The Publication of Habitat for Humanity International | June 2005
Rural Poverty Housing
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Rural Poverty Housing

By Shawn Reeves

We have come over dirt roads, passing women and children walking barefoot with water jugs, wood for fuel and other bundles. The midmorning temperature is sweltering. In this subsistence maize-growing region of a poor, landlocked country in southern Africa, families cling to life on an unforgiving terrain.

--Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia University professor and special adviser to United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, writing in his book The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time

In his book, The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs writes of a woman in rural Malawi who carried her ill granddaughter on her back six miles to the nearest hospital, only to be told once they arrived that there was no medicine available. They were told to go home and return the next day.

Isolation undergirds life for poor rural families around the world--and can be at once a blessing and a curse.

Unlike their urban counterparts who face overcrowding in city slums full of noise, pollution and squalor, poor families in rural settings are more spread out. While still poor, theirs is more of a pastoral lifestyle, perhaps void of some of the stresses that can accompany life in a teeming city center.

Rural families also tend to have a greater natural resource base than those living in urban centers, as well as a stronger social support network, according to Timothy Smeeding, Maxwell Professor of Public Policy at Syracuse University.

Poor families in rural areas, however, also are farther removed from public services, Smeeding says, and to get to school or to collect water for cooking--or to take a sick family member to the hospital--often requires a half-day walk.

The rural poor generally lack land or adequate water and often suffer from political conflict as well. According to UNICEF, 92 percent of urban households have access to water and sanitation facilities, while only 70 percent of rural households enjoy the same access.

Household size, health and educational status also can be indicators of poverty. Typical groups of poor families can include small-hold farmers, nomads and pastoralists, fishermen, wage laborers, the displaced, women-headed households and unemployed youth.

Does living in a rural setting preclude people's making ends meet or even thriving? "No," Smeeding says, "but in rural areas, families find themselves isolated for a variety of reasons, and they experience the consequences of that."

Seventy-five percent of the world's poor live in rural areas--or approximately 1.2 billion people. As agriculture, the leading livelihood in rural communities, further declines, however, more and more families will migrate to urban centers seeking work and a better life. The trend is called the "urbanization of poverty," but it will take another quarter-century before the majority of poor people make their homes in cities.

While Habitat for Humanity in Egypt operates in one of the world's most congested cities, Cairo, it builds primarily in rural communities throughout the country. And with an estimated 20 million of Egypt's 73 million people living in poverty, the task is daunting.

Ibrahim Hanna Ibrahim from the rural Egyptian village of Al-Kom Al-Akdar lived with his wife in a single room measuring 74 square feet. They shared it with a cow they could not afford to own, but which they had to protect because it represented their subsistence. "We were sleeping near the legs of the cow," the 52-year-old Ibrahim says, "because I was very afraid that somebody would steal it from me. The cow's smell affected me and my wife very much."

To compound the stress of sharing a single-room home with livestock, Ibrahim's house had no latrine, no electricity or suitable water and falling-down, mud-brick walls that only feebly encased the property. Ibrahim is certainly not alone in the region, as UNICEF estimates that rural families in the Middle East are four times more likely to be shelter-deprived than their counterparts elsewhere.

All over the world, this scene duplicates itself in some fashion, creating severe hardships for people of all ages, especially the elderly, women and children. Despite efforts from so many organizations around the world to mitigate these types of conditions, progress in reducing rural poverty has stalled, according to a report from Tufts University. In the 1990s that progress fell to less than one-third the rate needed to meet the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals, a commitment to halve world poverty by 2015.



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