Expanding our reach -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Expanding our reach

By Jonathan Reckford

As I’ve traveled over the past year, I’ve been inspired by Habitat for Humanity’s focus on serving more families by exploring, securing and cultivating partnerships with those who share our commitment to improving lives.

The relationships we form both globally and locally are critical as we increasingly see our efforts toward providing decent housing as a foundational, but not sufficient, tool to eradicate poverty. As we develop communities, we need to do so within a broad context that accounts for such needs as health care, education, sanitation and nutrition. Habitat will remain focused on what we know best — shelter — but, through partnerships, we will help create sustainable, holistic communities, as well.

Housing is very important because, for good or bad, it influences many other facets of family life.

This issue of “The Forum” is devoted to explaining and discussing the Millennium Development Goals, which the United Nations instituted six years ago, and how these goals relate to the work of Habitat for Humanity.

There is a close link between the MDGs and the mission of Habitat for Humanity. These goals are aimed ultimately at minimizing or eliminating the many deficits poverty creates — deficits of health and housing, of education and human rights, of income, employment and access to opportunity. Therefore, it is important that we see Habitat’s work — a collaborative model that engages so many diverse experiences and talents — as a means of complementing, or even fulfilling, the MDGs.

For example, Goal 7 of the MDGs is to ensure environmental sustainability. (Incidentally, perhaps the closest link between Habitat for Humanity and the U.N.’s goals lies within the subtext of Goal 7: “Achieve significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020.”)

In Vietnam, Habitat is partnering with an organization to help provide home-improvement loans. In the village of Hoa Thanh, six women have invested their loans in deep tube wells to create reliable access to clean water. A lack of such access has had negative health implications for their families, so an adequate water supply — coupled with an adequate house — will help sustain the families and their community.

In addition to the necessary loans, Habitat in Vietnam assisted by providing these women technical training that would help ensure the integrity of the wells.

Moreover, this particular project has been implemented and monitored by the Women’s Union of Kien Giang, an organization dedicated to promoting the rights and empowerment of women which, incidentally, is No. 3 on the U.N.’s list of goals.

There is no question that clean, decent housing delivers tremendous health benefits to families. Solid shelter, for example, allows children in Central and South America, to grow up without the threat of Chagas disease. The disease is transmitted by “kissing” bugs that live in the cracks and holes of substandard housing, killing some 50,000 people each year. Goal 4 of the MDGs is to reduce child mortality, so we can easily see how Habitat’s efforts are clearly contributing to the fulfillment of the U.N.’s stated goals.

Nowhere in the world is the health of parents and children more precarious than Africa, where HIV/AIDS threatens entire generations. Goal 6 is to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.

In Chimoio, between the ports of Mozambique and Zimbabwe, an estimated 20 percent of the population is HIV infected. A million children in this area have been orphaned.

Habitat has partnered with organizations in Chimoio to serve the housing needs of orphans and vulnerable children. As volunteers with other groups address issues such as nutrition, education and health, Habitat focuses on building decent housing and sanitary latrines and, among other things, on inheritance planning which helps protect the legal rights of the children.

AIDS has robbed these children of their parents, and abject poverty has imposed on them enormous hardships. As they work with Habitat, however, the children find new possibilities in better housing. They have a secure place to study in and, for the very young, an adequate shelter from which they can access primary education. Goal 2 of the MDGs is to achieve universal primary education. Habitat’s work in Chimoio illustrates the linkage between Habitat’s work and the MDGs.

The children not only end up in stronger shelter, but they learn new skills as they help build it, thus becoming more attractive to potential employers. They learn to maintain their homes and to re-create the stability that dissolved with the death of their parents.

In other instances worldwide, Habitat equips houses with mosquito nets which help thwart the risk of malaria, and filters that help ensure safe drinking water, minimizing the threat of water-borne illnesses.

Community development is complex and the needs of poor families equally daunting. But as Habitat for Humanity remains fixed on its mission, true to its core principles, and forward in its thinking, we will increase the pace at which we leave lasting, sustainable impact on families and communities — and we will continue to do so in collaboration with so many other individuals and groups striving together to improve lives holistically.

Our aim is to provide families access to decent housing solutions. The beauty is that by so doing, we help increase their access to other fundamentals as well. The U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals provide an ambitious, yet manageable, framework for dramatically changing the lives of millions of people.

As we expand our reach to more and more families, we also extend the capacity with which we can help fulfill those goals — and change the lives of families surviving in deplorable housing conditions.

Jonathan Reckford is CEO of Habitat for Humanity International.