(Excerpted from article in InterAction Monthly Developments, Jan/Feb 2012, pp. 17-18.)

When disasters or crises strike and homes are lost, people don’t always wait for governments and international humanitarian agencies to lend a hand, but instead often rely on those close to them: family and friends. Hosting by family and friends is socially defined, self-selected, culturally appropriate and typically provided before humanitarian actors arrive and – importantly – long after they leave.

In recent years, there has been increasing recognition of the utility and acceptance of hosting as a form of spontaneous sheltering among affected populations. As a result, humanitarian organizations have come to provide various types of basic support to ensure that hosting does not strain relations or host families’ pocketbooks, while also facilitating the role of hosting as a durable shelter solution. Such assistance can entail fuel, education or livelihood assistance, as well as provision of bedding, cooking and eating utensils, water/sanitation and shelter upgrades to support people living with host families.

Hosting was vital in the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2009 conflict in Pakistan.

The devastating January 2010 earthquake in Haiti killed an estimated 316,000 people and affected approximately 3 million others, according to the government of Haiti, while damaging and destroying over 180,000 housing structures. The earthquake also generated a mass exodus of over 600,000 people from Port-au-Prince and other disaster-affected areas to seek shelter with family and friends in home towns in outlying areas that were not damaged by the earthquake. Without some form of support, however, these relationships would have strained the patience and resources of all concerned, possibly resulting in movement of people to the then-burgeoning spontaneous camps.

Support for hosting arrangements was an important complement to other emergency shelter efforts. Even more notable is the apparent evolution of nearly 18,500 hosting arrangements, or 70 percent of the hosting total supported by three USAID-funded NGOs into permanent housing solutions for those families, as they have decided to stay in hosting arrangements and host communities for the foreseeable future. Moreover, many families have stated in post-project interviews that they never want to return to the disaster-affected area. Hosting is thus not only an important humanitarian shelter solution, but also appears in Haiti to be helping address longer-term housing needs.

Hosting in conflict-affected Pakistan

During 2009, a complex emergency due to fighting between the Pakistani government and militants in the northwest caused more than 3 million people to flee the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPk) province for safer areas. Later that year, additional military operations in South Waziristan displaced another 380,000 people.

Between January 2009 and January 2011, more than 3.4 million people had been displaced from their homes, and nearly 90 percent of this total was hosted. Thousands of host families readily provided shelter, food and water to displaced families for months. Due to the overwhelming number of individuals living with host families for extended periods, the international community focused not only on providing displaced people with assistance, but also on providing support to the families hosting them. Direct support to host families often included programs to alleviate crowded conditions by expanding living spaces, often through construction of an additional room or stand-alone shelter. Some relief agencies also established mobile medical clinics for host communities and voucher programs to purchase additional food and household items, reducing the strain on host families.

A willingness to help

Haiti and Pakistan present diverse settings, events and circumstances, but what is common in both countries is the willingness of people, whether compelled by family, friendship or community ties, or simply compassion for others, to help those in need by creating hosting arrangements. This activity occurred in both post-disaster and post-conflict settings, be they in urban or rural areas. It did, however, impose social, economic and other strains on the arrangements, making it important for humanitarian actors to support them where possible and feasible using a range of measures.

Hosting is not a universal panacea. It will always be context-driven, and is best implemented when family and friends are involved. However, supporting this form of sheltering can sustain it to the point that it becomes an important element of humanitarian shelter assistance, and can even lead to the evolution of hosting arrangements into permanent housing solutions. Finally, hosting support can be provided expeditiously and on a cost-effective basis compared to other approaches, particularly the creation of camps.