World Humanitarian Day: shelter is an essential humanitarian need

By Serena Bailey, ShelterBox Philanthropy Assistant

ShelterBox and Rotary International have been project partners since 2012.  This partnership is grounded in our shared humanitarian values and commitment to supporting communities when they lose their homes due to disaster. Rotary is well known for their work promoting peace, but where does ShelterBox fit into this?

At first glance, there may not seem to be an obvious connection between peacebuilding and shelter. A roof overhead is important, yes, but what does it have to do with peace?

Shelter and Peacebuilding

Peacebuilding is messy and complex; there’s no easy one-size-fits- all solution. There is a myriad of building blocks that can support or undermine sustainable peace, and shelter is one of those.

Displacement caused by conflict and violence is deeply traumatic. Research shows that for people in conflict zones, near-death experiences, sexual violence, illness and bereavement are common, not to mention the inherent trauma of being forced to leave behind everything you know and love.

Healing from trauma is not only important for individual well-being but is also crucial for collective recovery and breaking negative cycles of violence. A UNICEF report from 2013 shows that “the psychological wounds of war can be the most damaging” and can lead to impaired functioning and perpetuation of violence [1]. There is now a consensus that widespread PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) can be a barrier to peacebuilding [2], whilst appropriately addressing trauma can support sustainable peace [3].

What does that have to do with shelter?

Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, laid the foundation for the current understanding and approach towards peacebuilding through his theory on the hierarchy of needs. He said that human needs can be understood as a hierarchy and that it is essential to address basic, essential needs before one can begin to consider ‘higher’concerns such as community, belonging, acceptance and problem-solving. Such concepts are essential ingredients for successful peacebuilding; it’s impossible to make meaningful progress towards peace and reconciliation without these pillars.   

Healing cannot occur when people are overwrought over where their next meal will come from or where they and their families can live in security.

M.G. Wessels [4]

Working through trauma is a monumental task. It is almost impossible to progress when you’re still coping with the stress of chronically unmet basic needs like food and shelter. Helping people to meet these basic needs also helps to prevent the compound trauma of repeated and prolonged unmet needs, which often has worse adverse effects than the initial trauma of displacement [1].

Where does ShelterBox come in?

ShelterBox supports families to meet their basic needs, after disaster or conflict has stripped them away.

By helping to provide emergency shelter, we offer essential protection against the elements, and help reduce the spread of disease. The water filters and carriers we provide help families to gain easier access to safe, clean water, both for drinking and personal hygiene. With a kitchen set, families can put food on the table and enjoy meals together.

Piece by piece, we help give families the tools to meet their basic needs and help them begin to feel a sense of normalcy and security. This can break the cycle of continual and repeated exposure to trauma and helps families to begin to regain the psychological space to process their experience. This can help prevent the development of harmful coping mechanisms and the perpetuation of violence.

Fatima’s Story

Fatima’s story demonstrates the transformative impact of having shelter and basic household items like blankets and solar lights.  

Fatima lived in Nigeria with her husband, who worked as a farmer, and her children, who attended school in the local village. “At that time, I was carefree. We were not rich but lacked nothing, we had a comfortable life.” But when Boko Haram attacked her village, everything changed.  

“I’ll never forget the day when my entire life transformed into a nightmare.” When Fatima’s community was attacked by armed men, she gathered her family and ran; her husband was captured but she had no choice but to continue fleeing. They made the long journey to a Minawao refugee camp in Cameroon, but her sense of relief was curtailed once she realized what the living conditions were like there. “We practically had no food, or we ate once a day. We slept on the floor several times, and there were not enough mats or blankets to go round.” After four months living in these conditions, with little to no privacy, Fatima received an aid package from ShelterBox, comprising a robust tent and household items like a kitchen set, solar lamps, blankets and more.

With a private space for her and her children, she began to settle and regain a sense of normalcy. They were able to resume their daily activities using the kitchen items, water carrier, and solar lights we provided. She borrowed some money and began selling akara (white beans) and selling homemade donuts. After 18 months, she built a stronger semi-durable shelter, using a tarpaulin and rope we provided, and other materials she was able to buy through her earnings. Now her children have been able to return to school, and their lives are no longer a daily struggle.

“There is a big difference between life in the refugee centre and life in the shelter. Now I have my kitchen materials, I can cook and eat as I want. I have more privacy and can easily go out for my business without being worried about my goods in my house. My children spend more time together and can focus on their education,” said Fatima. 

Fatima has grown in confidence – she plans to build her business and continue providing a better life for her children.

“The emergency shelter was the first house I got here, I’m so thankful to the organisation and everybody who took part in rebuilding my life. I have no words to express my feeling in front of such kindness. I will face stormy weather with confidence.”

In 2020 and the first part of 2021, we have supported over 24,000 families just like Fatima’s to rebuild the essential foundations they need to recover after losing their homes to conflict and violence. We could not do this without the support of Rotary members and clubs around the world, who play an essential role in ShelterBox, from providing vital on the ground support during responses, to raising the vital awareness that enable us to support families following disaster.

We can’t take credit for the resilience and strength the families draw upon to move forward, but we are proud to help contribute the tools, training and shelter they need to start their journey toward recovery. When that recovery happens across many households, communities can begin to heal collectively, break negative cycles of violence and remove some of the barriers to peace.

Whilst there’s no single solution to building sustainable peace, we’re grateful that through working in partnership, ShelterBox and Rotary play a role in helping families to rebuild towards a positive and peaceful future. Learn how you can get involved.


  1. UNHCR (2013) ‘UNHCR’s mental health and psychosocial support for Persons of Concern’, UNHCR Global Review, [online], Available at: (Accessed: 25/10/2019)
  2. López and Spears cited in Goldsmith, A., and Cockcroft-McKay, C., (2019), ‘Mental health in South Sudan: a case for community‐based support’, Disasters, 43(3), [online] Available at: (Accessed: 05/10/2019)
  3. Balke, E., (2002), ‘Trauma and Conflict’, LSE Working Papers, 2(37), p1-38 [online] Available at: (Accessed: 04/10/2019)
  4. Wessells, M. G. (2007), ‘Post-conflict healing and reconstruction for peace: The power of social mobilization. In J. D. White & A. J. Marsella (Eds.), Fear of persecution: Global human rights, international law, and human well-being (pp. 257-278). Lanham, MD, US: Lexington Books/Rowman & Littlefield. [online] Available at: (Accessed: 04/10/2019)

One thought on “World Humanitarian Day: shelter is an essential humanitarian need

  1. Thanks. Very interesting times, indeed.Rotary Service in Action is on the right track in helping humanity ease its burdens.All the best. Carlos H. Yturzaeta, CPA Rotary Club of Makati EDSA, District 3830Mobile:  Globe +63 917 837 6375 Email

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