At the moment Nadia Khalid Tithi is working with International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies-Bangladesh as the Manager of ‘Response and Preparedness for Response’ stationed at Dhaka. Completing her Masters in Disaster and Emergency Practice from Oxford Brookes University, Nadia, an architecture graduate from BUET joined Save the Children UK in their head office at London. Since then she continues with her effort to work with people affected by disasters and conflict in different areas across the world. She was involved in design and implementation of school projects and youth friendly infrastructures in Liberia for Ivorian refugees with Save the Children. In South Sudan, she worked with the French organization ACTED as a Livelihood Manager setting up refugee camps and conducting different livelihood projects as well as various shelter projects. Before joining IFRC, Bangladesh she was in Iraq as the Shelter Manager for Save the Children dealing with Syrian refugees.
Contextbd team met up with her in Dhaka last month to discuss and discover events of her venturesome career covering personal experience to organizational mechanism.
It is not very common for an architecture graduate from Bangladesh to get involved in development sector. There are few we must agree but definitely not many. How did you get involved?
I got interested in studying architecture with an intension to do something creative yet not solely confined to architecture. Strangely enough, while doing internship in a practice I did not see much scope for creativity. The total professional set up in our community is business driven and aimed at maximizing commercial profit. Most of the projects are typical, may be in some cases slightly altered. I was not satisfied with this phenomenon. I was looking for something with purpose, something humane, something for which I can be passionate about rather than just serving the elite. With this vision I started to look for a proper course which could actually help me to translate my architectural skills to something humanitarian. That’s when I found out about this course, Development and Emergency Practice in Oxford Brookes with a focus on Shelter after Disaster. I straightaway decided to join the program and started in the following fall.
It was very difficult though getting any proper guidance from the architecture community here in Bangladesh, had to search for a while and choose myself. However at the end it proved to be a life turning decision.
Do you consider your work in development sector a career change as you are trained as a qualified architect?
Not really, I consider this a continuation or some kind of specialization, but definitely not career change. Architects have specific role to play in this sector. I mostly work on shelter design and management for which my knowledge in architecture is not only beneficial but certainly essential. Whenever the organizations search for people in the shelter sector, they prefer architects with some experience in the humanitarian sector. Training or diploma in development sector would be an added advantage. You need people who know technical issues, functional solutions, shelter guidelines and have knowledge of necessary software like CAD, GIS etc.
Therefore, let me ask a relevant question. How do the organizations maintain the technical and functional standard in the shelters designed?
Depending upon which type of shelter you are designing specific functional and technical requirements differ. In development sector there are different types of shelters- emergency, transitional and permanent depending upon disaster situation, life span and function. Primarily you must look to have the architectural standards achieved. There is a Global Shelter Cluster-a public platform with 35 global partners who participate on a regular basis led by IFRC and UNHCR. The Global Shelter Cluster has guidelines for all kinds of shelter conditions, including those in a camp situation or even for host-communities. Apart from these, there are ‘Sphere Standards’ which are followed by organizations while implementing shelter projects. ‘Sphere standards’ are one of the most widely known and internationally recognized sets of common principles and universal minimum standards for the delivery of quality humanitarian response. In case of Bangladesh, there is the Humanitarian Coordination Task Team which consists of Shelter Cluster among others. Shelter Cluster in Bangladesh is jointly led by IFRC and UNDP. Within the structure it has Shelter Technical Working group which deals with the technical issues, standardization and best practices. If you have any issue regarding shelter projects and standard you can raise it in the cluster. The Shelter Cluster in Bangladesh was established after Cyclone Sidr when with the presence of so many local and international agencies delivering shelter projects,everyone experienced the need for such a platform to deliver organized and effective response achieving optimum standard.
What are the scope for an architect to apply his creativity in this sector ?
Frankly, not so much.Specially in emergency situations when you are dealing with basic life saving challenges it is very difficult to even think of ‘creativity’. For example, all of a sudden you need to deal with 10,000 refugees fleeing from violence, you will need to just circulate tents or tarpaulins to provide emergency shelter, you don’t have the option to apply any creative skill in that very moment. But for a longer term project like designing a refugee camp you could be creative and exercise some design knowledge. Projects like community space and school design in disaster prone areas depends on budget as well. No one is holding you back from coming up with interesting solutions. But you can’t just go wild with your imagination. It has to be functional first. Then there is the question of cultural appropriateness, local availability of materials, etc.
But as an architect you should keep looking for scopes. Let me give a very simple example- in Liberia there was a school project for refugee children near the Ivorian border. It was a linear rectangular plan with no veranda or court yard and it was not at all appealing to the children. I was told it is usually done such way because there is not enough budget for going beyond that. However, we managed to tweak things a little and came up with better solutions within the same budget by designing a simple ‘L’ shaped building that includes a courtyard which was much more attractive to the kids.
Do architects have a say at management level?
It depends. If you are a shelter analyst or say a site engineer, you are taken as a technical person in field where your authority might be confined to technical issues only, while people with no expertise in a particular area might have a better say because they are in an advantageous position. But if you are a shelter manager or a shelter coordinator, you can influence the decision making process. It also depends on the geographical area one is covering, it can be on a county level or even on national, regional or global platform.
Give us an idea about the actual in-field scenario.
You have to work in remote areas; that’s obvious in most of the cases. There might be communication problem like no phone or internet network. You have to depend on either VHF radios or wireless network. But those are actually meant for official use, not for personal communication. There can be satellite phones but that’s usually quite unreliable.
You might be living in tents for long time with temporary latrines etc, sometimes in mud houses with poor sanitation. Food supply can be poor with not much variety. There are locations where there is no market, so there can be scarcity of even regular food items like eggs and vegetables. Sometimes canned food such as tuna or corn beef come from the capital but you won’t have much choice as it might be a large supply of a single item. I had a situation where I was entirely dependent on over boiled pasta with lentils (and nothing else) for months with no fresh vegetables or fruits or even chicken. In a nut shell you have to be prepared for the worst.
Please specify some safety issues.
Well, in conflict zones there is always life risk. In case of rebel attacks you might need to evacuate, hide in bunkers and rely on emergency food stock. Usually you are not allowed to move by your own and you must carry your work permit all the time to pass through checkpoints. In the locations I worked there were curfews after dusk. In most of the locations there are rebel groups fighting each other. Also when there are thousands of refugees coming everyday, the scarcity of food, accommodation and other commodities creates tension with host communities and people can get engaged in fights which might turn violent. Soldiers of different groups can get drunk especially at night and with arms, they are dangerous. In some border areas there are aerial bombing and risk of land mines as well. One also has to keep in mind the hostile insects and reptiles like snakes, poisonous spiders, scorpios,etc. It is required to take extra care of health and take medicine when necessary. I had to suffer badly from Malaria in Liberia because of not taking Malarones (anti-malarials) regularly. There was an outbreak of Hepatitis E during my stay in South Sudan and during such times it is very important to be vigilant.
Give us an idea of the projects you worked on.
Well, after graduation first six months I worked in headquarter of Save the Children UK. They were about to initiate a shelter division and therefore needed research and documentation about the shelter projects in different parts of the world. There I got basic life saving trainings as well.
Liberia was my first official mission. In Liberia I was shelter manager for two counties working with Ivorian refugees. I was assigned to build schools, child friendly spaces and early childhood development centres for young adults in the camps. Along the border of Liberia and Ivory Coast we worked on developing some permanent schools as well as rehabilitating existing schools.
Then I went to South Sudan with a French organization where I worked as a livelihood manager and also a shelter manager. I had to work on various things not related to architecture at all like agricultural projects, tree plantation, income generating activities, cooperatives, waste management systems, destocking projects for animal, grazing land mapping etc. I was lucky to have got the opportunity to be involved in planning and designing of two camps with UN and Shelter Cluster. My job was to design and set up the infrastructure, therefore, had to coordinate with different organizations working on water sanitation, food security etc which was a worthy managerial experience for me. Another interesting experience I had there was designing slaughter houses that had to have an Environmental Impact Assessment and conform to the global livestock standards.But the most enjoyable one was setting up mass production of 7000 family shelters for a new camp with a group of carpenters who does not understand English.
After six months break in Bangladesh I went to Iraq with a new assignment. In Iraq it was a whole different scenario. Extension of existing Iraqi schools to accommodate Syrian refugee children was first in my project list. They are used to prefabricated architecture and more interested in temporary containers available as a package. We had to look for larger scale contractors. We developed two types of projects based on container set up and site condition. One involved containers imported as total package set on a concrete support. Then utility supplies were installed for the containers. Another one is done by container makers on site starting from installing frames and other components to ensure additional logistics.
I was also building child friendly spaces in refugee camps. What was challenging for me was designing playgrounds as they have to maintain specific standards and material specifications established and regulated by the local regulatory bodies. Football grounds had to be proper professional football pitch. You need specific technical background to meet those standards. Therefore I had to make extra efforts to ensure I was up to the mark.
Another interesting assignment was the cash based project in the urban households for the majority of the Syrians who rent homes in the urban areas scattered in different parts rather than staying at camps or take shelter in abandoned public structures or garages. Some landlords take the advantage of this practice by renting out the spaces really with bad living conditions at a high rent. The scheme was to give the refugees cash to upgrade their existing shelter. However this scheme requires legal consent from the owner of the property as well as an MOU to make sure refugees are allowed to live there after the renovation for at least a year.
Right now with IFRC, among other projects, I am running a cash transfer program for shelter repairing in the northern part of Bangladesh along with the provision of shelter tool kits for those affected by the flood last year. I am also involved with Shelter Cluster coordination.
Any advice for architects/students planning to move to development sector?
Architects have the basic technical knowledge. So anyone interested can start as technical consultant to gain experience and choose thereafter. Or one can combine this with relevant studies which would definitely be an added advantage. One can start anywhere, but I think it is definitely advantageous if you start abroad in an international organization to build up your portfolio and take it from there.
Narrator: Azizul Mohith