Building strategic partnerships for advocacy in LA/C -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Building strategic partnerships for advocacy in LA/C

By Maria Luisa Zanelli

This article focuses briefly on strategic alliances and advocacy in the Latin America/Caribbean region. Following are examples of five HFH LA/C national organizations that have aligned with organizations that are effectively making a difference in housing policy in their communities. Through dialogue with various organizations, building a consensus toward a social agreement with institutional and political commitments, raising a common agenda to tackle relevant issues (concerning national, community or vulnerable populations), and formulating common actions, they have been able to influence opinion and exert pressure in institutional political arenas.

Beyond changes in constitutions, new inclusive policies, public budgets, and so on, these alliances are enabling public spaces for dialogue which allows for the social construction of knowledge and emerging new conceptions of the role of city and governance to respond to social demands and make interventions. These alliances also allow for the creation of a collective force (civil society/network) that, positioned in a political scenario, claims the rights and political ethics to legitimately dialogue with the state and the political power as well as advocate for common issues and interests.

Advocating for housing as a human right in the new political constitution of Bolivia

Alejandra Domínguez, advocacy coordinator, HFH Bolivia:

In 1995, several civil society organizations (NGOs, CBOs, research institutes) and individuals formed an alliance called National Network of Human Settlements (RENASEH) with a common mandate to contribute to the consolidation of participatory democracy by developing inclusive public programs and policies. In 1999, HFH Bolivia became an ally in RENASEH to advocate that social housing become a key priority in the Bolivian government’s national agenda.

The cohesion within the alliance was possible due to the political ecumenism that guarantees the consensus for action. The constitutional reform process in 2006 opened an opportunity to advocate for housing as a human right. This process included analysis and proposals for constitutional reforms, marches and political negotiations with assemblies. The primary outcomes of this strategic alliance have been social awareness on causes of poverty, 7,500 signatures endorsing the proposal to the Constitutional Assembly, and the recognition of housing as a human right in the new Bolivian Political Constitution (2007) which must now be approved by voters in a national referendum.

Advocating for the “right to the city”[1] to overcome social exclusion and urban segregation in
Ademar Marques, national director, HFH Brazil: Demóstenes Moraes, program coordinator, HFH Brazil:

In the 1990s, various NGOs, grassroots movements and trade unions formed the National Movement for Urban Reform (MNRU) to produce an amendment to the new Constitution (1988) called the Urban Reform Grassroots Amendment which was endorsed by 150,000 signatures from all over the country. The fundamental principles of this reform were the “right to the city,” the promotion of the “social function” of the city, urban land reform, as well as democratic and participative management of the city. The MNRU became the National Forum for Urban Reform (FNRU) and, eventually, HFH Brazil joined the forum.

The FNRU understands that capacity building, advocacy work and networking among grassroots organizations and NGOs are key strategies to strengthen and empower the target population so that they can influence decision-makers and public policies. FNRU’s work strongly aims at altering the power relations existing in Brazilian cities. As a result of the many struggles led by the FNRU, legal and regulatory mechanisms are quite advanced — housing is treated as a social right; a city statute was approved; social control mechanisms have been created; the Ministry of Cities has been set up and there is a National Popular Housing Fund for poor families. Leaders from urban community-based organizations and NGOs have access to discuss urban policy and can directly influence the priority setting for policymaking through the FNRU.

Advocating for housing subsidies in Ecuador and changes in the political constitution

Oscar Veintimilla, national director, HFH Ecuador:

In 2005 HFH Ecuador and five other organizations initiated conversations to advocate for the reinstatement of the national housing subsidy program in response to its elimination from the national Ecuadorian public budget. An alliance was formed called the Social Contract for Housing (CSV). Currently the CSV has 20 allies, including grassroots organizations and movements, NGOs, universities and their research centers, private promoters of social housing, U.N. Habitat Ecuador, and professionals. Together, they have established these common goals: i) to advocate for housing as a human right; ii) to influence the Constitutional Assembly to add more specific enablers in housing to alter the profile of Ecuadorian cities; and iii) to promote an inclusive housing policy as one of the priorities in the political national agenda.

More than 80 activities have been developed by the CSV including public forums; workshops with academic, political and social actors; lobbying Congress and public authorities; street marches to pressure the ministries; and activities with the press. The main achievements of the CSV have been: i) to reinstate, increase and expand the housing subsidy as well as the creation of a land tenure subsidy; ii) to define a consensual proposal on housing as a human right presented to the Constitutional Assembly; and iii) to build a platform for social participation, dialogue and consensus among civil society and the public sector for an inclusive, equitable and sustainable housing policy.

Advocating for housing policies for the indigenous population in Chile

Luis Santivanez, national director, HFH Chile:

For four years, HFH Chile has been working with Mapuche[2] communities. In 2004, a strategic alliance was formed between HFH Chile and the Anglican Church to build houses within these communities. The Pehuenches Mapuches from the Alto del Bio–Bio region and, later, the Newen Ruka Committee — mostly Huilliches Mapuches in the Valparaiso region — joined the alliance. Working through this alliance, HFH has been an advocate for housing rights and an inclusive perspective. The first output of the alliance was the construction of houses including cultural values. A second output was an agreement signed between HFH Chile and the Major of the Mapuche Community of the Saavedra Port in the Araucania Region. This agreement is the beginning of an advocacy campaign led by the Mapuche people and community authorities, and supported by HFH Chile. While the campaign will raise awareness of the Mapuches’ housing problem, the goal is to deliver practical actions including: i) the design and construction of housing incorporating the ancestral wisdom of the Mapuche Ruka (housing); ii) involving the Rukafes Mapuche builders in the construction of community centers and houses; and iii) formulating and proposing a housing policy that includes indigenous people and their cultural values.

Advocacy, a question of institutional ethic

Alberto Benitez, national director, HFH Honduras:

In response to the failure of the state and the commercial housing construction sector to respond to the needs of the poor population in Honduras, a conceptual and strategic change of current public housing programs has been pursued. This brought the initiation of the Network for Cooperative Housing (REDVISOL) by a diversity of social housing development organizations. HFH Honduras joined the network in 2005. REDVISOL works closely with the Honduras Council for Cooperative Housing (COHVISOL), which was formed by Honduras’ urban dwellers organizations that lacked access to adequate housing. COHVISOL led the advocacy actions for the creation of the Citizens’ Housing and Cooperative Credit Public Program in Honduras (PROVICCSOL). This program allows NGOs and cooperatives to channel public financial resources into the participative construction of social housing benefiting families with an income of less than three minimum salaries that are organized in cooperatives or some level of association.

The main achievement of REDVISOL has been to influence the definition of a new housing policy that involves the population in the solution of the problem. The organizations allied in REDVISOL share experiences and take advantage of each one’s strengths to participate in an advocacy process to influence public policies. The alliance is consolidating and formulating 20 housing projects to build 3,000 housing solutions. In addition, bylaws are being written and the procedures to legally recognize REDVISOL have been undertaken. REDVISOL is formulating a project oriented to guarantee the sustainable functioning of the network as a services body (entrepreneurial vision) for the construction of social housing.


In these five examples, the housing problem was made visible through the consolidated efforts of the various groups. In the last decade, the LA/C region has seen the highest urbanization rate (80 percent of the population now live in cities), the highest level of decentralization, and the highest levels of social and economic inequality in the world. Cities have grown up in a disorderly, unplanned fashion, with enormous urban contrasts, social exclusion and urban poverty. The living conditions of the excluded population become more uncertain and precarious every day. The poor live in under-served, insalubrious areas, which are often environmentally at risk. Such settlements lack basic services and urban infrastructure (housing, sewage, sanitation, solid waste collection, transportation etc.). The price of urban land in relation to families’ incomes is the highest in the world (World Bank 2007). The failure of traditional public policies and the market exclude the most vulnerable — 38 percent of families headed by women see their rights limited due to regulatory frameworks and discriminatory practices (Best Practices, U.N. 2003).

The success of some of these strategic alliances was fueled by key developments which created the appropriate scenario for change including: i) political processes at the national level such as the fall of the military dictatorship and the beginning of the democratic period in Brazil (1990s), and new governments in Ecuador (2006) and Bolivia (2006); ii) periods of constitutional reforms in Brazil (1985/1988), Bolivia (2007) and Ecuador (2007); and iii) key international events such as the Environment Conference in Rio de Janeiro (1992), preparatory meetings for the U.N. Habitat Istanbul Conference in Bolivia (1995), and the Social Forum of the Americas in Ecuador (2004).

Matching interests among the different allies builds the base for the alliances, where the potential for consensus and action to place issues in the public agenda lies. Existing differences among allies enable dialogue, concept renewal, clarity in political position, interventions and messages, strengthening the collective actors and their commitments. The strategic alliances presented have contributed to qualifying and enriching political processes and facilitating sustainable results including the democratization of public sector decisions in relation to housing, the increased capacity for social participation, the development of communities as protagonists of change, the creation of channels for dialogue not only inside the alliance but also with external actors, the ability to raise awareness and develop responsibility and commitment of civil society in relation to social problems, an increase of the influence of excluded groups such as women and indigenous populations in debates and decision making, a strengthening of the accountability of state institutions to civil society groups, and, finally, open spaces for others to become involved.

The legitimacy of the alliances as a collective and influential actor has been based on these key components: the advocacy action targeted a specific issue such as subsidies, new constitutions, social inclusion; the alliance as a whole achieved social and political recognition which enhanced dialogue with the government and the public sector; and a diversity of tactics was employed including social mobilization, street marches, formulation of proposals, lobbying and communication.

It is also important to recognize the role of NGOs and universities in facilitating alliances by supplying the technical expertise to formulate norms and public policies as well as the generation of knowledge, methods and tools to feed the alliance and possible solutions to housing problems.

It is a challenge for alliances such as these to build a regular and systematic functioning. It is particularly difficult since an advocacy process with governmental agencies may require diverse strategies among allies.

Maria Luisa Zanelli is advocacy outreach coordinator with HFH LA/C. She may be contacted at


[1] Increasingly, academics and NGOs are considering fault for inadequate housing in LA/C countries to lie with a system of laws, regulations and enforcement institutions that effectively exclude the poor from middle- and upper-class society. Based on this premise, international housing originations have begun to promote policies embracing “inclusion” of the poor into mainstream urban life, also called a “right to the city” by the poor. This trend supports citywide government intervention, rather than a focus on specific projects with the city. The movement to address housing problems in a way that establishes broader social, economic and political inclusion is strong and appears to be growing.

[2] Mapuche (from Mapudungun mapu “land, earth” and che “people”) are the indigenous inhabitants of Central and Southern Chile.