Using human rights for human development -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Using human rights for human development

By Mary Engelking

What is the human rights-based approach?

The core of a human rights-based approach is the existence of development-process ethical obligations in law. The ethical obligations of governments and individuals, as derived from agreed-upon human rights norms, are already codified in most countries’ national laws. Existing national and international laws name what rights exist, who is entitled to claim each right, what are the obligations of those who hold a right, and who is obligated to ensure each right.

Charity is not enough to ensure and sustain human development—practitioners in the development field are aware of the relatively short-lived interest of donors to their charitable causes. It is frustrating because the availability of resources driven by the interest of donors can enable or prevent development programs. Charitable donors do not feel obligated to apply their resources, nor to apply them in a particular manner. Charity can raise many resources, but does not match the ability of governments and market structures to supply funding.

“It’s not just a good idea. It’s the law.” In human rights-based development all people, regardless of their wealth and power, are due equal protection under the law and enjoyment of their rights. The mindset requires shifting from “charitable” provision for “worthy” causes to “obligatory” enabling of “rightful” conditions. “Things” are not “given” to the “underdeveloped” people, but rather “all people” have “equal access” to “legal rights.” Most people don’t need charity—they need the barriers removed that are preventing them from improving their own lives.

The sustainability of development work is more easily achieved because it is not necessary to rely on the moral authority of the cause, nor on sustained charity, but instead to rely on legal obligations. Legal obligations are longer lasting because they are more clearly defined than moral obligations. They outlive the people who set them in place, and the popularity of a particular cause. For most countries a rights-based approach is not about new laws and new obligations, but about use and enforcement of existing legal authority.

A classical human development approach focuses on identifying needs and programs that meet those needs. A human rights-based approach holds that denial of human rights are the root causes of need and are the social structural barriers to human development.

Habitat principles are human rights-based

Above all other organizational concepts, the “Theology of the Hammer” best encapsulates the universal nature of the right to housing and the need to act to eliminate the barriers to this fundamental right.

The idea of “Faith in Action” is echoed in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The difference of the human rights-based approach is that it uses international law formed around the concepts of legal rights as the basis of obligation.

Habitat for Humanity has always envisioned itself as providing a hand-up, not a hand-out. The organization has asserted during various periods that it is not a charity. The world’s poor do not need “charity,” but only a little assistance to solve their housing problems by their own means. The rights-based approach agrees that people do not need charity, but only an equal opportunity and the removal of barriers so that they can acquire the things they need by their own efforts.

Possible future steps for HFH

There is a strong concordance between human rights concepts and Habitat principles. Thousands of additional families a year can be helped out of poverty housing by adding policy action with legal authority to HFH’s theologically-based traditional activities.

Habitat for Humanity is a powerful Christian ministry, which has strongly attacked the barriers of finance and affordability of housing in its 30-year history. Much of its popularity evolves from the tangible and easily enumerable outputs—houses. Eradicating poverty housing will require additional work aimed at addressing issues of human rights, most likely in the areas of politics and justice.

Habitat has the potential to do what many other organizations are not able to accomplish—mainstreaming human rights into development practice by promoting a rights-enabling environment. The organization’s concepts of Theology of the Hammer and Faith in Action—concepts echoed repeatedly in human rights instruments—provide the opportunity to make critical strategic inroads that can multiply the numbers of families served through rights-enabling activities at the institutional and socio-political levels.

HFH’s steadfast focus on eliminating poverty housing has shown the public that it has no hidden political or profit motive in its work. With this reputation and continued action in traditional, visible programs, Habitat is well placed to effect housing change off the construction site. Rights-based activities on the socio-political level and links to such activities by traditional programs could leverage the organization’s work. Instead of helping tens of thousands of families each year, HFH could be helping hundreds of thousands.

Habitat could position itself as a global leader in housing policy or support for housing policy, as well as housing construction. Affiliates worldwide struggle with poorly conceived and/or poorly executed housing policy. Universal themes are encountered such as difficult land registration procedures, onerous procedures for construction permits and unnecessary administrative procedures. If Habitat took action in these areas, not only would affiliates and Habitat homeowners reap the benefits, but so would all people. Removing these barriers will increase the numbers of people who build legally and encourage compliance with housing standards. It will also lower costs of construction—one of the primary goals of affordability.

There is potential to help larger numbers of families by researching barriers to capital flow through commercial banking mechanisms in a country. Habitat could be, or partner with, a housing finance think tank; could invest in building governmental capacity to make good laws and policy; and could encourage governments to invest appropriate percentages of public funds in mechanisms such as tax incentives or well-placed subsidies.

Habitat should be thinking of all governments as large donors, but not necessarily in terms of cash. Appropriate governmental policies and laws are equivalent to capital infusion—housing policy and finance are very large and desirable pieces of governmental infrastructure. Habitat could use its extensive organizational experience and knowledge in the techniques of major gift fundraising to approach government donors. Techniques such as how to find the right person to make the right proposal, the value of investing in major gift donors and appropriate investment ratios are transferable to this situation and activity.

As a grassroots movement, Habitat traditionally has been reluctant to see itself as a power player. But the organization is powerful and wealthy by many standards and has many influential supporters. The organization should choose to use itself to be the voice of people living in substandard housing at public policy levels while staying true to its mission principles.

Mary Engelking is a consultant in non-profit management and organizational development. Mary holds degrees in Aerospace Engineering from Georgia Tech, and in Human Rights and Conflict Management from Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, Italy. She served for 12 years in the US Air Force, and has worked with Habitat for Humanity since 1992. She was originally a construction volunteer in her local Habitat affiliates and joined the HFHI International Partner program in January 1997. Mary served as an IP in Kyrgyzstan, Great Britain and Bulgaria before becoming the Program Director for ECA. In 2002 she left HFHI to start an independent consultant firm.

Her recent thesis, “The Human Right to Housing: Using Human Rights and Peace Practices for Innovation in a Christian NGO” can be found in the "Documents and Templates" section of “The Forum’s” website on PartnerNet. She can be contacted at: