events and projects.
  7. Deepen your knowledge by attending online seminars. There are some great courses offered by Kaya or by Cologne University of Applied Science, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.
  8. Study the terminology in the field so that you understand the discussions that are going on and the documentation you find. You have to have some understanding about the different shelter phases after a natural disaster and the different shelter types people refer to, such as emergency shelter, transistional shelter, core housing. Learn the most used abreviations, such as WASH (Water, Sanitaion and Health), NFI (Non Food Items), TA (Technical Assistance), IDP (Internally Displaced Populations).
  9. If you have narrowed down your scope, ask for a coffee meeting with an expert. As long as you know what you want and come prepared, experts are often willing to help you find your way.

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Some partners are always open to collaborate with you:

  • If you would like to construct wooden houses with indigenous populations in Malaysia with the University of Malaysia contact WanSrihani WanMohamed via Facebook.
  • If you are interested to improve the material quality of low-tech earthquake resistant techniques select an assignment on Smart Shelter Research and contact Martijn Schildkamp.
  • If you would like to work in the development of sustainable rural housing in Kenya contact Michiel Smits of Delft University.
  • If you are interested improve the communication of hazard-resistant construction principles after a natural disaster, contact me.

Probably by now, you are able to find your own focus and you might have become very capable of explaining to organizations what you are looking for. Good luck!