Report: Shelter Support Mission to Afghanistan

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Report: Shelter Support Mission to Afghanistan

Senior Emergency Shelter Coordinator

Duration of the mission: 6 - 22 May 2013

  1. Context

With more than 2.7 million Afghan refugees in the region, and an estimated 3 million globally, Afghanistan has the largest refugee population in the world. Since the fall of the Taliban at the end of 2001, the country has witnessed massive return, with 4.6 million refugees returnees assisted by UNHCR. The situation in 2013 has changed considerably: the return rate has been reduced significantly but the number of IDPs has increased. The future is uncertain due to the transition the country is experiencing with the departure of the international forces, the decrease in humanitarian assistance, and the 2014 presidential elections.
Since 2002 UNHCR’s Shelter Assistance Programme in Afghanistan has provided more than 220,000 long-term shelters to vulnerable returnees and IDPs throughout Afghanistan. The programme’s design and implementation procedures have been improved over the years through internal assessments and revisions. In 2012 a large external evaluation was undertaken by the Maastricht University and Samuel Hall interviewing around 4,500 individuals. This evaluation provided significant feedback on UNHCR Shelter Assistance Programme and recommendations on the way forward.
The Afghanistan Emergency Shelter and NFI Cluster was established on the 2 March 2008 with UNHCR as the lead. The cluster was initially co-led by CARE until 2009 when IOM took over this role from CARE with a particular focus on natural disasters. In 2012 the Afghanistan Humanitarian Country Team led by OCHA undertook a review of the humanitarian coordination architecture. The results of the review are captured in the 2013 Common Humanitarian Action Plan (CHAP). Given the expected reduction of funding and capacity and the rise in needs, the CHAP encourages clusters to ensure that they are fit for purpose, improve their efficiency in delivery and prioritization, and to minimize the number of meetings and processes. It was recommended that the number of clusters should be reduced either by merging clusters, or by them becoming working groups and handing over the coordination responsibilities to the Government.
Given these developments, it was decided that a mission should be undertaken from the Global Shelter Cluster and the UNHCR Shelter and Settlement Section in order to support UNHCR Afghanistan to plan the way forward in the implementation of shelter activities and the coordination of the cluster or other alternative shelter coordination mechanisms. This mission was undertaken by the UNHCR Senior Emergency Shelter Coordinator who is the Deputy Global Shelter Cluster Coordinator on behalf of UNHCR. The coordinator and the support focal point of the Afghanistan Shelter and NFI Cluster also participated in the mission and provided substantive inputs to it. The mission travelled to Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Herat and met with numerous stakeholders1 both at provincial and national level. The programme colleagues in Kabul also provided important insights and recommendations. This report summarizes the findings and recommendations of the mission. The Terms of Reference and Agenda for this mission can be found in Annexes 1 and 2.
  1. Importance of Shelter in Afghanistan

Shelter is an extremely important sector for the people in Afghanistan. UNHCR colleagues in the field highlighted that shelter is the main single protection concern for the returnees and IDPs they work with. The head of the OCHA office in Mazar-i-Sharif explained that in Afghan traditions shelter is more important than food, health or other sectors as it provides protection particularly for the intimate part of the household, the women.
Shelter needs in Afghanistan are still unmet and likely to grow. The number of conflict-induced IDPs is increasing due to the complex patterns of the internal conflict which, in the short term, are expected to expand as the presence of international armed forces is reduced and the national forces assert themselves. The population growth, the urbanization, and the increasing number of natural disasters (particularly floods) are resulting in more IDPs caused by natural disasters. There are still around 2.7 Afghan refugees in the neighbouring countries that are returning to Afghanistan although not in the high numbers that were registered in the past years. As a result of these needs, the number of shelter actors in country is still quite considerable and they implement different types of shelter assistance ranging from the delivery of Non Food Items (NFIs) to longer-term shelter or permanent housing, from advice to acquire land to providing cash for shelter.
The evaluation undertaken by Maastricht University and Samuel Hall stresses the fact that shelter is still a cornerstone for the reintegration of refugee returnees and also required for (re)-integrating the growing number of IDPs. Additionally, the newly approved Afghan IDP policy emphasizes the importance of achieving durable solutions for IDPs, shelter being a key aspect of them. Finally, Afghanistan has been chosen as a pilot country (one out of three) to implement the UN Secretary General Policy for Durable Solutions for IDPs and Refugees.
In the last few years UNHCR has scaled down its shelter activities in Afghanistan. Given the importance that Afghans give to the sector, the needs and other circumstances there is a need for UNHCR to maintain or enhance its capacity in shelter in Afghanistan.
Recommendation 1: Continue or increase UNHCR shelter capacity and activities in Afghanistan as this is a key activity to meet the needs of IDPs, to help refugee returnees reintegrate, and to achieve durable solutions. IDP needs are growing in comparison with those of refugee returnees.
  1. Coordination of the Emergency Shelter and NFI Cluster

3.a. Need for dedicated capacity

Since the cluster approach started globally in 2005 the demands and expectations on cluster lead agencies have grown. In the past, a double-hatting cluster coordinator could manage the workload and meet the expectations of OCHA and the cluster partners. This is no longer the case in most operations, particularly after the Transformative Agenda that sets very clear responsibilities for cluster coordination at the country level through the Reference Module for Cluster Coordination at Country Level2. In Afghanistan, the Emergency Shelter and NFI Cluster (ESC) is perceived as being one of the clusters that are not adding enough value to the operations thus the suggestion of closing it or turning it into a Working Group (see next point 3.b). After meeting with different stakeholders it is clear that the UNHCR staff involved in the coordination of the cluster are doing an excellent job and working very hard to meet the demands and expectations. However, this work needs full dedication. The Protection Cluster has 2 dedicated colleagues working full time, the WASH cluster also has 2 dedicated people, and the Food Security Cluster has up to 8 dedicated people. It is very difficult that the ESC will be able to meet the growing demands and expectations without a dedicated cluster coordinator. UNHCR and IOM might be facing a reputational risk if they continue coordinating this cluster without dedicated capacity.

Coordination is based on trust and building relationships. Some cluster partners complained that there had been too high a turnover of coordinators in the ESC. Some of the partners have lost confidence in the ESC so it would be important to show a clear commitment from UNHCR to this cluster and to maintain a dedicated cluster coordinator of the right level.

Recommendation 2: Appoint a dedicated cluster coordinator for the shelter cluster in Afghanistan. Create a P-4 Shelter Cluster Coordinator position in Kabul for 2014 and 2015.

This dedicated coordinator should oversee the whole cluster: natural disaster and conflict in order to have the complete full picture of the cluster and be able to provide a comprehensive strategy.

Experience has shown that a cluster coordinator alone is not enough. Another set of skills is very important, that of the Information Manager. The presence of the Information Manager also helps the coordinator in different ways. This role can be very well taken by a national as there is expertise in-country and can be a way of preparing for a future handover.

Recommendation 3: Dedicate a national staff to the role of Shelter Cluster Information Manager. This national staff could be provided by IOM as co-lead of the cluster or by a cluster partner. The Information Manager should work under the direct management of the national Cluster Coordinator, in UNHCR offices, seconded to the cluster by IOM or a cluster partner. This dedicated Information Manager should take care of the information management of the whole cluster: natural disaster and conflict in order to have the complete full picture of the cluster and be able to support the coordinator in providing a comprehensive strategy, as well as better information dissemination within Afghanistan and globally, which would further encourage member’s active participation.

The humanitarian community supports the Afghanistan provinces by grouping them in different regions. The humanitarian community often has presence at this regional level rather than at provincial level. The government of Afghanistan is present at provincial level and not at the regional level. Given the large number of provinces and the fact that many of them cannot be accessed by the humanitarian community, the Shelter Cluster, like other clusters has created the role of the regional cluster coordinators based in the regions. These regional cluster coordinators are essential for the cluster to have an impact on the ground. They are the ones that are in contact with the government at provincial level and with the shelter actors that are working directly with affected population. Given the importance of this role, the regional cluster coordinators should receive additional support.

Recommendation 4: Enhance the support to the regional cluster coordinators.

This support could be the following:

a) From their supervisors and Heads of Office: In cases where this is not already happening, allow them to dedicate a reasonable amount of time to shelter cluster coordination. Following the good example of the Mazar Sub-Office, allow that a colleague from data management takes the role of Information Manager for the regional shelter cluster. If there is a shelter technical person in the office, allow this person to also support the regional cluster coordinator in the role of technical coordinator and provide support to cluster partners in coordinating technical issues. These three persons will form the regional shelter cluster coordination team.

b) From the national cluster coordinator: liaise regularly with the regions and provinces to support the regional shelter cluster coordination teams. This includes regular travel.

c) From the global cluster: provide, through the national cluster, the tools and guidance to the regional shelter cluster coordination teams.

The table in the next page provides a recommended structure for the ESC in Afghanistan

Proposed structure for the Shelter Cluster Team that will coordinate the Afghanistan Shelter Cluster

National Cluster Team

Based in Kabul with frequent travel to the regions

Works closely with the Government and cluster partners at national level

Provides support to regional clusters

Regional Cluster Team

Based in the regions with frequent travel to the provinces

Works closely with the Government structures and partners at the provincial level

Provides support to provincial clusters

3.b. Cluster vs Working Group

UNHCR Afghanistan has put considerable effort in the coordination of the Emergency Shelter and NFI Cluster in Afghanistan. However, this effort is not enough to meet the coordination demands of such a complex sector in such a complex environment. The cluster has not been meeting expectations for the last years and has been more of a working group than a cluster. This has been mainly due to the lack of dedicated coordination capacity and to the high turn-over of the national cluster coordinators. This has been the overall message received from cluster partners, government authorities and the reality observed in the field.

The Humanitarian Country Team is advocating for coordination structures that are fit for purpose. Different options have been considered for the shelter sector including imaginative solutions such as shelter being coordinated by a sub-working group of the Protection Cluster or of the IDP Task Force. There have also been discussions within the HCT of the ESC transitioning into a Working Group with the government taking more responsibility in leading it. The Government capacity is currently stretched and seems unlikely to be in charge of coordinating the sector. The current counterparts of the cluster are the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MoRR) at national level and the Department of Refugees and Repatriation (DoRR) at provincial level along with the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA) at the national level and the Provincial Disaster Management Committees (PDMC) at the provincial level.

It is difficult at this stage to have a clear detailed understanding of the shelter needs and how many partners would actually engage in it if the cluster was adding enough value to their operations. In regions where the cluster has been well coordinated, the number of actors is considerable (around 30 partners were present in the last coordination meeting in Mazar), in other regions or at the national level where it has not added enough value, very few actors participate in the meetings. Thus a full-blown cluster with many dedicated capacity at national and provincial level would be excessive. On the other hand, the current coordination structure, similar to a working group is clearly not enough.

The structure that is proposed in the previous section 3.a is considered appropriate for the current shelter needs in Afghanistan. This structure would be in a position to add value to the partners by identifying the comprehensive needs in the sector and being able to strategize, coordinate and prioritize its response according to these needs.

If the structure recommended in 3.a is put in place and continues for 2014, it is recommended that the ESC in Afghanistan is still called a cluster. Changing its name to that of a Working Group would undermine its efficiency. On one hand it would confuse partners and regional cluster coordinators. A Working Group is perceived as a less formal structure requiring less commitments and accountability from partners and providing less coordination services. On the other hand it might receive less support from the global structures that might prioritize support to clusters rather than working groups.

Recommendation 5: Advocate for the ESC to continue as a cluster provided that a dedicated coordinator is appointed (Recommendation 2). If it is not possible to put in place a dedicated coordinator, it might be better for the ESC to become a Working Group as it will be a more accurate description of the coordination mechanism.

3.c. Need for a comprehensive cluster strategy

Currently, the scope of the cluster seems to be reduced to emergency shelter and NFIs. This scope limits the efficiency of the interventions as it reduces the possibility to find durable solutions. This is probably due to lack of guidance from or communication with the Global Shelter Cluster. In the last years, a recommendation from the Early Recovery Cluster has been accepted that early recovery activities should be integrated in each of the thematic clusters. For our cluster this means that longer-term shelter or housing should be part of the scope of the cluster. This also makes sense from a shelter programmatic point of view in which durable solutions should be sought as soon as possible. It should be understood that this would only apply to the response to humanitarian activities, not to housing issues linked to development such as slum upgrading or others. The cluster approach is mandated to coordinating humanitarian responses, not development.

Recommendation 6: Expand the present scope of the ESC to include longer term shelter or housing and other recovery issues related to shelter as response to humanitarian needs, not as development, working closely with relevant line Ministries and the HLP Taskforce on the issue of land. This would be in line with the scope of the Global Shelter Cluster and current IASC guidance.

The cluster is quite fragmented and lacking a comprehensive understanding and strategy. As a result, it is difficult to have a clear overview of the total shelter needs, the total capacities and the gap. A clear unified strategy for the cluster is missing as well as common technical standards to respond to needs. The mandates of the cluster co-leads are contributing to the fragmentation: IOM has certain tools and methodologies to respond to IDPs and non-displaced affected population in natural disasters and UNHCR has other tools for conflict-induced IDPs and refugee returnees. While there is logic in this, it is also true that these populations are often found together and that some cluster partners are responding to the needs of both populations.

Recommendation 7: The national cluster in consultation with the regional clusters should work on developing a comprehensive shelter cluster strategy. This strategy should provide a common methodology and common standards to meet shelter needs from emergency to durable solutions both in natural disasters and conflict. It should also have clear linkages and similarities with the responses to refugee returnees. The strategy should be adapted to different types of populations, needs, and regions.

This recommendation can only be fully implemented if a dedicated cluster coordinator is put in place.

Non-Food Items (NFIs) are a tool to meet shelter needs; they are a response element, not a sector. Shelter needs can be met through the distribution of NFIs but also through cash to procure those NFIs, if they are needed. NFIs are just one element of the response such as shelter materials, cash, technical advice, support to secure land or others. Shelter needs are complex and require a holistic response that includes many different elements such as land, or disaster risk reduction. The focus on NFIs has, in other countries, been a constraint to a more strategic approach to shelter. In order to clarify this to partners and to the overall humanitarian community it is recommended that the name of the cluster is changed to Shelter Cluster. This could also be a way to mark a new beginning of the cluster and hopefully to gain a new momentum in the participation of the cluster partners. It might also provide more clarity to OCHA and others as to the relation of the cluster with other coordination bodies such as the IDP task force.

Recommendation 8: Change the name of the cluster to Shelter Cluster. NFIs would still be considered as one of the tools used by cluster partners to meet shelter/household needs.

Refugees are not within the mandate of the cluster and thus neither are refugee returnees. However, it would be important to ensure that the standards and approaches that the cluster uses for IDPs are consistent with those that are being used for returnees. There could be a different strategy for refugee returnees than the one for IDPs (cluster strategy) but they should reference each other and be streamlined.

Recommendation 9: Ensure coordination and cross reference between the shelter strategy for IDPs and that for refugee returnees.

The cluster has produced useful documents among others the Terms of Reference (ToR) and the work plan. However, these documents need to be revised and updated, particularly if the above recommendations are considered. It would be useful that the ToR clarify the relation between the cluster and the IDP Task Force. The work plan should be revised with a view of making it more realistic and achievable. It captures many interesting and important initiatives, but it is highly unlikely that all of them can be implemented in 2013.

Recommendation 10: For the national cluster to update the cluster’s Terms of Reference to the new context and revises the work plan by prioritizing the most important issues that can realistically be achieved in the year with the existing capacities. The regional clusters should adapt these documents to their specific context and capacities.
3.d. Beneficiary identification and response approaches

The cluster is providing good coordination in terms of identifying which agency is going to take care of which caseload. However, there could be more coordination on the methodology that will be used in the selection of beneficiaries and in the response to the needs of IDPs and affected population. Currently, the approaches differ from agency to agency in some cases substantially. This reduces the predictability, equitability, and complementarity of the responses, the possibility of collective learning, sharing of good practices, and improvement of the overall response. Although some guidance has been produced on beneficiary identification, there is still a need for greater clarity and consensus in the criteria.

Recommendation 11: For the national cluster to agree on common criteria for beneficiary identification, response types, approaches and standards to meet different shelter needs of different types of population. It is particularly important to have a clear and defined methodology to respond to the most common emergencies. This will allow partners to have a clearer prepositioning strategy, respond faster, and link better with longer-term shelter. The criteria for beneficiary identification, response types, approaches, standards and methodologies should be adapted to the different regional contexts. However, a certain degree of standardization should be kept nation-wide to allow for exchange of pre-positioned items and learning.

This recommendation can only be fully implemented if a dedicated cluster coordinator is put in place.

3.e. Information Management and Communication

The cluster, and in particular the lead and co-lead, have an extensive amount of information and very sophisticated systems to capture this information. These systems could be better integrated to be able to provide a clearer comprehensive overview of the situation including natural disaster and conflict-related IDPs as well as those that are not displaced. Also the systems are particularly defined for reporting in detail the activities undertaken. While reporting on the activities provided is useful, the cluster has also the specific function of undertaking needs assessment and gap analysis3. Gap analysis is essential for strategic decision making and prioritization.

Recommendation 12: Collect information in such a way that gives an understanding of what are the overall needs, what part of those needs is currently being met by the cluster, and what is the gap. Other data such as the particular agency that has distributed certain items, or the consolidated response over the last years are of secondary importance and not necessarily useful to plan and prioritize current responses.

Below is an example of the type of data that would be useful to have in order to have a clearer idea of the needs and the gap and be able to prioritize. It is very important that the data cover all the spectrum of the cluster: natural disaster IDPs, conflict-induced IDPs, and non-displaced population.


# of Households in NEED

# of Households COVERED

GAP (# of Households not covered with current resources)

Province 1




Province 2







Region A











Once that the estimated overall gap for each of the Types of Response/Approaches is known, it would be possible to estimate the cost and capacity needed to address the gap. This would facilitate a prioritization exercise that would advise shelter actors and donors on the best way forward to allocate the scarce resources in order to make highest impact. This recommendation can only be fully implemented if a dedicated cluster coordinator is put in place.

There is a need to increase the communication between the regional clusters, the national cluster, and the global cluster. This will help clarify misunderstandings, share good practices, and allow a better flow of information.

Recommendation 13: For the national cluster to have a more regular contact with the regional clusters. For the global cluster to have more regular contact with the national and regional clusters and to be more proactive in contacting the national cluster, sharing information and inviting them to trainings and workshops organized.

Some tools that have been used in other clusters to improve communications are:

- Website: more consistent use of the cluster website at national and regional levels. The global cluster can provide support in this. The website can be a useful tool and RSS feeds can be put in place so that it shares information with the OCHA website.

- Dropbox: a very useful tool that helps share files in a simple way. There is a standard Dropbox file structure has been shared with the country.

3.f. Engagement and participation of cluster partners

One of the main complaints from ESC cluster coordinators both at national and at regional level is the low level of participation of cluster partners. On the other hand, some cluster partners have complained that they do not feel they can participate enough in the cluster and that the lead and co-lead have a too prominent role. Hopefully these issues will be largely solved with the presence of a dedicated cluster coordinator who will communicate better with cluster partners.

Recommendation 14: Discuss with cluster partners about how the cluster could be more meaningful to them. Explore the possibility that some of them undertaking certain roles within the cluster.

For instance NRC could be the cash focal point and provide advice and training to cluster partners on the use of cash. A working group could be created to decide the content of some of the kits, it could be based on the one created in 2010, and be made of people with experience in the distribution of kits. NGOs could be invited to present their experiences during the cluster meetings, to exchange reviews or evaluations, to organize joint visits, peer reviews, and other activities that might be of interest.

Recommendation 15: Undertake regularly the Performance Management System developed by the Global Shelter Cluster based on the IASC Performance Monitoring tool in order to understand the perception of the partners and maintain an overview of the situation of the cluster.

This recommendation can only be fully implemented if a dedicated cluster coordinator is put in place.

Apparently there has also been some dissatisfaction around the allocation of funds.

Recommendation 16: to consider a better use of more inclusive decision-making mechanisms, particularly when deciding the allocation of funds. This could be done through a Strategic Advisory Group or by creating a working group to deal with this issue.

3.g. Relation with the Government

The Government appreciates the need for shelter and the need for coordinating shelter. The role of UNHCR is recognized as lead of shelter in Afghanistan. A number of issues have been highlighted in relation with the cluster and the government and local authorities. On one hand there is not a clear counterpart that deals with all the issues the cluster deals with. The Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MoRR) at national level and the Department of Refugees and Repatriation (DoRR) at provincial level seem the most appropriate counterparts for the cluster. However there might be other counterparts that might have more technical expertise in other areas related to the cluster such as land, urban planning, housing, public works, or other related technical areas.

Recommendation 17: Consider the possibility of linking with Ministries other than MoRR for technical matters such as land, urban planning or housing. These counterparts might be useful and become the preferred counterpart in certain provinces in which DoRR might not be available. UNHABITAT could have an important role in linking with other relevant Government counterparts, facilitating capacity building and ensuring linkages with the developmental side of shelter.

The Government is structured by provinces and not by regions as the humanitarian community. This creates a challenge for the cluster; on one hand the number of provinces is too high to cover all of them but on the other hand it is difficult to engage with the provincial authorities by having regional meetings.

Recommendation 18: Explore the possibility of reaching more to some key selected provinces.

These provinces could be chosen by a combination of factors such as needs, access, and the capacities of the provincial authorities. These provinces could be reached in different ways, in some cases by organizing provincial cluster meetings but in others by having bilateral meetings or telephone conversations with the local authorities and local shelter actors. Also some of the shelter actors that are present in that province (not necessarily UNHCR or IOM) could be appointed as chair of the cluster in that province. The chair would be responsible for having coordination meetings and sharing the minutes and some basic coordination data (contact lists, 3Ws) with the national coordinator. The national coordinator could do ad-hoc visits and link with the chair of the cluster for the province to provide guidance on the cluster approach, to exchange points of view on strategic issues, to update on key policies adopted at national level, and other issues.

Some government authorities have highlighted the need to explain better to them the role of the cluster and the work that the cluster is doing.

Recommendation 19: to develop a leaflet explaining what the cluster is and its objectives using the standard 1-pager developed by the Global Shelter Cluster. Translate it into Dari or other languages if needed. Also translate some of the key documents of the cluster such as the ToR and others and make available to the provincial authorities.

The role of the national IM (Recommendation 3) will be very useful to increase communications with the government.

3.h. Assessments

During the cluster meeting and the different conversations had with cluster partners the need for a coordinated approach to assessments was highlighted. IOM has been working on a Rapid Assessment Form common for all the sectors which apparently has been endorsed by the HCT. However, there was still a lack of clarity on which was the final form and methodology. The Global Shelter Cluster has developed over the last years assessment capacity and a methodology for undertaking assessments. If the cluster in Afghanistan is interested, this capacity could be deployed to Afghanistan to support in this role. More information in this assessment capacity and methodology can be found here:

1 Representatives from the following organizations were met individually: UNHCR, IOM (at Kabul and regional level), OCHA (Kabul and at regional level), Government of Afghanistan (MoRR, ANDMA, Deputy District Governor of Sholgara district), ECHO, NRC (Kabul and regional level), CARE Afghanistan, DRC, national NGOs (ARAA, SSOAR), cluster coordinators at Kabul level (Protection) cluster coordinators at regional level (WASH, Health, Nutrition), and affected people in different locations. Additionally, other representatives of other organizations were met by participating in meetings such as the meeting of the regional clusters in Mazar and Herat, and that of the national cluster in Kabul.

2 The Reference Module for Cluster Coordination at Country Level can be found here:

3 IASC Reference Module for Cluster Coordination at the Country Level, Core functions of the cluster, pag 11.

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