By analyzing the Recommendations table, five Key Areas for Action were identified which represent cross-cutting themes of recommendations to better support self-recovery in post-conflict situations. These Key Areas for Action are maximizing implementing organizations’ capacities, contextualizing risks, increasing adaptable and flexible programming, addressing the social dimension, and improving international coordination.
Maximizing implementing organizations’ capacities
The first Key Area for Action is to maximize implementing organizations’ capacities. Because post-conflict situations often present significantly reduced local government capacities, implementing organizations accept increased responsibilities that, in natural disaster emergencies, often the government would assume. This includes confirming HLP documentation of homeowners, ensuring adherence to building standards, and properly screening beneficiaries (Ohiorhenuan 2011, p. 9; Davis 2015). This necessitates a strong and capable implementing organization and means that opportunities should be taken to maximize the capacities of implementing organizations involved in this work. Two factors were identified to maximize implementing organizations’ capacities: knowledge sharing between local and international organizations and increasing efficiencies in monitoring and controlling.
To understand the benefit of knowledge sharing between local and international organizations, it is first necessary to understand what organizational knowledge is possessed by these organizations. In terms of larger INGOs, organizational knowledge is largely in the form of previous organizational experience in self-recovery support projects, largely from disaster contexts. In fact, this previous experience was noted as a significant facilitator of self-recovery support projects being initiated in Syria. Without this previous experience, they were less likely to attempt this modality for the first time in post-conflict situations due to the complexities involvedFootnote 2. NNGOs, however, often do not possess experience in previous self-recovery programs. In fact, many NNGOs are often founded shortly after a conflict begins and, thus, do not have any previous organizational knowledge whatsoever. What NNGOs possess, however, is a wealth of experience in the local construction sector and vernacular architecture since many of their staff are local built environment professionals.
Understanding the differences in organizational knowledge between NNGOs and INGOs reveals opportunities for knowledge sharing. Knowledge sharing can help NNGOs and INGOs to fill each other’s knowledge gaps, and thus, maximize their capacity to support self-recovery. One best practice for knowledge sharing that was identified in Syria is for NNGOs to train INGOs in local construction methods and vernacular architecture. INGOs also have knowledge to share such as lessons learned from previous self-recovery support projects. Although this was not noted to be happening in Syria, this should be done to support NNGOs that have little organizational experience (Table 3 rec 3d1). Additionally, INGOs should consider making their organizational knowledge more accessible to other NGOs. This could be done by creating self-recovery project databases coordinated through an international body such as the Global Shelter Cluster (Table 3 rec 6f1). These databases can contain guidelines, data, and lessons learned, much of which already exists at the INGO level but is not accessible by smaller NGOs. This knowledge sharing would help to maximize implementing organizations’ capacities to fill gaps in knowledge on the sides of both local and international organizations.
Finding efficiencies in the monitoring and controlling process can also maximize implementing organizations’ capacities. Monitoring and controlling was one of the main barriers for NGOs supporting self-recovery since beneficiaries are often dispersed and in areas that are difficult to access by implementing organizations. Because of this barrier, many large INGOs disregard self-recovery projects and opt for more traditional shelter support modalities that are easier to control. This can include IDP camps and transitional housing settlements. Finding efficiencies in monitoring and controlling would, thus, enable organizations to conduct self-recovery support more easily.
The main barriers identified regarding monitoring and controlling were coordination with local partners, communication with homeowners, controlling quality, and having the resources to conduct required visits and inspections. One strategy identified to address these difficulties was implementing quality control mechanisms. This can include thorough contracting procedures with contractors, project completion signoffs with all stakeholders, third-party quality audits, and innovative mobile phone applications which allow for remote project monitoring (Table 3 rec 3d2, 3d4). The use of local implementing partners was effective as well, especially for INGOs which could not access the project locations due to security policy restrictions (Table 3 rec 5c2). The benefits of using local implementing partners include the experience of these partners in local construction methods, the removal of some coordination work from the INGO, and the positive contribution to the independence of local NGOs who will maintain a lasting presence into the future. Some organizations though have strict ethical policies against the use of local implementing partners since they perceive this as putting their local partners at more security risk than they are willing to assume themselves.
Another opportunity for increasing efficiency in monitoring and controlling is through the proper selection of the self-recovery response modality. Various response modalities can be easier to monitor and control depending on the circumstances, and if NGOs can select responses accordingly, they will act more efficiently. Of the participants in this research, only 20% of organizations conducted cash-to-homeowner projects with 80% choosing contractor-led projects for the main reason of these projects being easier to monitor and control. As one IGO explained, “it is easier to chase one contractor than to chase 1000 landlords” (anonymous participant, Skype interview, May 05, 2020). It is worth remembering from literature, however, that in Bosnia, contractors were chosen for the similar purposes of speed and project control, but these benefits were never actually seen compared to the homeowner-led projects (Barakat 2005, p. 165). This makes it clear that selecting the proper response modality requires an analysis of the specific circumstances. It is observed that contractor-led projects are easier to monitor and control when NGO access is limited, such as in cross-border aid, whereas cash-to-homeowner projects are easier when the NGO can regularly be on site and monitor and control directly. Since most participant organizations were working with significant access restrictions, it seems appropriate that 80% of them were choosing contractor-led projects in this case. For other conflicts, the context would need to be considered, especially considering access restrictions, to select the appropriate modality. Additionally, contractor-led projects were noted by participants to be easier to control for small, standardized repairs such as doors and windows whereas cash-to-homeowner were optimal for non-standardized repairs. It is recommended that organizations select their appropriate response based on these recommendations and, in this way, their capacities will be maximized to provide the most support possible (Table 3 rec 3d4, 3d6).
The second Key Area for Action is to ensure the proper contextualizing of risks by both donors and NGOs. Contextualizing risk means that risks should be assessed based on the actual context and should not be assumed based on other experience. This must be done at multiple levels. For instance, post-conflict contexts must be assessed without preconceived notions from natural disasters. Similarly, the Syrian context must be assessed without preconceived notions from neighboring countries or other conflicts. Additionally, it means assessing risk iteratively based on a situation that can change considerably over time. Contextualizing risks allows a better-informed assessment of actual risks to avoid the common tendency of inclining towards being more risk averse and, thus, needlessly excluding many people in need. Risks must be contextualized within four areas: HLP documentation, structural repairs, demographic changes, and natural disasters.
HLP documentation is one area where donors and implementing organizations must adequately assess risk and trade-offs. As has been shown previously, HLP documentation is often hard to confirm in post-conflict situations. Despite this, most NGOs have clear policies against self-recovery support if tenure cannot be confirmed (Seneviratne et al. 2013; Davis 2015). In Syria, this has resulted in significant amounts of people being excluded from support. Recently, somewhat more flexible guidelines have been implemented to address this such as the Global Shelter Cluster Turkey hub’s HLP Due Diligence Guidelines and, in the government-controlled areas, the recent acceptance of alternative documentation for HLP. These flexible HLP guidelines are crucial facilitators in post-conflict situations to ensure more beneficiaries can be reached. Many organizations, however, still say these do not go far enough and continue to be too exclusionary. As a member of the UNHCR Strategic Advisory Group said: “many people are living in reception centers, unfinished buildings, and damaged buildings, but organizations cannot do anything for them because of HLP rights” (A. Dehny, skype interview, April 16, 2020). As a conflict progresses, risks must be iteratively assessed and, when there is such a substantive demand for shelter, as in Syria, trade-offs must be reassessed (Table 3 rec 4a1).
The risk of conducting structural repairs is another area which requires adequate contextualization to the post-conflict environment. Structural repairs come at a heightened risk because they involve repairing structural components such as load-bearing walls, columns, and slabs, which, if not done properly, will cause building collapse. In some ways, the case study showed that this risk is being properly contextualized in Syria as the current prohibition on structural repairs is partially based on the lack of understanding of how buildings are damaged in conflicts. In comparison, in natural disaster contexts, structural repairs are possible because there is an understanding of the effects of earthquakes on buildings. In this way, risk is being contextualized to the post-conflict environment and it has been decided that no risk will be taken regarding structural repairs. Despite this reality, it must be questioned as to why this is being accepted and more is not being done to reduce risks to make structural repairs possible. Many organizations lamented the fact that they could not conduct structural repairs with one INGO member stating, “the ones who need most help, we can’t help them, so we focus on the ones who need less help” (INGO, skype interview, March 31, 2020). What is required in this case, is more research about how conflict ordnance damages buildings. This knowledge will allow for proper risk assessments to be done in the field, which will help to identify more easily those with non-structural damage and those with repairable structural damage. Further integration of humanitarian aid with local professional engineering agencies and private-sector partnerships are a necessary step to implementing structural repairs (Table 3 rec 6b2, 6b4).
There is another risk relating to structural repair, however, that is not being properly contextualized; the risk of this work being perceived as reconstruction, i.e., permanent. In some cases, participants noted that any structural work was not permitted, even if they had the professional expertise to do so, due to this perception. Donors specifically were noted to be very risk averse regarding structural repairs since reconstruction work is meant to be done by the government. If an aid organization were found to be doing this, it could receive backlash from the government, and this could potentially impact its ability to continue to operate in the area. This risk is not properly being contextualized, though, since it is being left to each individual organization to consider, and it is being interpreted very differently. For instance, some organizations noted that they chose not to build metal roofs due to this being perceived as structural repairs. Other organizations determined that it was fine to construct concrete pads and brick walls which are much more permanent interventions. The result of this subjective interpretation is that beneficiaries are often provided less adequate shelter, not because of funding or technical issues, but simply because of the organization’s designation of what structural repairs consists of. This paper does not argue that reconstruction should be allowed as part of an aid response, but simply that standardization be achieved between aid organizations. Guidelines could be produced to define what the line between reconstruction and repair is, so that it is clear. These guidelines could be developed by the Global Shelter Cluster, in coordination with local authorities. Finally, it is also recommended that, if possible, in cases of prolonged conflicts where there is such an immense demand for adequate shelter, that risk be iteratively assessed to account for changing realities on the ground and loosened accordingly to allow for some basic structural work to be done (Table 3 rec 6b4).
Another risk that must be contextualized is the risk of shelter interventions causing demographic changes. Many organizations noted that donors restrict self-recovery support due to the fear of being accused of contributing to demographic changes within the country. This risk, although warranted, must be contextualized to the reality on the ground. Participants argued that the true reason for demographic changes in Syria is the conflict itself, and not the aid. Additionally, donors may be misinformed about the self-recovery process since self-recovery support is mostly directed at homeowners who have lived in their homes since prior to the conflict, meaning no demographic changes would be created. While self-recovery programs do also support IDPs in the cases where homeowners rent out repaired homes to IDPs, it is unlikely that these IDPs would settle permanently in a new area simply because of the self-recovery support; the reality is much more complex. In prolonged conflicts such as in Syria, where some IDPs have been displaced for over a decade, donors must continually reassess the situation and perhaps loosen their risk policies regarding demographic changes (Table 3 rec 1b3).
The risk of natural disasters must also be contextualized in the post-conflict context as it has a significant impact on the design of shelter responses. It must be understood that in post-conflict situations, there is sometimes no requirement for changes in building techniques. This is because the existing house might have been designed perfectly in accordance with the natural disaster risk in the area but was destroyed due to military ordnance; a non-recurring threat. It was noted by participants that some organizations’ leadership do not adequately contextualize this risk and implement unnecessary requirements related to building back better which have been developed from previous organizational experience. By doing so, funds would not be spent in the most efficient way to reach the most beneficiaries. Thus, it is important that organizations and donors contextualize all risks that might not be applicable in post-conflict situations to ensure they are not coming with, what Barakat (2005) describes, “preconceived practices and assumptions… which override local conventions and capacities” (p.159) (Table 3 rec 3d5).
Increasing adaptable and flexible programming
The third Key Area for Action is to increase adaptability and flexibility of post-conflict self-recovery support. A lack of flexibility is a common failure of post-conflict shelter interventions. As Barakat (2005) explains, “external interventions often lack the necessary practical adaptability and flexibility to deal with the dynamics and high levels of uncertainty found in post-conflict environments” (p. 159). Flexibility and adaptability should be implemented within all aspects of programming, but specifically within three domains: funding, scheduling, and scope.
Funding requires flexibility and adaptability at multiple levels including the donor level and the implementing organization level. At the donor level, it was noted that the funding for self-recovery projects is often provided with a rigid, prescribed, per-shelter amount and that this amount is insufficient for most repairs. This strategy is likely employed so that donors can control and maximize the number of beneficiaries they are reaching. The consequence of this, however, is that implementing organizations must significantly limit their support to align with the prescribed funding amount, which usually equates to only minor repairs. Although maximizing the number of beneficiaries is good in some cases, it is the implementing organization, not the donor, in the best position to make this determination. Implementing organizations on the ground should have the power to determine how funding is distributed for the maximum benefit. Donors should place less importance on quantifying beneficiaries and consider increasing the flexibility of their funding to allow the implementing NGOs the freedom of determining how that funding is distributed (Table 3 rec 1a1). Participants also noted that funding is sometimes restricted to material or technical assistance and that cash-based assistance is not permitted, thus significantly limiting support options. Donors should consider more flexibility in terms of their funding to allow cash-based support for self-recovery which will facilitate implementing organizations in variable responses (Table 3 rec 1b1).
Adaptability of funding is also required within implementing organizations’ programming. Participants noted that their organizations’ internal processes did not allow for funding and budgets to be adaptable throughout the project. In post-conflict situations, the market prices for materials can fluctuate greatly on a weekly basis and this means that bills of quantities and budgets will need to be adapted throughout the project. Many organizations do not account for this, which results in projects being either over budget or left unfinished. Self-recovery project budgets must be adaptable and reviewed regularly (Table 3 rec 1d1).
Scheduling is another area requiring flexibility and adaptability. Self-recovery projects may have long timeframes, up to 1 year from the initial selection of beneficiaries to the final completion of construction. In post-conflict situations, this leads to projects often being disrupted by changes in the conflict throughout the construction. Participants noted that, due to this risk, donors were hesitant to initiate self-recovery projects. If adaptability and flexibility were included into scheduling, however, self-recovery projects could be modified, paused, or rescheduled depending on changes in the conflict. This could increase the success of self-recovery approaches despite the challenging situation and potentially help to convince donors to initiate these projects (Table 3 rec 1b2).
Project scope is another area in which implementing organizations and donors must remain adaptable and flexible. Post-conflict situations evolve rapidly and there is often a fluidity between the emergency and recovery phases. This necessitates consideration of a wide scope of shelter response modalities and often the combination of multiple modalities. These may include tented camps, transitional shelters, collective centers, cash-for-rent programs, and self-recovery support. Within each selected modality itself must also be an element of flexibility so that the modality can evolve over time with changing circumstances. Participants noted that this was not often the case, as sudden changes in the situation, such as events requiring rapid emergency responses, frequently resulted in self-recovery projects simply being canceled. This shows a lack of flexibility within the program design. Although emergency response rightly takes priority in these circumstances, self-recovery programs must be designed to be adaptable to ensure they can continue progressing throughout an evolving conflict situation (Table 3 rec 1b1, 3d6).
Addressing the social dimension
The fourth Key Area for Action is to address the social dimension of self-recovery programs. Although self-recovery approaches have produced superior social outcomes than traditional shelter response modalities, there are still issues relating to the understanding of the social dimension in post-conflict situations. The social dimension must be addressed in three areas: intended beneficiaries, program goals, and further research.
Firstly, there is a current misunderstanding regarding the social characteristics of the intended beneficiaries of self-recovery programs in the post-conflict context. The literature that self-recovery has been based on is from the disaster context and the idea that homeowners have the skills and ability to rebuild their homes (Davis 1978). Although, to some degree, this remains true in post-conflict situations, it does not appear to be as relevant as in natural disasters. This is because in post-conflict situations, many of the men are fighting, have fled, or have been killed, and men are often traditionally the ones to do construction work (Corsellis and Vitale 2005, p. 50). This is the case in Syria, as the number of women-headed households is high. This means that many of the beneficiaries of self-recovery programs in Syria are women, who often do not have the construction skills to complete repairs themselves (UNHCR 2014). This must be considered when implementing self-recovery programs in post-conflict situations as these women-headed households will usually not conduct the labor themselves. In fact, participants noted that almost all women-headed households who were given cash decided to contract the work to local laborers.
Additionally, self-recovery programs in Syria are usually targeted towards vulnerable people which might be women with children, the elderly, or the disabled. These vulnerable people are also not likely to be able to complete construction work themselves. This is an important social consideration specific to post-conflict situations which goes somewhat against the initial concept of self-recovery as applicable in disaster contexts. The shelter sector must reconsider its basic understanding of intended beneficiaries for self-recovery support in post-conflict situations and must build this into program planning and design (Table 3 rec 3c2).
The social dimension must also be included within the determination of self-recovery program goals. As Barakat (2005) criticizes from other past conflicts, post-conflict housing programs tend to be project-driven, short-term focused, and output-driven rather than outcome-driven (p. 158). Post-conflict housing project goals are often overly focused on indicators, quantifiable metrics, and statistics rather than more social-oriented goals such as privacy, health, stability, livelihoods, and security. Barakat notes the requirement for not only physical shelter interventions, but also for social ones, such as capacity building (pp. 158-164). The Syrian case study shows that Barakat’s criticisms are still valid. Participants noted donors as being too output-focused, short-term in thinking, and placing too much importance on numbers of beneficiaries. One INGO participant indicated that sometimes to appease donors, implementing organizations resorted to first conducting a superficial project that could increase their beneficiary count, before they could actually focus on completing the work they believed would have the greatest impact to long-term outcomes. Additionally, participants noted the specific lack of capacity building initiatives paired with self-recovery programs, especially regarding the training of laborers. There is a clear need for the social dimension to be included within self-recovery project goals to ensure they are outcome-driven and long-term oriented and include important capacity building initiatives (Table 3 rec 1b4).
The social dimension must also be included in further research regarding self-recovery support. Participants noted the absence of research regarding the social benefits of self-recovery interventions and the difficulties in proving the benefits of these projects to donors without this research. Some aid organizations conduct their own internal research and data collection regarding social benefits; however, this information does not seem to be shared widely within the sector. Additionally, it was noted by participants that social benefits are hard to quantify, which makes internal research difficult. Further research regarding methods of quantifying and identifying the social benefits of self-recovery projects would be beneficial helping to educate all stakeholders, including donors (Table 3 rec 2C2).
Improving international coordination
The fifth Key Area for Action is to increase international coordination to support self-recovery in post-conflict situations. This means improving coordination at all levels and among all stakeholders including universities, donors, NGOs, IGOs, the Global Shelter Cluster, and governments. Several areas in which enhanced international coordination can improve self-recovery support are observed: standardization of self-recovery terminology and guidelines, donor engagement, international operational networks, and private sector partnerships.
International coordination could assist in the standardization of self-recovery terminology and processes, which is currently lacking. Many participants were not familiar with the concept of self-recovery until it was explained and they were able to understand based on their own organizational terminology. The term most used describing self-recovery in Syria was observed to be self-help since this is how it is phrased in the Global Shelter Cluster guidelines. Although terminology is somewhat irrelevant in terms of operations, it does become relevant when information sharing is considered. It was noted that many organizations have internal self-recovery guidelines, standards, and case studies, but that these are not shared. With a standardized terminology in place, these could be more easily developed and shared (Table 3 rec 6f1, 2c2). Additionally, as has been shown in this study, there are varying shelter responses in post-conflict situations that can be accommodated within the current definition of self-recovery. A clearer definition is required to determine exactly which post-conflict shelter responses are considered as self-recovery support. Additionally, if it is accepted that self-recovery support must be defined in terms of levels, as classified in the case study of this paper, these levels must be defined and accepted by stakeholders (Table 3 rec 3c1). This requires international coordination between universities, NGOs, and IGOs.
Agreed-upon terminology and definitions will also facilitate the establishment of self-recovery guidelines. Although some self-recovery guidelines exist at the organization level and cluster level, there are none at the international/strategic level. Some organizations such as the Promoting Safer Building Working Group are working on such international guidelines. They acknowledge that currently “there are no guidelines, nor tools, nor even guiding principles to support the implementation of self-recovery projects” (Promoting Safer Building Working Group 2020). The scope of this working group is mainly in disasters, however, so further guidelines specific for post-conflict situations have yet to be addressed. Participants supported the idea of guidelines being created, with 75% responding favorably to the idea. Other guidelines were also requested by the majority of participants such as technical guidelines for repairing war-damaged buildings and guidelines on long-term cash modality strategies in post-conflict contexts (Table 3 rec 6b2). International coordination could facilitate these guidelines, to ensure standardization across universities, NGOs, and IGOs (Table 3 rec 3g3).
The next area for increased international coordination is in donor engagement regarding self-recovery projects. This should not be done with a view to promote self-recovery over other methods, but simply to help donors to understand the real benefits and limitations of this modality. NGO participants noted the requirement to constantly convince donors of the effectiveness and merits of self-recovery methods, due to the lack of knowledge of donors regarding this modality. This was noted to vary between specific donors. International shelter sector stakeholders could be beneficial in this process by informing the perception of donors at a high level. This could occur through increased research into these modalities, through advocacy and increased discussion at the international level, and through direct donor engagement and education (Table 3 rec 1b1, 2c). One participant noted that their donor was initially hesitant to fund self-recovery projects but that by bringing the donor to the site of one of these projects, the positive impact was immediately seen, and funding was granted. Further efforts such as this could be done at the international shelter sector level and would help with the donor community’s acceptance of these methods (Table 3 rec 1b4).
There is also an opportunity for the formation of international operational networks to facilitate self-recovery support operations. These could include academic institutions, private companies, aid and development organizations, intergovernmental organizations, and government agencies. Participants noted the need for such networks due to the intersectoral nature of self-recovery work and the lack of international coordination bodies at lower levels. Intersectoral approaches are required since repairing a house in a post-conflict situation requires significant lateral coordination for rubble removal, repairing roads, reconnecting water and sewage lines, reconnecting electricity, and potentially UXO disposal. International operational networks could be formed to as a coordination mechanism between all stakeholders involved in these activities. Currently, various organizations are accomplishing this on their own without any coordination bodies in place. This act of connecting all actors involved in post-conflict response could also begin rebuilding connections and systems that could become the foundation for building capacity back into local institutions (Table 3 rec 3b1). As Barakat (2005) noted, this is the real area that international coordination can support post-conflict situations, through the strengthening of institutions and systems (pp. 159-164).
International coordination in the establishment of private sector partnerships could also provide an opportunity to increase support for self-recovery in post-conflict situations. Specifically, international private engineering firms could partner with implementing organizations to support self-recovery with specialized engineering work. Some participants expressed that they would not be comfortable with their organization leading structural repair work. These participants believed that structural work should not be in the scope of aid organizations but should be completed by private engineering firms. It is possible that international private engineering firms could contribute great value to post-conflict situations, depending on the capacities of local engineers. The previously discussed barriers regarding structural repairs and the perceptions of who should lead reconstruction would have to be resolved before this could occur. If this issue can be addressed, though, international engineering firms such as Arup Group and Mott MacDonald could be good partners for NGOs since they already have international development departments and have some experience in humanitarian engineering (Table 3 rec 6a1, 6b4).
As part of this study, one interview was conducted with Arup Group and determined that although these types of partnerships could be possible, there are significant barriers from the perspective of engineering firms. These include security of their personnel, speed of response, financing, and normative constraints. One area identified which has immediate potential for collaboration is in the creation of IEC materials. These materials, which could take various forms such as pamphlets or manuals, could provide written and visual guidance to homeowners in conducting repairs themselves. Another potential opportunity identified was in online, or remote, engineering (Table 3 rec 5c2). Remote engineering is a burgeoning new field which consists of using technologies such as drones and cameras to allow engineers to assess structures remotely. This is becoming especially relevant today as COVID-19 has recently forced engineering firms to rethink how work can be done at a distance. Innovations in international coordination such as this could help to close some of the gaps and break down some of the barriers currently holding self-recovery back in post-conflict contexts.