Volume 16 Number 6
Still Hammering for Humanity
01 December 2003
Kenneth Noble looks at a charity which is rehousing poor people worldwide,and discovers that it has launched a most unusual 'theme park'.
Readers with long memories may recall a front cover of For A Change where former US President Jimmy Carter, surrounded by roof joists, wielded a hammer. He was helping construct a home for Habitat for Humanity (HFH), a charity which works with the poor to provide affordable housing. At that time (1989), we reported that there were 378 Habitat affiliates in the US, five in Canada, one in South Africa, and more than 71 projects in 26 developing countries. A Habitat group in Britain was 'in the early stages of formation'.
Now, 14 years later, HFH has come a long way. Some 625,000 people around the world live in 150,000 Habitat-built houses. A new house is completed every 26 minutes.
The fact that there are some 2.6 billion people around the world living in slums or informal housing, their lives blighted by poverty and lack of opportunity, shows how urgently such initiatives are needed.
Founded in 1976 by US lawyer Millard Fuller and his wife, Linda, HFH today works with volunteers and communities in 87 countries to build simple, affordable housing.
Wherever they are working, Habitat helps poor people to build and own their own homes. The homes are decent and appropriate to the country. Habitat's traditional approach has been that all materials for each house are paid for, or donated, in advance. Donors pay money into a 'revolving fund' which is used to pay all the costs. Because the labour is entirely voluntary, prices are kept to a minimum. Each homeowner family is expected to invest their own labour or 'sweat-equity' into the building of their home and, later, the homes of other families. This reduces the cost of labour, increases pride of ownership and fosters community development. When the homes are complete, families make interest-free mortgage payments back into the revolving fund.
In Great Britain (rather quaintly described on HFH's international web site as 'an island nation in the northwest of the continent of Europe with a long history of successful economic development') HFH's web site proclaims: 'Habitat for Humanity has built homes in Southwark in London, Banbury, Eastbourne, and will shortly be building in Liverpool.' The site is enlivened by the stories of some who have helped build and then lived in HFH houses (see below).
Ian Pearce, HFH's Community Team Manager in the UK, tells me that most of their focus is on raising money for projects overseas. The needs in the UK are real-one of the new Southwark homeowners and their four children previously lived in a two bedroom flat without proper sanitation. But what would be classed as 'unfit for human habitation' here might be considered normal in many developing countries. He points out that it costs Habitat £65,000 to build a house in London while they can house a family in Democratic Republic of Congo for £1,700. This sum would provide seven houses in Sri Lanka, one of several countries where HFH has found that its traditional approach is not appropriate because casual labourers have no experience of managing loans.
In response to this, HFH launched a new scheme called Save and Build. Pearce explains that twelve families work as a community, with each agreeing to save a few rupees each day. After six months they will have saved £138, to which HFH then add-enough to build three houses. The families stick with the scheme until, after two years, they all have basic homes. They then have the option of carrying on until they have added further rooms.
Pearce speaks enthusiastically about the various projects that Habitat runs from the UK:
'Global Village-holidays with a purpose' give British people the chance to have a hands-on experience of helping to build a home in a developing country. Holidayers must also donate £300 to Habitat, £250 of which goes to the country they are visiting.
In 2002 some 25 teams of ten or more people went from Britain to build houses abroad. Many of these trips were run in partnership with other organizations. For instance more than 100 solicitors and other staff from the international law firm Freshfield Bruckhaus Deringer spent three days, staggered over a three week period, in Romania, with the project leadership provided by Habitat. As well as what they achieve for the country visited, such schemes 'provide team-building opportunities'.
Friends of HFH raise money to build houses in a developing country of their choice. The Friends are often people who have taken part in one of the Global Village holidays.
In the US, where it all started, President Carter maintains his links with HFH. This summer he opened their latest venture-a theme park of poverty. The Global Village and Discovery Center in Americus, Georgia, covers six acres and cost $4.5 million. This sum was raised separately from the housing fund, and the land was donated. The village displays poor people's housing around the world and shows examples of the homes that Habitat builds. There are five main elements to the park:
a visitor welcome centre;
a marketplace with theatre;
a 'Living in Poverty' exhibit;
the Global Village of 15 completed houses;
the experience area where families can learn how to make house bricks and iles.The Athens Banner-Herald (8 June) quotes a Habitat spokesperson as saying, 'One middle-aged visitor was so moved during a recent preview tour that he pledged to build a Habitat house every year for the rest of his life.'
The Village 'can bring us down to earth about what we have, compared to the rest of the world,' Linda Mills, the tour coordinator, told the paper.
Tina fellows' choices
Ten-year-old Micaiah Fellows didn't learn to ride a bike until just last year. That's because she and her little brother Jared, four, lived in a council estate where their mother, Tina, was too frightened to let them play outside. The children's last memory of the estate is of a group of boys throwing glass bottles at them as they moved out of their flat.
They moved into a Habitat for Humanity house in Southwark, South London, at the end of 2001. 'The quality of life now is 100 times better than it was. The children and I laugh so much now,' says Tina.
'I have more time to spend with them now, and they are both much calmer. Micaiah got an award for behaviour at school after we moved in because of the amazing change in her.
'There are so many things that I believe for myself now. I have abilities that I have never explored because I had other things to worry about. I might be able to go to university part-time.
'Building your own HFH house is seriously hard work, but it's all very worth it. It rebuilt my confidence in people to see that there were people who were willing to give without expecting anything in return. It was amazing to see everybody building the house together, from big corporations and donations to single volunteers.
'Habitat for Humanity is dealing with the big things. They are really changing lives.'