Masai children play in their family home - Tanzania

Masai children play in their family home - Tanzania

Poor shelter is one of the most visible manifestations of rural poverty. Shelter is a fundamental human need. People require protection from the elements and a place to bring up their families, work, and take pride in. Yet at present, a fifth of the world’s population – most of them the poorest of the poor in the world’s developing countries – is either homeless or living in very poor housing.

Shelter improvement can make significant contributions to poverty reduction in two main ways: firstly, by effecting improvements in one of the major dimensions of material poverty, and secondly, by improving incomes through the generation of employment in the areas of building materials production and construction.

Most low-income rural inhabitants in developing countries use simple technology and materials in shelter construction. Despite this, over the years forms of shelter have evolved that are well suited to their natural environments, both in terms of the materials used and adequacy of protection from the elements. A number of problems persist, however. The widespread absence of safe water supplies and sanitation facilities is a major concern. Overcrowding caused by the inability to increase the size of homes as individual households grow is another. In some situations, it is not possible to separate the accommodations of domestic animals from those of human beings. Conditions such as leaking roofs, unstable walls and poor floors requiring frequent repairs and present structural dangers. This is particularly true when insufficiently robust houses are subjected to the vagaries of nature, including floods, cyclones, landslides and earthquakes.

Most rural poverty-reduction endeavors have been concerned with satisfying basic needs and creating jobs. While the role of shelter in rural poverty reduction has so far not been emphasized, rural shelter programs and projects can help reduce poverty in a number of ways. First, and most directly, because poverty is the state of material deprivation in respect of a number of basic needs, including shelter, the provision (or upgrading) of rural shelter contributes to qualitative and quantitative improvements in one major dimension of poverty.

In addition, it is well known that shelter improvement has significant health benefits, an important dimension of poverty in rural areas. Primary health care improvements must necessarily include improvements in some aspects of shelter, particularly water and sanitation facilities.

Rural East African housing

 A typical rural household begins to collapse - Tanzania

A typical rural household begins to collapse - Tanzania

In rural East Africa, the majority of families live in overcrowded, windowless one-room houses consisting of basic wooden frames covered with mud, with thatch roofs and bare earth floors. Poor construction and materials expose families to all kinds of health and safety risks – for example, ticks and insects concealed in unfinished mud walls and earthen floors, vermin and snakes in the thatch, parasites seeking human hosts, and malarial mosquitos entering through unscreened windows and doorways. Most families do not have a private latrine (and sometimes lack toilet facilities altogether), significantly increasing the risk of diseases such as dysentery, diarrhea and typhoid fever.

These houses have an average life span of only seven to eight years. During this time, they require a tremendous amount of maintenance. Rainy seasons and seismic activity present particular difficulties. The constant dangers to human life and the widespread destruction of property resulting from these disasters are compelling reasons for according top priority to shelter improvement in this region.


 A mason stands in front of a pile of clay bricks - Tanzania

A mason stands in front of a pile of clay bricks - Tanzania

Shelter provides the physical context or location for a wide variety of income-generation activities, including agriculture and cottage industries. Consequently, shelter improvement constitutes one of the essential preconditions for rural income-generation activities.

In the context of survival strategies employed by the rural poor, construction and the production of building materials already play a role in poverty reduction. Data from several studies indicate the quantitative significance of construction activities in rural non-agricultural employment in a number of countries. Individuals or families supplement their agricultural earnings through the production and sale of building materials; construction of houses, latrines, schools and health facilities; and sinking of water wells and bore holes. Thus, on the basis of already existing patterns of rural construction, shelter provision programs and projects can be used for generating additional non-agricultural employment, thus reducing rural poverty.

For the majority of rural inhabitants, improved shelter is an end result of improved income from other production activities, particularly agriculture. This so-called “natural sequence of rural improvement” can be deliberately harnessed within projects and programs specifically aimed at shelter improvement. This can be achieved through the formulation of projects that, in addition to the shelter component, include the implementation of income-generating enterprises such as poultry and vegetable gardens, as well as improvements in rural communication and marketing facilities. These non-shelter activities can improve the capacity of shelter project beneficiaries to service housing loans, pay for maintenance and repairs and, in time, undertake further shelter improvements.

The deliberate implementation of shelter projects within the context of wider programs aimed at increasing income generation capacity is the only way in which sustainable rural shelter improvement can be guaranteed. This broader approach to shelter improvement can significantly contribute to general rural poverty reduction. It also provides a strong rationale for collaboration among national and international agencies concerned with shelter on the one hand, and those concerned with rural production activities on the other.

The “sustainable development” approach to rural shelter development emphasizes the use of locally available renewable resources in ways that will enable their successful regeneration. There are four sustainable development criteria on whose basis any given settlement can be judged:

  • The quality of life it offers to its inhabitants.
  • The scale of non-renewable resource use (including the extent to which secondary resources are drawn from settlement byproducts for reuse).
  • The scale and nature of renewable resource use and implications for sustaining production levels of renewable resources.
  • The scale and nature of non-reusable wastes generated by production and consumption activities and the means by which these are disposed of, including the extent to which wastes impact human health and natural systems and amenities.


Sustainable development requires close attention to the factors that contribute to the successful continuation of development activities without long-term dependence on outside help. With respect to human settlement development, including rural shelter, these factors include institutional capacity (in planning, finance and management); appropriate technology; affordability; and social acceptability.

One of the most serious impediments to resolving shelter problems in developing countries has been institutional weakness. In many countries, central and local governments lack the capacity to plan, finance and administer large shelter programs on a sustained basis. In the case of rural shelter, many countries lack coherent policies.

 Local community members help build a new family home - Kenya

Local community members help build a new family home - Kenya

Compounding these problems, donor-supported shelter projects often bypass local institutions in favor of their own special implementation units. This failure to engage with the relevant local agencies results in projects that are not replicable. The shelter finance mobilization capacity of many governments has also been hampered by the absence of effective cost recovery measures, which has, in turn, hindered the replicability and sustainability of shelter projects for the poor.

For shelter projects to be sustainable, appropriate technology must be employed. Three factors will determine the extent to which a given shelter development technology is replicable and sustainable. It should provide an adequate level of safety with respect to environmental hazards, particularly in areas prone to earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters. It should be affordable. Finally, it should allow for maintenance using predominantly local resources.

Another major problem with low-income shelter projects in developing countries (particularly within urban areas) has been that the solutions offered have often been too expensive for the people meant to benefit from them. Consequently, the issue of affordability for low-income rural households should be carefully considered when planning shelter projects. Considerations of cost-effectiveness should be balanced with careful thought about minimum standards for housing, water and sanitation.

The social acceptability of shelter projects is also an important determinant of their sustainability. Both the technology employed and the end product must satisfy the aspirations of the intended inhabitants. Much of the work on appropriate technologies over the last twenty years, after much technical research and ingenuity, has failed. People haven’t wanted the product. In practice, the only sustainable development process is based on people’s desires. A project which ignores these desires is doomed to failure, however much it seems to be addressing people’s needs.

In sum, the main conditions for sustainability of rural shelter development are:

  • The use of locally available renewable resources in ways that ensure that environmental assets are not degraded or depleted.
  • Adequate planning and careful administration of the implementation of long-term programs.
  • Continuous mobilization of financial resources in ways that guard against long-term reliance on subsidies and external support.
  • The use of appropriate technologies that utilize locally available human and material resources whenever possible.
  • The adoption of solutions that the majority of the rural poor can afford.
  • The satisfaction of people’s real desires, as opposed to externally perceived needs.