The Millennium Development Goals and Asia/Pacific -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

The Millennium Development Goals and Asia/Pacific

By Steven Weir

Housing is not only a basic right guaranteed under the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is the foundation upon which human development is built, allowing families to break the generational cycle of poverty. Can housing contribute to poverty reduction as measured by the U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)? The research is compelling and the task grows more urgent as the world urbanizes.

About a third of the world’s urban residents, about 1 billion people, live in slums.[1]. Projecting ahead to 2050 with a world 50 percent denser, at 9.1 billion[2] people, makes today’s statistics even more staggering. Statistics from “Growing Up In Asia,”[3] a report by Plan International—a humanitarian organization working with children—show that:

  • Over the next 10 years 600 million children in Asia (almost 50 percent), will be deprived of some of their basic needs: food, water, sanitation, health services, shelter, education services and information.
  • Malnutrition is associated with more than 50 percent of the deaths of children under 5.
  • In India, half of all children under 5 are malnourished and 80 percent of the country’s 400 million children are severely deprived.

Is there a correlation between poverty and inadequate housing? Here again the statistics speak for themselves. In Karachi, a city with an estimated housing need of around 80,000 new units annually, more than half of the housing stock is in illegally developed informal settlements with reduced access to proper water, sanitation, housing and secure tenure, complicating poverty reduction interventions.

The U.N. Fact Sheet on the Right of Adequate Housing expresses the connection between housing and poverty reduction and the scale of the need in this way:
“… the significance of a secure place to live for human dignity, physical and mental health and overall quality of life, begins to reveal some of the human rights implications of housing. Adequate housing is universally viewed as one of the most basic human needs.

Yet as important as adequate housing is … 1 billion people live in inadequate housing, with in excess of 100 million people living in conditions classified as homelessness.

Access to drinking water and adequate sanitation facilities are additional needs directly associated with housing. According to figures released by the World Health Organization, 1.2 billion people in developing countries do not have access to drinking water and 1.8 billion people live without access to adequate sanitation.”[4]

Evidence that improved shelter, particularly using participatory methodology, serves as a catalyst for broad improvements in the quality of life as well as the development of civil society, can be found in an interim report for a USAID-funded Habitat for Humanity project, Measuring Transformation through Housing. The report’s findings include the following statistics:

Economic: new economic activity:
55 percent, increase in family income: 76 percent, increase in clothing expenditure: 55 percent, increase in furniture expenses: 52 percent
Civil society:
improved participation by marginalized groups: 39 percent
Peace and reconciliation:
improved unity and positive relationship with different ethnic groups: 71 percent
improved school attendance by female children 32 percent and males 17 percent
improved self-confidence: 87 percent
fewer days of work missed: 46 percent

The following are specific examples of methodology used by Habitat with a direct bearing on the MDGs:

Housing microfinance:
(MDG 1: extreme poverty and MDG 8: livelihood development)

Housing is the single largest investment most families will make, and home equity serves as their most significant asset for credit. Often families rent out a portion of their improved dwelling as a source of income for loan repayments.

Through housing microfinance, even families earning US$1 to $2 per day can build equity through incremental daily savings plans. Through equity and lending strategies, Habitat encourages microfinance institutions to extend their lending from traditional livelihood loans to housing loans.

One of the first partnerships for Habitat was with the Center for Community Transformation (CCT), a microfinance institution in the Philippines that mobilized savings and serviced the loan repayments while Habitat provided technical housing assistance. (See IAU Vol. 12:4 for more details.) One savings-based program that has been introduced in many countries is the Save & Build program, where 10–15 families form savings groups specifically for housing improvements.

Habitat Resource Centers:
Small business development and vocational and skills training (MDG 1: extreme poverty, MDG 3: gender equity, MDG 7: environmental sustainability and MDG 8: livelihood development)

Through Habitat Resource Centers, people are equipped with skills in construction management, carpentry, masonry or construction material production. In the Philippines, Habitat partners with the government and a cement company to provide certified skills training. HFH Vanuatu also partnered with the government rural training center network for similar training, and in Australia, university vocational training students build homes through the Technical and Further Education program.

The use of indigenous materials such as bamboo in Nepal, palm stalk in Timor Leste and coral in Vanuatu helps to keep construction costs down. Concrete-interlocking brick technology helps the communities obtain low-cost construction materials and earn income through cooperative purchase of supplies and sales of materials.

While statistics on the general impact of housing-related small businesses is limited in developing countries, in the United States, housing directly contributes to 14 percent of GDP and triggers another 6 percent on down-stream expenditures. Housing in developing countries is typically produced with domestically produced goods and lower skilled informal sector labor, also suggesting significant broad economic impact.

Disaster response
(MDGs 1, 7, 8)
In a paper presented at the World Urban Forum in Vancouver, Habitat and the Asia Center for Disaster Response presented research that correlated community-based disaster response and on-site reconstruction with long-term Human Development Indicator improvements in income, crime reduction, ongoing shelter improvement, employment, tenure status and reduced school drop-out rates. Additionally disaster response enables informal communities to rebuild at a higher standard.

Gender issues
(MDG 3)
Home-based businesses are more easily developed in a decent home and often allow families to climb the first rung on the economic ladder. The disposable income managed by the women not only increases their economic freedom, resulting in increased decision making and reduction in domestic abuse, but enables improvements for their children through the purchase of school books and uniforms as well as health care.

For example in Sri Lanka, Habitat partnered with Sister Marie Gonsague, a pioneer board member of its Anuradhapura affiliate, to give small-scale loans to help women pack chili powder or make wicks. Women in Fiji and Vanuatu received training in carpentry and brick-making, respectively, giving them viable livelihood skills.

Water, sanitation and health
(MDG 4: child mortality, MDG 5: maternal health, MDG 6: HIV/AIDS, MDG 7: environmental sustainability—water and sanitation)
Urban and rural poor experience high rates of child mortality and short life expectancies. An Emory University study in Malawi[5] determined that there was a 44 percent reduction in malaria, and gastrointestinal and respiratory diseases with decent housing and water and sanitation services. Indoor air pollution from cooking smoke in poorly ventilated homes especially impacts women and children. Children from households without piped water and sanitation are three to five times more likely to die of diarrhea.

Former slum dwellers in General Santos City, Philippines, partnered with Habitat to purchase a site for housing under a government community land trust program. The community is now running its own community based water and electricity management system. A similar system in Indonesia provides income for underemployed youth.

UN-HABITAT’s analysis, reflected in the State of the World’s Cities, claims that

“the incidence of disease and mortality is much higher in slums than in non-slum urban areas” and “Inequality in access to services, housing, land, education, health care and employment opportunities has socio-economic, environmental and political repercussions including raising violence, urban unrest, environmental degradation and underemployment which threatens to diminish any gains in income and poverty reduction.”

Housing is an important strategy for economic, social and civil society development. In developing countries, housing construction is a common entry level economic opportunity for rural-urban migrants. Enabling policies that provide secure tenure opportunities unleashes incremental housing improvements that create both industry and an improved tax base. Social support networks are built around communities, and improved shelter, water and sanitation have demonstrable health and education benefits that in turn enhance and enable civil society development through participation, empowerment and the development of local organizations.

As the focus on meeting the Millennium Development Goals shifts increasingly to the world’s slums, the poor must be engaged in a strategy that narrows the divide between the rich and the poor — and improved shelter is an integral part of the solution.

Steven Weir is vice president of Habitat’s programs in Asia and the Pacific.


[1] United Nations Population Fund, Urbanization: A Majority in Cities, 15 December 2005.
[2] United Nations. Department of Economic and Social Affairs/Population Division. 2005. World Population Prospects: The 2004 Revision, Highlights. p. 1.
[3] Plan International, Growing Up in Asia: Plan’s Strategic Framework for Fighting Child Poverty in Asia 2005–2015, August 2005.
[4]United Nations, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Fact Sheet No. 21
[5] . Christopher G. Wolff, Dirk G. Schroeder, Mark W. Young, Effect of improved housing on illness in children under 5 years old in northern Malawi: cross sectional study, BMJ 322; 19 May 2001.