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Save the Children’s child centred shelter programming in Lebanon


By Thomas Whitworth

Thomas Whitworth is Save the Children Lebanon Shelter & NFI Adviser and for the past 18 months, has led the Save the Children’s Shelter and NFI programme in Lebanon. A civil engineer through training, he worked in the private sector. He has subsequently worked on a range of different responses, ranging from capacity building local staff in Libya, school construction in Liberia and South Sudan and building bridges in Vietnam. 

The author gratefully acknowledges the contributions of Mais Balkhi, Danielle Fares, Dipti Hingorani, Dominic Courage and Valentina Bidone to the work reflected in this article.

Save the Children (SC) has been working in Lebanon since 1953. It has scaled up its operations in Lebanon significantly as a response to the huge needs created by the Syrian crisis. It currently employs 400 staff across four geographic areas of Lebanon. It has expanded the scope of its operations beyond its traditional mandate involving large Education, Child Protection and Child Rights Governance (CRG) programmes, to include Food Security and Livelihoods (FSL), Health, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), Shelter and Non Food Items (NFIs). 

Community mobilisers from SC run a mobile Child Friendly Space during a distribution of shelter kits and NFIs in an Informal Settlement in Akkar District, North LebanonSC began implementing its integrated Shelter, WASH and NFIs programme in November 2012 in response to the deteriorating living conditions being experienced by Syrian refugees and vulnerable Lebanese families in Lebanon. In 2013, SC provided assistance to 10,680 vulnerable families (57,930 individuals including 33,763 children). It is on target to assist a further 20,000 vulnerable families in 2014. As a non-traditional shelter actor, SC has brought a different perspective and way of working to the Shelter, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) and non-food item (NFI) sectors in Lebanon.


As of 31st July 2014, the registered Syrian refugee population is 1,110,863 individuals1. In addition, there are thought to be a further 167,000 unregistered Syrian refugees, 17,000 Lebanese returnees from Syria and 53,070 Palestinian Refugees from Syria (PRS). This makes Lebanon the host of the largest number of refugees per capita in the world2. In addition, approximately the same number of vulnerable Lebanese individuals is likely to have been adversely affected by the crisis and there are estimated to be between 260,000 and 400,000 Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon (PRL). 

Lebanon was experiencing a shortage of affordable housing even prior to the Syrian crisis due to lack of a national housing strategy3. The large influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon has resulted in further saturation of the regular rental market and rental inflation. The lack of adequate and safe shelter supply has pushed many of the poorest Syrian and Lebanese families into sub-standard shelters4. This has resulted in many thousands of families living in unhealthy, overcrowded and unsuitable accommodation where they are exposed to risks of exploitation and forced eviction5. Based on available data, it is estimated that approximately 750,000 individuals live in sub-standard conditions such as Informal Settlements (unplanned small camps), unfinished houses and converted garages6,7,8&9., ,  &   UNHCR’s own estimate is that the proportion of refugees living in sub-standard conditions will continue to increase dramatically in the coming 12 months10.

Despite its Mediterranean location, Lebanon’s mountainous terrain leaves it exposed to low temperatures and relatively high rain and snowfall.  Zahle (Bekaa Valley, eastern Lebanon), for example, experiences around 600mm of rain and seven days of snowfall per winter. Temperatures regularly drop below 0 degrees centigrade from November to March11. Approximately 40% of the refugee population inhabit shelters without adequate protection from these severe conditions, 25% of refugees don’t own blankets and 40% don’t own winter clothing12,13. &  Acute respiratory tract infections were the leading cause of morbidity (35%) amongst Syrian refugees from January to March 2014 inclusive, largely as a result of cold, wet and sometimes smoky living conditions14

To date, the Government of Lebanon has not sanctioned large-scale formal camps. One of the outcomes of this policy is that the Syrian Refugee population is dispersed amongst 1,700 different communities throughout Lebanon. Though this may allow the better integration of some refugees into host communities, it also creates challenges for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in terms of access, understanding needs and the delivery of assistance. Many of the refugees are hidden amongst the host population which adds challenges to the identification of specific needs. 

The majority of refugees have accessed their shelter through existing informal market channels15. The low income rental market is subject to limited regulation and legal protection. It is considered dysfunctional and irregular but highly profitable to a minority. A recent market assessment has shown that refugees typically pay higher-than-average market prices for often very poor forms of shelter16. Families pay between $50 to $150 USD per month for a plot in an Informal Settlement and between $100 to $200 USD per month to live in a sub-standard buildings (e.g. a converted garage or to share part of an unfinished house)17. Rent typically accounts for a quarter of a refugee family’s expenditure18. The supply of adequate housing is relatively inelastic resulting in competition between Lebanese and Syrians, and ever increasing rents. 

The Syrian crisis is now well into its fourth year. Consequently, it is widely recognised that the humanitarian sector needs to adapt its programming to address the needs of a protracted crisis. However, considerable peaks in emergency needs remain, as demonstrated by the internal displacement caused by recent armed conflict in Aarsal (Bekaa Valley)19. It is likely that the on-coming winter will again highlight the severe life-threatening needs experienced by many vulnerable Syrian refugee and Lebanese families.

Save the Children’s shelter approach

Shelter kits being distributed to an Informal Settlement in Akkar District, North LebanonThe Save the Children shelter team was established in November 2012. To date, it has provided shelter, NFI and WASH assistance to over 20,000 of the most vulnerable families in Lebanon (over 100,000 individuals). SC has focused its interventions in the sub-standard buildings (unfinished houses, converted garages, abandoned buildings, etc.) and Informal Settlements. These shelter-types represent 25% and 15% respectively of the registered Syrian refugee population accommodation and also house Palestinians, Lebanese returnees and an increasing number of economically vulnerable Lebanese20. SC provides five different packages of assistance depending on the needs and circumstance. These are summarised in Table 1.  

Table 1: Summary of activities






$ USD /household







Weather-proofing in Informal Settlements 



In-kind kit

$150 direct ($250 total)

6 to 12 months 

3 months



Families in Informal Settlements or scattered tents receive a shelter kit (plastic sheeting, timber, tools, etc.) to allow them to repair, reinforce or extend their existing shelter

Y Relatively Cheap and quick

Y Doesn’t require any formal approvals

N “Temporary”

N Only partially addresses core needs

Temporary Emergency Shelter (i.e. Full Shelter Kit)



In-kind kit

$400 direct ($600 total) 


2+ years

3 months



Families who are without shelter receive a full shelter kit in order to build a tent in an Informal Settlement

Y Relatively Cheap and quick

Y Doesn’t require formal approvals

N “Temporary”

N Only partially addresses core needs

Site Improvements



In-kind & casual labour

$150 direct

($250 total)

2+ years

3 months



Communities implement semi-permanent site improvements to Informal Settlements in order to reduce health and safety risks and improve the basic quality of living

Y Relatively Cheap and quick

Y Give major improvement in living conditions and is highly visible

N “Temporary”

N Only partially addresses core needs

Emergency Shelter & WASH  




$250 direct ($400 total)

2+ years

3 months



Families in Unfinished Houses and Converted Garages receive a voucher that can be redeemed for Shelter and WASH materials that address their individual immediate needs

Y Relatively Cheap and quick

Y Doesn’t require any formal approvals

N “Temporary”

N Only partially addresses core needs




Conditional cash grant (3 tranches)

$1,500 direct

($2,350 total)

5+ years


6 months



Families living in Unfinished Houses and Converted Garages receive a conditional cash grant to upgrade their shelters. This is given in exchange for a 12 month period of secure tenure and a rental reduction negotiated with the landlord

Y “Permanent” improvement in living conditions

Y An investment in Lebanese infrastructure

Y Secure tenure for the beneficiary family

Y Rental reduction

N Relatively expensive and slower

N Required formal approval process

Source: Thomas Whitworth, Shelter Advisor, Save the Children Lebanon. 22nd August, 2014

* Excluding preparatory works (e.g. recruitment, procurement, etc)

Children are always amongst the most vulnerable in an emergency. Shelter may not initially appear to have a direct link to SC’s core mandate. However, in the context of Lebanon, shelter is a life-saving sector for children.  Under-5s and pregnant women are amongst the most vulnerable to the effects of sub-standard living conditions. These include respiratory diseases due to cold and wet living conditions and diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases due to poor access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene practices. A lack of physical protection to cold and wet conditions for under-5s can cause developmental problems in later life.

Based on an analysis of available data, there are a higher proportion of children living in sub-standard conditions when compared to other refugees and Lebanese families. This is due to a correlation in family size, socio-economic vulnerability and shelter-vulnerability. The average family living in sub-standard shelter has one additional member (6 instead of the overall average of 5) who is typically a child21,22,23. ,  & Therefore, children are the worst affected by poor-living conditions and represent a disproportionately large part of the affected population. 

SC has implemented a large-scale shelter programme in order to address one of the core needs of children in Lebanon. The programme is designed to alleviate the health and protection vulnerabilities that are most severe for children through improving physical protection to cold and wet weather, providing security and privacy and increasing access to safe water and sanitation. Addressing the basic needs of children and their families can reduce negative coping mechanisms (such as child labour and early marriage) and increase investment in human capital such as education and health care.

As a non-traditional shelter actor globally, SC was able to break away from the “business as usual” mind-set associated with more typical humanitarian contexts. Key elements of SC’s Shelter and WASH programme that were tailored to the specific context of the Syrian crisis in Lebanon are outlined below.

a) Supporting Lebanese and Syrians.

The vast majority of Syrian refugees live in the same communities as the majority of economically poor Lebanese24. An increasing number of vulnerable Lebanese are being forced to live in sub-standard conditions. They face many of the same issues as Syrian families. SC targets its beneficiaries on need alone and regardless of nationality.

b) Targeting the most vulnerable families. 

SC provides assistance to the most vulnerable families living in the worst conditions. Families who have limited access to economic opportunities or have a large numbers of children and dependents are typically the most affected by the scarcity of adequate, affordable accommodation. Selection is based on a combination of:

  • Socio-economic vulnerability, as defined by the Targeting Task Force. This is the inter-agency agreed tool for selecting families for multi-purpose cash assistance. It provides a vulnerability score based on the family’s composition, economic vulnerability and specific needs25.
  • Shelter-vulnerability, as defined by simplified criteria that ranks the families existing living conditions (protection to poor weather, security, safety, privacy, action to safe water, sanitation and hygiene conditions).

c) Community outreach.

All shelter programming is delivered as a household-level response which allows us to target the most at risk families, build relationships and trust with them and the host communities. All field staff are trained in child safe-guarding, key messaging for Child Protection and basic identification of Child Protection vulnerabilities. Through this approach, the Shelter and WASH field teams are able to identify specific vulnerabilities and make referrals to other services such as the SC Child Protection Case Management team and health providers. Eighty per cent of the Akkar Case Management cases were referred by the SC Shelter and WASH team. The highly visible nature of shelter and WASH programming can be a very strong entry point for more “soft” programming.

d) Working in the most challenging environments.

Lebanon is a very diverse country and is home to a large range of different economic conditions and religious and political confessions. Through supporting both Syrian and Lebanese families and building strong relationships at community level, SC was able to access some of the most challenging geographic areas in Lebanon where many other agencies have faced challenges. SC was the first agency to respond to the then unmet shelter needs in the Informal Settlements at scale.

e) Occupied buildings.

As discussed previously, the vast majority of refugees have accessed their shelter through market channels and are party to an informal commercial arrangement with their landlord. Analysis of SC Lebanon’s household database indicates a strong correlation between socio-economic vulnerability and shelter vulnerability. Consequently, many of the most severely vulnerable families are living in the worst conditions. Though SC would always aim to provide above the appropriate minimum standards, assistance is sometimes constrained by practical limitations or the landlord’s own requirements. In some extreme cases, we have to recognise the need to improve the worst conditions without necessarily being able to achieve “minimum” standards. Household interviews have demonstrated that the majority of beneficiary households would prefer to remain in sub-standard shelters rather than be relocated away from their support networks and informal protection mechanisms. As agencies are not working in the “traditional” camp context, we have to deal with much more variable conditions where a “one size fits all” intervention is not applicable.

f) Integration.

SC Lebanon provides an integrated package of shelter and WASH assistance. This is part of the wider country programme strategy to address the holistic needs of vulnerable children and their families. Through rehabilitating a shelter, immediate shelter and WASH needs are addressed. By providing security of tenure fear of eviction is reduced and a family has greater stability and is able to plan and engage in income generating activities which in turn reduces reliance on negative coping mechanisms. The household’s resilience increases whilst the overall shelter capacity of the community is given a lasting investment and improvement.

g) Emergency and long-term solutions.

SC provides a range of shelter and WASH assistance packages in order to provide effective assistance to vulnerable families across a range of circumstances and level of needs. SC’s programme provides emergency life-saving interventions (e.g. weather-proofing) through to programmes that provide long-term stability and shelter capacity (e.g. rehabilitation) as there is a strong need for both.

The way forward

The registered Syrian refugee population is continuing to grow and is projected to reach between 1.5 and 1.8 million individuals by the end of 201526 whilst the funding climate is likely to become more challenging. Despite the best efforts of humanitarian agencies, living conditions for many Syrian and Lebanese families are continuing to deteriorate27. Consequently, agencies need to amplify the impact of their programming with limited resources by reducing their cost base, increasing efficiency and maximising effectiveness. Many agencies are already looking to improve their evidence base, gap analysis and use more specific targeting of communities and beneficiary households. However, a shift in sector strategy is also needed in order to successfully assist the most vulnerable whilst also contributing towards increased social cohesion and stabilisation.

Three and a half years into the crisis, the majority of inter-agency shelter programming remains focused on addressing immediate needs rather than addressing the underlying causes of poor living conditions and escalating rents. Future programming needs to redistribute its allocation of resources in order to focus more on increasing long-term, adequate shelter capacity28. A sharp rise in social tensions between Syrian and host communities is considered very likely in next six months which will have a major humanitarian impact29. This reduction in host community acceptance is likely to result in an increase in forced evictions which in turn is likely to cause increased humanitarian needs. SC is planning to encourage social cohesion and host community acceptance through layering its household-level shelter interventions with Community Support Projects (CSPs) that can provide much needed upgrades to host community infrastructure (e.g. water supply, sanitation networks, drainage rehabilitation, electricity supply, etc.) and increased livelihoods opportunities. This will be coupled with programming to improve security of tenure through improved information sharing and increasing the use of formal rental agreements. 

The year 2013 saw many agencies scale up their operations in Lebanon at an unprecedented scale; 2014 has seen many consolidate and improve the quality of those same interventions. The year 2015 will require SC and other agencies to go beyond the standard shelter and WASH activities in order to address the escalating needs faced by Lebanon and Syria’s children.

For more information, contact: Thomas Whitworth, Save the Children Lebanon Shelter & NFI Adviser , email: thomas.whitworth@savethechildren.org.uk, tel: +961 7680 0404

1   Syrian Refugees Registered in Lebanon (UNHCR, July 2014)

2   The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon passes the 1 million mark (UNHCR, April 2014). Retrieved from www.unhcr.org/533c1d5b9.html

3  A Precarious Existence; The Shelter Situation of Refugees from Syria in Neighbouring Countries (NRC, June 2014)

4   Development of a Framework for Multipurpose Cash Assistance to Improve Aid Effectiveness in Lebanon: Support to the Market Assessment and Monitoring Component (KDS, July 2014)

5  A Precarious Existence; The Shelter Situation of Refugees from Syria in Neighbouring Countries (NRC, June 2014)

6   Shelter Poll Survey on Syrian Refugees in Lebanon (UNHCR, March 2014)

7  Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees (VASyR) in Lebanon (WFP, July 2014)

8  Household Database (SC Lebanon, 2014)

9   Mapping of Sub-standard Buildings (SC Lebanon, 2014)

10   Shelter Update (UNHCR, May 2014)

11  Annual Average Meteorological data (American University of Beirut)

12   Shelter Poll Survey on Syrian Refugees in Lebanon (UNHCR, March 2014)

13  Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees (VASyR) in Lebanon (WFP, July 2014)

14   July Quarterly Regional Analysis Syria (RAS) Report (Syria Needs Analysis Project, July 2014)

15  Housing, Land and Property (HLP) Issues in Lebanon - Implications of the Syrian Refugee Crisis (UN-Habitat & UNHCR, August 2014)

16  Development of a Framework for Multipurpose Cash Assistance to Improve Aid Effectiveness in Lebanon: Support to the Market Assessment and Monitoring Component (KDS, July 2014)

17   A Precarious Existence; The Shelter Situation of Refugees from Syria in Neighbouring Countries (NRC, June 2014)

18  Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees (VASyR) in Lebanon (WFP, July 2014)

19  Inter-Agency Update on the Situation in Aarsal & Surrounding Areas (UNHCR, August 2014)

20  Shelter Poll Survey on Syrian Refugees in Lebanon (UNHCR, March 2014)

21   Syrian Refugees Registered in Lebanon (UNHCR, July 2014)

22  Survey on the Livelihoods of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon (Oxfam, November 2013)

23  Winterisation Cash Transfer Programme. Impact Evaluation Report (IRC, August 2014). See also article in this edition of Field Exchange.

24  Equity in Humanitarian Action - Reaching the Most Vulnerable Localities in Lebanon (UNICEF and UNHCR, August 2014)

25 For cash assistance see article by Isabelle Pelly in this 48th edition of Field Exchange.

26 3RP projections

27 Housing, Land and Property (HLP) Issues in Lebanon - Implications of the Syrian Refugee Crisis (UN-Habitat & UNHCR, August 2014)

28 Housing, Land and Property (HLP) Issues in Lebanon - Implications of the Syrian Refugee Crisis (UN-Habitat & UNHCR, August 2014)

29 Scenarios – Where is Lebanon Heading (Syria Needs Analysis Projects, August 2014)


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