In taking our seat at the table: Using the Millennium Development Goals to clean our muddy boots -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

In taking our seat at the table: Using the Millennium Development Goals to clean our muddy boots

By Steve Little

A group of grungy volunteers in muddy work boots cheers as a single mother wipes her tears and cuts the ceremonial ribbon across the doorway of her new home. Thousands of miles away, a group of concerned economists and politicians sit in an air-conditioned boardroom and debate the importance of public policy in the complex problem of poverty.

Sometimes it feels like we’re on opposite teams.

Habitat for Humanity’s phenomenal success comes in large part because we provide a way that anybody can help eliminate poverty. You don’t need a degree in economics; you don’t need to understand municipal regulations; you don’t need to know about government subsidies, or worry about land tenure issues.

It’s a simple, understandable message anywhere in the world: If you have a heart to serve and a spare Saturday afternoon, grab your tool belt and let’s make a difference. Because of that message, hundreds of thousands of families will sleep in a safe home tonight. Because of that message, hundreds of thousands of volunteers have a comprehensive understanding of poverty.

And, largely because of that message, our ministry has become one of the most well trusted charitable brands in the world. To quote a popular bumper sticker: “Habitat for Humanity: It Works.”

But ours is not the only approach to community development.

It’s easy to look at ourselves and believe that we’re different — that our muddy boots make us somehow superior to the folks in the boardrooms. After all, we’re the ones who know the families in need by their first names. We’ve heard their stories firsthand, played with the children, and eaten at the same table with their families and their friends. Our sweat and stray fingerprints will forever be in the mortar joints of their houses.

Those calluses on our hands prove that we know housing, but if we’re serious about our goals, it’s time we stomped some of the mud off of our boots and pulled up our seat at the boardroom table.

Why? Because we can’t eliminate poverty housing alone. Because there are some 2 billion people waiting for a better house.

Habitat for Humanity has a lot to share, and we also have a lot to learn. If we truly want to impact poverty housing, we need to be in tune with policy-level decisions that impact affordable housing, and we need to find ways to tie housing to the broader battle of eliminating poverty. Not only is this important to our coordination with other organizations and their initiatives, it also is an important part of capturing the enormous amount of resources, both public and private, available to community development organizations.

So how do we transform our hands-on know-how into a seat at the table? The Millennium Development Goals offer an exceptional way to link our vast experience and knowledge with the rest of the development world.

Here are a few ideas that might help us find our seat:

Measure the difference, as well as the building

Millennium Development Goal 7, Target 11, reads: Achieve significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers, by 2020. Additional U.N. documents list the five key dimensions of slum improvements: access to water, access to sanitation, secure tenure, durability of housing and sufficient living area.

In nearly every local HFH organization in the world, these five elements are considered when planning a house.

And yet after the ribbon’s been cut, instead of trumpeting the change in the family’s situation, we glibly announce, “We’ve built another house!” We need to rephrase our achievements in a way the rest of the development world understands. Have we provided a family the five key dimensions listed above? Did that family lack one of those dimensions prior to moving into their new home?

Step 1 is to learn how to present our successes in a way that makes sense to other development organizations.

Focus on the product, as opposed to the process

Some local and national HFH organizations are experimenting with new ways to put families in houses. In the Dominican Republic, for example, the national HFH organization is working with the government to acquire land titles for 200 families over the next three years and greatly reduce the cost (and simplify the system) of the land-titling process for all the families.

Once a family owns the land they live on — after the threat of being evicted from the premises has been removed — research shows that families are much more willing to invest in their own house. Maybe they’ll even apply for a “traditional” Habitat house? But regardless, by helping families gain secure tenure through a simplified and more economic land-titling system, we will help many future generations acquire a simple, decent place to live.

Another example is HFH Haiti, which is working with families who don’t have the economic ability to build a new home even with our help. Through a relationship with FONKOZE,[i] HFH Haiti is financing floors, roofs and latrines.

These small, incremental steps toward better housing — a land title or a cement floor in a humble, Haitian shack — will never make the headlines. But bit by bit they gradually put families into simple, decent homes. And most importantly, these programs meet the family’s needs on their terms, as opposed to asking them to buy into a “one size fits all” approach.

And they easily tie Habitat’s work to the metrics offered by Goal 7, Target 11.

Consider (and measure) the results of the house

When telling the public about the importance of decent housing, we frequently refer to health as one of the principal improvements that a family can expect. Even so, we have little, if any, proof of that improvement. We need to move beyond our anecdotes and hunches, and begin researching and gathering hard numbers.

Millennium Development Goal 6, Target 8, reads: Halt and begin to reverse the incidence of malaria and other major diseases.

In some parts of Africa, which are plagued by deaths from curable and preventable diseases like malaria, the simple act of including window screens in house designs can greatly reduce the risks of mosquito-borne diseases.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, we’ve worked with students from the University of Florida, sponsored by Coca-Cola, to conduct several studies showing the impact of decent housing on HFH families. One of those studies (“More Than Houses: The Impact of Housing on the Lives of Partner Families in Costa Rica”) shows that 83 percent of families who reportedly were frequently ill in their former residence find that they are sick less often in their Habitat home.

Is that enough proof to definitively demonstrate that our hunch about housing and health is correct? No, of course not, but it might be enough to catch the eye of an institution offering grants tied to health-related MDGs.

Be deliberate in working with your volunteers

Habitat has long been a mecca for volunteers searching for some sort of meaning or new understanding to the world around them. It’s brought a win-win-win situation to all those involved: volunteers, families in need, and to Habitat’s ministry.

Our primary audience is, and always will be, the families in need of decent housing. But we need to recognize that our volunteers are our most important allies. Too often our approach toward them is simply, “What can they do for us?” The volunteer’s change in perception toward poverty housing (and their development as a housing advocate) is frequently left to chance.

Millennium Development Goal 8, Target 16, reads: In coordination with developing countries, develop decent and productive work for youth.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, we’re experimenting with new types of volunteer projects and including deliberate attempts at education and personal development into the program.

A recent pilot project with volunteers from a local orphanage produced some surprisingly good work from the students and, at the same time, allowed the kids to hone their professional skills. It also developed several dedicated housing advocates who seem very capable of spreading Habitat’s dual messages of decent housing and personal involvement into their own communities.


As Habitat for Humanity enters its fourth decade, we bring a lot of hard-won knowledge with us. But even so, in spite of a lot of gnashing of teeth over the changes in our ministry, we really haven’t changed all that much. We still build houses for people who need them. We still work with volunteers. We still pray at meetings, cry at house dedications, and carefully examine any change to our organization with a lot of suspicion and angst.

And, yes, a lot of us still wear muddy boots. Please clean them on the welcome mat on your way into the boardroom.

Steve Little is communications director for Habitat for Humanity’s programs in Latin America and the Caribbean.


[i] An organization that offers very small loans to some of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest residents.