Providing shelter in times of crisis

For almost half a century the UNICEF iconic tent has provided shelter to people affected by conflict and disaster.

Wearing masks, pupils of a primary school in Kasese District, Uganda, show excitement about the installation of a UNICEF High Performance Tent, which is in the background.
20 June 2022

For nearly five decades UNICEF has supplied tents to provide shelter to people fleeing conflict and disaster.

They are one of the first supplies deployed in an emergency.

With disasters often leaving infrastructure partially or completely destroyed, the tents become makeshift classrooms for displaced students, nutrition facilities providing critical care or safe spaces for children traumatized by what they have witnessed.

In the early days of operations, these were no more than basic tents, tarpaulins and shelter supplies. Today, they are highly specialized pieces of equipment, specifically designed for the increasing harsh weather driven by climate change as well as the remote areas where UNICEF works.

Rwandan refugee children stand in and around tents supplied by UNICEF Somalia, in the Ndosho camp for unaccompanied children near the town of Goma.
1994: The Rwanda genocide killed approximately 800,000 people and forced an estimated 2 million to flee across borders to escape the violence. UNICEF tents provided a safe space for thousands of unaccompanied children in the aftermath of crisis
A nurse administers a vaccine to a three-old child in a UNICEF tent for a vaccination campaign.
UNICEF/UNI234110/Stephen/Infinity Images
Nurse Manager James administers a measles vaccine to three-year-old Janele in one of the older UNICEF tents with slanted walls installed on the island of Upolu, Samoa, during a UNICEF-supported vaccination campaign in response to a measles outbreak.

In 2020, the latest generation of UNICEF tents – known as the High Performance Tent – was unveiled, replacing the older generation of tents.

The High Performance Tent is a significantly more advanced design that can last three times longer and withstand 80km/h winds. They are also easier to transport to hard-to-reach locations and can be installed by a non-technical team within 2–3 hours.

New full-sized windows and an elevated shade net keep the tents cooler in warm climates, while a winter liner add-on can keep them warm in cold weather. A new straight wall design also creates a larger space so more people can fit comfortably, while an improved anchoring system prevents tents from collapsing in strong winds.

Children play outside a High Performance Tents installed in Afghanistan to be used for community based education programmes.
Children play outside the new High Performance Tents, recently installed in Afghanistan to be used for community-based education programmes. In the mountainous regions of Afghanistan, freezing temperatures of -9° C (15° F) are common for many communities during the winter months. The winterized High Performance Tent provides a safe, warm and comfortable space for children while they study.

The tents can also be ordered with a range of innovative add-ons, including:

  • A solar panel or electrical kit for power and lights in temporary classrooms and for increased safety at night.
  • Hard plastic flooring to create a firm, level surface which can increase load bearing in tents used as storage facilities. It also makes temporary classrooms more comfortable, as well as more accessible for children living with disabilities.
  • A winter liner which can be hung inside the tent to keep classrooms warm so children can focus on their schoolwork in cold climates. The liner makes tents usable in areas with temperatures as low as -16°C (3.2°F).
  • An inner liner also hung inside the tent to make a more comfortable and stress-free environment for children recovering and sheltering from traumatic situations in UNICEF child-friendly spaces.
A UNICEF High Performance Tent is carried to a remote area of Uganda, affected by flooding in early 2022.
A High Performance Tent is carried to a remote area of Uganda, affected by flooding in early 2022. The new design makes them easier to transport to challenging locations, with the tent supplied in several 50kg packages.

Since their introduction in 2020, over 7,000 High Performance Tents have been procured, including in Uganda, Afghanistan, Haiti and Fiji.

The tents were developed through UNICEF Supply Division’s innovation process. Innovation teams worked with emergency and supply experts in 20 countries to understand how the iconic UNICEF tent could be redesigned to better meet field needs and ultimately support children and families fleeing crises.

The result? Over 1,000 different requirements were identified and communicated to industry through a Target Product Profile (TPP). TPPs bring field knowledge to industry, outlining UNICEF’s unmet needs and challenging manufactures to come up with their own innovative solutions.

Product proposals from suppliers were narrowed down through a competitive process of laboratory testing and trials. This included subjecting tent prototypes to hurricane-force winds and below freezing temperatures to test durability and thermal performance at the Jules Verne Climatic Wind Tunnel in Nantes, France.  

The final products were also tested in three countries to ensure they could withstand a full range of challenging weather conditions, including in Uganda for a hot dry climate with sandstorms, the Philippines for a humid climate and Afghanistan for a cold climate with heavy snow.

Testing of UNICEF's High Performance Tent in a wind tunnel.
Testing of UNICEF's High Performance Tent in a wind tunnel.

This structured approach to co-creation and innovation within public procurement allowed for agile iterations of the product, with suppliers meeting with communities to understand need and develop the best possible product.  

The result is a versatile and long-lasting tent which creates a safe space so children affected by conflict and disasters can focus on learning and recover.

Boy standing in front of a UNICEF High Performance Tent
“Our classroom is no longer hot under the sun. I am now very happy,” says Rasid, 12, who was displaced from his home by typhoons in the Philippines. The newly designed High Performance Tents keep classrooms cool so children can focus on their education.