Building Back Better: Delivering people-centred housing reconstruction at scale

22 September 2010 11:00 - 12:30 GMT+01 (BST)
Public event
Streamed live online


Michal Lyons – Professor of Urban Development, London South Bank University

Theo Schilderman – Head, Access to Infrastructure Services Programme, Practical Action

Jo da Silva– Director, International Development, Arup


John Mitchell – Director, Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP). 


With events in Haiti and Pakistan dominating recent news headlines, the devastating impact of disasters on the world’s population is on the increase. Accompanying official responses to these emergencies has been a growing demand for reconstruction at scale. The speakers at this event will reflect upon recent experiences of disaster reconstruction around the world and present evidence for developing best practice in large-scale reconstruction.

With evidence from the work of the practitioners around the world, Practical Action Publishing is launching a new book, Building Back Better, published in association with IFRC and South Bank University London, which examines the context for reconstruction, and shows how developments in the fields of housing, participation and livelihoods have changed and enriched approaches to rebuilding efforts. It also explores the practice of implementing large-scale reconstruction through in-depth case studies of recent programmes in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia and India.

Michal Lyons began by highlighting that we are at the moment in a time of flux with regard to what is considered the best way to go about reconstruction – there is potential to change things now. She brought out a number of points in her presentation. People-centred reconstruction (PCR) has a number of advantages: it often costs less, livelihoods can be rebuilt earlier, local political structures are engendered, and there are fewer complaints from users.

How can PCR be scaled up? The best method is to work in clusters, with participation and work being carried on at the local level, and then build up to the large scale by taking on one cluster after another. Large scale can be achieved: in Sri Lanka 800,000 houses were built in people-centred programmes under the Million Homes programme, and to get this into perspective 100,000 houses would be considered a large programme. Other considerations are that urban reconstruction is often more difficult to arrange than rural, due to the shortage of space, the need for multi-occupancy flats, complying with town planning regulations.

Resistance to PCR should be expected, because it may run into conflict with normal planning processes for social housing, as has been the case in India. On the other hand, some governments have been fairly flexible about accommodating people’s housing solutions, e.g. Government of Colombia.

Jo da Silva started by praising the book for being a very readable collection of case studies and analysis, which demonstrates that PCR can be done and is being done all over the world. She talked particularly about her own experiences in Aceh, post tsunami. She made a distinction between owner-driven and self-build construction – the former involves consultation at all stages, but the latter may not be appropriate, especially for individuals, e.g. fishermen, who do not necessarily have building skills. In Aceh, post tsunami, the owner-driven approach was enshrined in government policy, and as a result the reconstruction efforts manifested a high degree of participation and ownership. Three patterns of building emerged – ‘contractor built’, ‘directed construction’ and self build   –but all included participation. However, at the end of the process there hasn’t emerged a legacy of learning about how to manage PCR.

In Aceh, the agencies experienced a great deal of pressure to build quickly: 100,000 houses may be a reasonable number to achieve in several years, but sometimes there are expectations to build this number in one year, and this is unrealistic, it may result in pressure to implement a ‘one-size-fits-all’ housing solution, without consultation. In fact although the opening stages of consultation may be time consuming with few results to show, later on progress may be much faster (this can be depicted as an ‘s’ shaped graph). In Aceh, reconstruction was characterized by great organizational diversity – few NGOs built more than 100 houses, except for the Red Cross/ Red Crescent – and this diversity is seen as an advantage.

Jo characterized different approaches to PCR as ‘addition’ (one house at a time), ‘multiplication’ (participation in identifying one design but then no participation in site selection for subsequent houses), and ‘replication’ (best for achieving the ‘humane’ housing sought after). The private sector has a part to play and must not be discounted by NGOs – this is a lesson that should be applied in Haiti. NGOs should be partnering with the private sector and with specialist housing NGOs such as CHF – that way a combination of sector knowledge and people facilitation skills will result in the best outcome. Unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved in the timescale can be tempered by pointing to ‘normal’ building programmes: 4000 houses were built in Sri Lanka and 104,000 in the UK in a ‘normal’ year.

Cassidy Johnson reflected on her experience working in Turkey, where earthquakes are regular events and where the state normally controls reconstruction and uses contractors. She identified two PCR approaches: participatory reconstruction, where agencies are involved, supporting community involvement, and community driven reconstruction, where communities do all the planning themselves, but they don’t necessarily carry out the building. In Turkey the emphasis is on reconstruction to reduce disaster risk.

Three storey flats were the typical reconstruction solution in urban Turkey, under their normal government-driven programmes. After the 1999 earthquake, however, many civil society organizations have arisen that have an interest in reconstruction. Two examples were described: IMECE, the Association of Volunteers for Solidarity, and the DepDers. IMECE built 57 houses, using community based housing methods, and the results were very satisfactory. They also spearhead other related campaigns such as opposition to hydro-electric schemes that are considered to be riskily sited on seismic areas, and which will capture waters now available for local agriculture. The DepDers are a federation of local organizations, who carry out inspections of building work, who file complaints about sub-standard work and who campaign for land for those who have still been left out of the reconstruction efforts.

The question remains how to scale up from these very small examples. However, what can be learned from these examples in Turkey is the importance of ongoing pressure, long after the disaster, on local government to build disaster risk reduction into planning.

Theo Schilderman outlined the collaboration between Practical Action, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent organizations, and London South Bank University which resulted first in a workshop from which this book sprung, then a position paper summarizing the overall findings from these agencies, then a collection of Tools that are available on the Practical Action website.

Theo brought out seven points from the PCR experience. These were:

1)      PCR should involve not only former house owners, but also tenants and squatters, who are often otherwise forgotten or left to last. Avoid the programme being taken over by the demands of elites.

2)      Building back better is more than just about housing; underlying vulnerabilities and poverty also contribute to people’s long term risk.

3)      Don’t ignore the existing housing sector in the disaster-affected country – don’t start rebuilding in isolation of the resources and practice already present.

4)      Organizations and agencies may be reluctant to take the time necessary for consulting with people – the case has to be made.

5)      One additional developmental benefit of PCR is the empowerment the process fosters.

6)      Be aware of people’s livelihoods. This will affect decisions about relocation, which is usually to be avoided, and also about housing design which might also need to include a shop, or workshop etc.

7)      Building back better certainly involves using experts such as architects, but can also draw on vernacular styles and methods of building, since these are methods that people are familiar with.


1)      Do you consider that we need strategic management skills and approaches to deal with the new ways of working involved in PCR.

2)      Scaling up PCR – is it possible without involving government agencies? Is PCR really being translated into practice on a wide scale?

3)      How do you navigate around ethnic tensions, local elites, that threaten straightforward working?

4)      Do institutional learning and planning laws for rebuilding accommodate the needs of the very poor, e.g. the homeless and squatters?

Michal replied to question 4 that it is definitely necessary to change planning laws to take into account the very poor, and also that involving former squatters in constructing good housing can be part of rehabilitating them more generally.

Jo agreed with the first questioner that strategic programme management skills are necessary for PCR, and these are very different from those required for the quite linear building planning. Regarding pro-poor planning, replacing rented housing is often problematic e.g. in Haiti at present, because landlords as well as tenants may be difficult to locate. There is a need to draw up an inventory of rented accommodation on a ward by ward basis.

Theo commented that there may be pressures from the government to use the disaster as an opportunity to clear poor people’s housing out of the city centre or away from e.g. tourist beaches, and this needs to be countered.

Michal also added that power elites need to be dealt with on a case by case basis, one cluster at a time.

The presenters were asked to suggest one key thing that would help to put in place PCR. They were:

·         Theo: beneficiaries must be represented.

·         Jo: informed, committed leadership from the host country.

·         Michal: donor pressure on governments to incorporate PCR  into their housing programmes.

·         Cassidy: donors should fund small organizations on the ground, as well as governments.