New shelter design a game changer for humanitarian partnerships

Interior of a Better Shelter prototype at the Kawergosk refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq. Photo by: Better Shelter

After a long prototyping phase, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees placed an order of 10,000 Refugee Housing Units — also referred to as Better Shelter units — for its operations in Iraq. While the new shelters hold the promise of significantly improving the conditions of life of refugees in emergency settings, they also mark a turning point in the way UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations can run partnerships with the private sector.

The shelters were designed to fill an existing gap within UNHCR’s set of housing solutions between tents used in emergency settings and transitional housing. While a single unit can last up to three years, its steel frame is guaranteed up to 10 years, leaving refugees with the option to replace damaged parts with local materials or spare parts provided by the manufacturing company. At $1,150 each, the new shelters are more costly than the tents, but their modularity makes them cheaper in the long term.

Each unit comes in two boxes, and can be erected in a few hours with no other tools than those provided in the kit. The assembling process isn’t much different from that of a tent, but the final product is meant to look like a small house, with four walls, a door and four windows. With a 17.5-square-meter floor space, the shelters are suitable for a family of five or six. A photovoltaic system provides up to four hours of light per day.

A durable and dignified housing unit

“Durability is a very important aspect of this new shelter. But more important than that is the dignity this type of shelter can provide,” Christopher Earney, co-lead of UNHCR Innovation, told Devex. “The tent is very good at what it was designed to do, but it wasn’t designed as a house, as the Better Shelter unit was. You cannot stand up in a tent in the same way that you can in a Better Shelter unit, which means that you’re using these spaces in a very different way.”

Among notable innovations, the team developed a new polymer to produce panels that are lightweight, can withstand harsh climatic conditions and are thick enough to ensure privacy at night. By contrast, tents are see-through when lit from inside.

The project started when Ikea Foundation put in touch a small team of Swedish designers working on new solutions for refugee shelters with the UNHCR team in charge of innovation. A number of private sector partners then contributed to a long research and development phase. In 2013, Ikea Foundation set up the Housing for All Foundation, which turned the project into a social business, Better Shelter.

Bypassing rigid regulations

The process couldn’t have been made possible under U.N. procurement regulations, but was made possible by UNHCR Innovation’s more permissive rules.

“The procurement of the U.N. is one key factor why it has been so hard to generate innovation in the field,” explained Johan Karlsson, founder of Better Shelter. “UNHCR and many other organizations have very descriptive procurement rules. When they put a tender out, they describe very closely what they want. This is of course to ensure quality and performance. The downside of this is that you always get tents, because you get what you ask for.”

Working with the innovation team allowed Better Shelter to bypass another procurement rule that requires the agency to contract organizations that have been operating for at least three years.

“Many startups don’t have that history, and are automatically excluded from supplying to the U.N.,” Karlsson said.

Among the key ingredients for success is the close collaboration that took place between the partners, with UNHCR giving Better Shelter unprecedented access to its staff, both at headquarters and in the field — the design team tested its product in Ethiopia and Iraq. And although UNHCR Innovation is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, Better Shelter received valuable input from UNHCR Innovation fellows working in the field.

“[UNHCR] opened their doors to us inside the organization and put us in touch with the right people, which ensured that we got the right knowledge and feedback,” Karlsson told Devex.

Earney said the project owed much of its success to the fact that roles and objectives were clearly defined early on.

“A lot of people contact us on a daily basis saying they’d like to help,” the UNHCR Innovation co-lead said. “Some organizations have a bit of a misunderstanding of what the needs or an organization like UNHCR might be.”

Partnerships work best when the partner’s core competencies align with the needs of UNHCR, he added.

Who owns what?

The project nonetheless ran through hiccups — the partners hadn’t discussed intellectual property rights and were caught off guard when the product was about to be ready for commercialization.

“When we saw that this was going to go commercial, that it was not just going to be an R&D project, that's when people started to become very protective,” remembered Karlsson, adding the project was stalled for almost six months before partners settled the issue.

Those setbacks now belong to the past. Better Shelter is currently working on fulfilling its first order of 10 000 shelter units to be shipped to Iraq. Karlsson sees this milestone as the beginning of a process that will see the organization continually working on improving the project. The next phase will also involve dealing with challenges associated with maintaining the shelters.

UNHCR sees the project as a success because it produced an efficient and truly innovative product, but also gave the agency a welcome set of best practices.

“There’s a real appetite throughout our organization to form these kinds of partnerships,” Earney told Devex. He added several UNHCR departments are already looking at replicating the partnership.

Join Devex to network with peers, discover talent and forge new partnerships in international development — it’s free. Then sign up for the Devex Impact newsletter to receive cutting-edge news and analysis at the intersection of business and development.

About the author

  • Flavie Halais

    Flavie Halais is a contributor based in Montreal who covers cities and international social issues. In 2013-2014, Flavie was an Aga Khan Foundation Canada International Fellow, reporting for Nation Media Group in Nairobi, Kenya. She’s also reported from Rwanda, Brazil and Colombia.