With the global refugee crisis flooding the media, NGOs, designers, students, and many other well-intentioned people around the world are trying to develop new solutions for one of humanity’s basic needs -shelter. While UNHCR has often used tents as an emergency solution, they have realized that a more sustainable, longterm (or at least transitional) answer is needed. As part of its quest towards innovation, one initiative that UNHCR has taken on is the development of a flat-pack, solar powered shelter in partnership with IKEA and a social enterprise by the name of “Better Shelter“.
While this solution is clearly better than a tent and the website lists its features and benefits, it still raises some questions in terms of economic efficiency….
- Sourcing: the materials are not locally sourced but are ones that IKEA produces. While quick assembly and standardized production is a benefit, does this potentially take away employment opportunities for refugees or the local community? Is there any benefit to the local economy, such as manufacturers, construction companies, and construction workers?
- Maintenance: Let’s say that the shelter would need repair or that a part of it breaks and needs to be replaced. Being relatively familiar with IKEA products, I know that the pieces are usually specifically designed and may not be available elsewhere. Does the shelter come with spare parts? If it does, what if the family needs more? Is the only source IKEA? Is there an alternative DIY (Do it Yourself) solution with other pieces or material? What about maintenance of the solar panels? Would maintenance of any kind be expensive or affordable?
- Environment: will there be a local IKEA factory in the city where the refugee camp is located that is going to produce the shelters or will they be flown in from the headquarters in the Netherlands? How much energy is being used and carbon emissions are being produced as a result? How and where will the shelter materials and structure be disposed of once it is no longer occupied?
The reason I pose these questions is that I was involved in the design of a transitional shelter (T-Shelter) for Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan when I worked at UNHCR. At first glance, if one only compares the designs, the IKEA shelter and the one in Azraq are very similar. However, it isn’t the design itself that I’d like to address but the design process. For the Azraq T-Shelter, a major part of the work involved thinking about the step-by-step procedure that would bring the shelter into fruition. While I would not claim that the outcome is perfect, we deliberately followed a comprehensive process that considered both short-term and longterm impacts and tried to capture positive externalities for Jordanians and Syrians in terms of economic spillover, maintenance, and the environment.
The T-Shelter for Azraq Camp was procured, produced, and built by local contractors, with the exception of some material that was ordered from neighboring countries. Furthermore, both Jordanians and refugees were hired to build the shelters and therefore it provided some job opportunities. In terms of maintenance, the design uses structural pieces that are readily available in the local market. Although the maintenance often requires skilled labor, there is a maintenance team in the camp responsible for this work. Seeing as the shelter is produced locally and the pieces are bundled in shelter kits before delivery to the site, they are easy to transport and don’t need to be shipped very far to reach the camp. Theoretically, this would mean there are relatively low transportation related emissions.
Nevertheless, my intent is not to make this a competition with IKEA, but is instead twofold: 1) to put into perspective the importance of considering the local context and economic impacts of a project and 2) to provoke people to look beyond an image or final result and think critically about the different pieces of the story that lead to the outcome -whether for emergency shelter or not.