"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


a day without dignity:

This post is a contribution to A Day Without Dignity, a counter-campaign to the A Day Without Shoes campaign designed to focus attention on the dignity of those in need and the need to focus our efforts on empowering the poor rather than providing handouts. You can read other posts about it here, and I encourage you to write, tweet, and talk to your Facebook friends about A Day Without Dignity as well.

Instead of focusing on the well-documented problems with donating goods-in-kind, undermining local industry, and disguising marketing as social good, I wanted to use this post to talk about an organization that I think gets most things right: Habitat for Humanity. In looking at this example, there's a lot to learn about acting locally, building relationships and understanding among people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and empowering people who want to volunteer in their own communities around the world. Full disclosure: I have been a Habitat volunteer since 1997, and I currently serve as a committee chair for a local Habitat affiliate. I am, in other words, slightly biased.

Habitat for Humanity is "A nonprofit, ecumenical Christian housing organization building simple, decent, affordable housing in partnership with people in need." Habitat builds houses in conjunction with families who could otherwise not afford homes, then sell those houses to the family with a no-interest loan that the families pay off over a standard mortgage term (typically 30 years). Here's why I think the Habitat model is a strong one:
  • It is local. Habitat International is there to provide guidance and support, but fundraising, planning, and construction all happen through local affiliates. This model avoids the "one-size-doesn't-fit-all" problem and allows local affiliates a great deal of flexibility. For example, our affiliate is located in metro Atlanta, where there is a huge foreclosure problem. Thanks to support from the county, we are able to purchase and renovate foreclosed homes. It improves neighborhoods, lessens the problem of empty housing and blight, and gets families into safe, secure, decent homes.
  • It's based on partnership. Once a family is selected for the program, they become partners with their local Habitat affiliate. This means that they have certain rights and responsibilities, one of which is to help build other people's houses and another of which is to help build their own. Habitat houses are not handouts - the families pay for their homes just like any other homeowner. Moreover, there is a lot of pride and dignity that comes from owning and living in a home that you put a lot of sweat into constructing or renovating.
  • It builds relationships. For many Habitat volunteers, building on the home site is the first time they have actually worked alongside poor people, doing exactly the same tasks without any kind of management hierarchy in place. It can be an incredibly eye-opening experience to hear a low-income individual talk about the struggles his family faces, or her desire for her kids to have a better life, and is a great way to bust stereotypes (eg, "Poor people are lazy.") and create real relationships.
  • It supports volunteers helping their own communities worldwide. There are Habitat affiliates all over the world, and affiliates build culturally-appropriate homes from locally-available materials, thus contributing to local economies and improving life for families worldwide. To support these efforts, for every home built in the US and other wealthy countries, the local affiliate donates to an international affiliate, thus ensuring that those affiliates will have adequate resources to continue to construct and sell homes.
  • It provides home ownership opportunities to those who lack access. Habitat families are carefully selected for the program. They have to be able to save money, pay a down payment, and prove that they earn enough in a steady job to afford a mortgage. Where Habitat is different from traditional banks, however, is in the fact that we offer no-interest, lower-cost mortgages. Because of donations and volunteers, families don't pay many labor costs for their homes - the cost is the land, the materials, and some specialized labor costs (electricians and the like). This means that Habitat can provide opportunities to people who are excluded from traditional home ownership paths. It's not just limited to the stereotypical working poor. In our area, we have many refugee families who scrimp and save and are thrilled to own their own homes after years of sacrifice and the suffering they endured in their home countries. Likewise, many of our partner families are practicing Muslims whose religious commitments require them to only take out no-interest loans. Habitat is a Christian organization, but is not a proselytizing one, and access to the program is open to people of all faiths or no faith at all. There aren't many other places around here that working poor Muslim families can get access to a fair, interest-free mortgage.
Is Habitat perfect? Absolutely not. But for the reasons outlined above, I think it's an organization that has developed a model that avoids many of the problems to which TOMS Shoes and other "Whites in Shining Armor" programs lead. By focusing on a partnership model, everyone becomes an equal contributor, giving dignity and pride to homeowners and volunteers alike. By maintaining a local focus with local decision making and promoting the local affiliate model worldwide, the organization avoids messing up local economies by flooding markets with unneeded materials. As the organization grows and learns from its mistakes, Habitat makes adjustments. I'm proud to be a part of it.


Anonymous Jen said...

Great and very interesting post!

I also think Habitat is a very good organization overall, and I wanted to ask you a couple questions about it. I have friends who lead a short-term (usually two weeks) building team to go overseas every year, and I personally went on a short building trip in another state a few years ago. What do you think of those components of Habitat? Are these programs better than other short-term volunteer trips?

Also, as I'm interested in a career in development/aid/"helping people" but am incresingly skeptical of the industry, what other organizations do you support or promote?

Tuesday, April 05, 2011 6:01:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a very nice post, and I am sorry that I have to reply to it anonymously - I hope you can appreciate why as you read on.
I have worked for over 6 months as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity Vietnam. I agree with most of what has been discussed in this post - and truly I think it could certainly work very well within the context of a developed country such as the US. This is proven by the popularity and success of the program.
I become skeptical however within the context of a developing nation due to my experience working with HfH in Vietnam. and these are the reasons why:
HfH is forced to partner up with a local "mass organisation" in order to be active in a certain region. Where this falls down a bit however is that the mass organisations are responsible for finding the 'partner' families (in parenthesis because the partnering processes have been diluted in this context - no family ever helps build another's home), they also set the loan rates (which follow the official bank rates more or less). The mass organisation also then deals with the loans, collecting repayments and managing the 'revolving fund' that goes on to build new houses.
This means that the mass organisation's interests are to find families that can repay - not families in need. The families selected by and large are only marginally too poor to get a bank loan to build their home. what they get instead is a bunch of fat lazy sunburnt unskilled westerners that absolve the guilt of their excess by sweating it out in Vietnam. Sure there are touching moments; when American ex-service men build a home for a north Vietnamese family there is some catharsis. But the Americans walk away with slightly less money in their pockets and a stone off their hearts - boasting to their friends about how much good they did in Nam, whereas the family is left with an uneven floor and a crooked wall.
Those problems I would still have been able to overlook and convince myself that the overall result is a good one if it weren't for the organisation. I could not help the feeling that HfH has lost sight of the families they are serving: perhaps due to the distance enforced through the mass organisations, perhaps because the benefits were indeed limited when the families could almost afford to help themselves. The organisation was focused on pleasing the donors - not because that would be more families served - but because that's how HfH's operations can continue and therefore keep its employees in jobs. Don't get me wrong - this is how 'development' works - the donors have the money and must be pleased (they are the 'clients') and the operational cost must be covered - all large aid organisations have this. That is not the issue - my issue was with where the focus lay: was it to come up with better services for the poor in Vietnam? was it in finding new innovative ways of providing housing and water/sanitation solutions for communities? No - it was in grabbing the money by writing a convincing project proposal and then letting it roll from there - and then be surprised when the donors pull out funding when the results promised were not met. (this happened while I was there).
When the Vietnam Government builds tens of thousands of homes for the poor per year (as handouts); and these are terrible concrete and brick boxes, Can HfH really justify building a couple of hundred a year of not that much better quality? and then asking the families to pay?
HfH cannot ever compete with the Vietnam Government in numbers - but it could in quality: all my efforts during my tenure with HfH to improve the comfort, energy efficiency or water use of homes they built was met with extreme resistance.
This criticism of Habitat is limited to my experience in Vietnam and does not extend to its operations in other countries. Our interpretation of simple decent homes can vary - as well as what we think our responsibilities are tobeing more gentle on the environment.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011 12:15:00 AM

Blogger dcat said...

TiA --
I'm torn. We had one of these events on campus and I didn't pay any attention, largely for all the reasons you point out and that we all love so well. On the other hand, I got on campus for a grad seminar last night when the event was finishing and one of my students gave me one of the t-shirts. And I love free crap. So there's that. If I wear it, I'm sort of endorsing the event. But: Free t-shirt! Oh, the travails of middle class life in academia.


Wednesday, April 06, 2011 10:29:00 AM

Blogger Rich said...

Just saw you tweet on the BBC!Gbagbo's ego doesn't seem human to me.

Texas in Africa tweets: "What is Gbagbo thinking? Now his only choices are surrender&prosecution, battle death, or suicide."


Wednesday, April 06, 2011 12:54:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. As a fellow Habitat volunteer for now almost a decade, I feel the same way. Thanks for putting it into words. I also think that the short-term volunteer trips, which focus on partnership, learning, awareness raising and understanding, are some of the best opportunities to gain a sense of what development means when it is about partnership and dignity.

Monday, April 11, 2011 8:54:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I'm actually not a big fan of Habitat's international volunteering projects as that means a lot of resources are spent on travel that could better be used in the communities, but @anonymous at 8:54 raises some good points.

Monday, April 11, 2011 11:35:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thought I'd come back and speak a little bit to the issue of travel costs and the international trips. I've led a whole bunch of them, and I've also worked in a number of more traditional international development positions (some more relevant and effective than others). I will stay anonymous, as I know that my choice to remain involved in Habitat's international volunteer program is something that is easily criticized. I respectfully accept the criticism, but would rather it not be personalized.

I'm right there with all the critiques of aid that wastes resources, but I do, however, still believe that there is great value in Habitat's programs that comes from the very fact of people actually leaving North America and going somewhere they would otherwise never visit. North American culture promotes individualism; it promotes self indulgence; in promotes insularity. There are few of us who jump into year (or multiple year) development projects, PhD research or other commitment to learning about other parts of the world and working in partnership together to help improve so many of the great inequalities that exist in the world. Yes, people get interested in a Habitat trip because they'll get something out of it themselves. (Heck, I most certainly have gained a heck of a lot in my academic research and career. I have to admit that I got into it partly because I loved travel in a particular African nation.)

Those who think they're going to "help", end up coming back with a whole different attitude.

I have always seen Habitat for Humanity's Global Village program as allowing people with interest in development the opportunity to learn. The straight donation element of the trip is normally approximately half the cost, and the rest is spent on lodging and food (often supplied by local community members). Yes, I suppose that the money for the flights could be spent within the communities, but I think that there is great value in actually traveling somewhere. In the over 100 team members I have worked with, there is not a single one who has not been tremendously impacted by the trip. Many of them have gone on to promote Habitat or other worthy development organizations. They question quick fixes, because they learn, through their experiences, about the value of sustainability. They spread this message in their communities and raise awareness (as well as additional funds).

The impact is also wide reaching. People question their societies when they return and often tend to get involved in their own communities. They view consumerism critically and are much more able to notice the problem with situations like, say, Tom's Shoes. A critic once said to me that the type of people that go on Habitat trips are folks that might not knock on their neighbor's door. Perhaps yes, but after a GV trip, I bet you they just might.

Monday, April 11, 2011 7:53:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, and thanks for having a great blog that make me think. (same anon person as above)

Monday, April 11, 2011 8:01:00 PM


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