Habitat Resource Centers -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1
Habitat Resource Centers
By Peter Witton
Flooding in eastern Sri Lanka in January 2011 affected more than 1 million people and displaced more than 367,000. Habitat for Humanity Sri Lanka worked through its Habitat Resource Center to distribute cleaning kits and emergency shelter kits to flood victims in the Batticaloa district. ©Habitat for Humanity/Mikel Flamm.
A few years ago, a debate arose within Habitat for Humanity about how to organize and talk about all the “other stuff” Habitat for Humanity was doing apart from building homes.
In the Asia/Pacific region especially, the traditional Habitat approach, with its focus on local affiliates raising funds and building in their communities, was being supplemented by newer and more complex responses.
National offices overseeing many affiliates were being asked to build the technical skills of local affiliate teams. Sometimes the national offices had the expertise to do that.
But it was clear some affiliates lacked the valuable knowledge to share, whether organizing a construction site or fitting a certain type of roofing or running an event project. What was the best way for Habitat to organize and package this reservoir of practical wisdom, these “soft” skills?
“The traditional affiliate model served Habitat well — and continues to be an important way for helping families. But to create real scale and sustainability and thereby have greater impact on the misery of poverty housing, there needed to be a better way of doing things,” according to Peter Gape, director of programs at Habitat for Humanity’s Asia/Pacific area office.
The answer was what are now called Habitat Resource Centers, or HRCs.
“An HRC broadens the reach of Habitat for Humanity’s mission and home-building programs,” Gape said. “When people think of HRCs, many think of a physical structure. A resource center is a concept: a source of technical and knowledge resources for providing housing solutions.”
The focus of an HRC depends on what is required. But it may offer expertise in project and construction management; in construction skills training for local people; in appropriate technology, including the production of low-cost, high-quality building materials; and more.
HRCs are a channel for implementing Habitat’s responses after disasters. They are also becoming a vital component in Habitat’s growing housing finance initiatives, providing housing support services to accompany the financing.
HRCs take a flexible approach to providing building resources and skills to communities.
Engineers and specialists offer design and architecture services for Habitat home-building projects. They can also supervise construction and provide expertise in logistics, procurement and transportation.
Some resource centers produce materials for Habitat homes; materials produced in excess may be sold to a wider market to generate jobs and income for homeowners. For example, the HRC in tsunami-affected Meulaboh, Indonesia, was a source of bricks for the local house construction market. The Philippines HRCs are noted for the use of cost-effective concrete interlocking block technology and lightweight steel frame technology.
HRCs also train local construction workers in traditional and alternative approaches to masonry, woodwork, painting and other building practices, and they transfer knowledge to local supervisors, enabling them to plan and run complete housing projects.
In one Habitat program in the Pacific, an HRC ran month long carpentry and joinery workshops for a year, along with courses on masonry techniques and concrete interlocking block construction. The training program paid particular attention to the needs of women and vulnerable groups.
HRCs work with partners and provide project management knowledge and technical resources. This was the model used for reconstruction in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand after the countries were devastated by the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
The HRC in Chennai, south India, was the focus for years of building for tsunami-affected families. This role has morphed, and the resource center now leads extensive disaster-mitigation and preparation training programs to teach families how to protect their lives and property in the face of a future calamity.
India is also a locus for HRCs with housing finance expertise. Habitat experts offer assistance to microfinance institutions and nongovernmental organizations as they design shelter-related financial loan products for low-income families.
Sometimes these partners also want Habitat to train their staff on construction-related aspects so they can assist — and monitor — as their clients spend their loans on improving their shelter conditions. Sometimes these partners delegate and prefer to have the HRCs furnish families with the necessary construction skills and assistance to improve their homes themselves.
HRCs have been established in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand, among other locations. The concept has proved to be such an efficient use of human and material resources that the national programs switched from a network of affiliates to a fewer number of HRCs. This has happened, for example, in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
In Sri Lanka, the volunteers who used to run affiliates are encouraged to stay involved in what are called satellite centers, identifying local housing needs and mobilizing resources and supporters. The volunteers no longer have to worry about the business of financial accounts or loan management or construction management: These are handled by the HRC. In Bangladesh, the switch led to higher staff morale, and an increased tempo of house building as a women’s group savings initiative took off.
HRCs will be center stage as Habitat develops its new “nonbuilding” classifications for its programs, the housing support services initiative. This portfolio of services will incorporate many of those offered by HRCs. But the new initiative could see housing services actually delivered by partners and third parties. HRCs will be just one channel in the effort to provide people with the skills and resources they need to create safe, affordable homes and communities.
Peter Witton is the communications director for the Asia/Pacific area office in Bangkok, Thailand.