Sustainability: A holistic approach -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Sustainability: A holistic approach

By Steve Weir

For the poor, sustainability doesn’t come in categories. Eviction from a flood-prone riverbank pushes a family into a relocation settlement where the transportation costs to and from employment opportunities are as unsustainable as the loans required to once again rebuild a temporary shelter.

Increasingly, Habitat for Humanity’s sustainable development philosophy is reflecting a more holistic approach to our programs. To understand and appreciate the breadth of this approach across our ministry, this issue of The Forum provides examples of Habitat for Humanity programs that incorporate environmental sustainability, family and community sustainability, and financial sustainability.

Incorporating all of these elements, we are also changing our view of organizational sustainability to better align with the industry view that balances measurements of financial and operational sustainability with a programmatic value-chain perspective, increasingly measured by social performance indicators.

As these sustainability strategies emerge and adapt from program to program, so too do the definitions used within the Habitat family. Regardless of the terminology or definition, however, a holistic approach would inevitably include three critical program areas if we are viewing sustainability through a shelter lens.

Environmentally sustainable building

Habitat for Humanity supports efforts by the global community to create common carbon measurements for environmentally sustainable building, with a particular focus on promoting healthy, durable, affordable housing. We are working with the board of directors to develop global environmental and sustainable building principles that better articulate Habitat’s shared concern for a pro-poor, inclusive agenda.

These guidelines will measure sustainable building through energy efficiency, sustainable building practices, affordability in both initial and lifecycle costs, and designs that are adapted for the effects of climate change and environmental degradation.
You will find in this issue an article on a pilot project in Romania integrating both environmental and financial sustainability.

Family and community sustainability

Affordable building design solutions are key criteria for families who can least afford the monthly costs of sophisticated technology, escalating energy costs and environmental conditions that compromise the health of their children. But family and community sustainability is more complex than appropriate building technology.

Habitat has begun to test impact measurements aligned with the Sustainable Livelihood Framework, which suggests that sustainability can be measured by the increase in family and community assets that in turn reduce their vulnerability to sudden economic shocks from the outside. This approach encourages viewing housing as a productive asset, not just a shelter product. Proximity to employment and social networks are critical to successful housing strategies.

In this issue, you will read articles describing sustainable housing solutions for families through an incremental approach in the Latin America/Caribbean area, findings on community and family sustainability for families affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and the impact of the housing crisis on the sustainability of communities in the United States.

Organizational and financial sustainability

Habitat has recently developed an organizational sustainability process that starts with microfinance tools to measure the subsidy required to run each “business” or ministry unit: housing finance, construction, training, volunteer and community mobilization or advocacy. Integrated with a value chain analysis, this process then examines holistically the programmatic sustainability and subsidy strategy. The resulting workshop promotes smart subsidy allocations that leverage program impact by filling gaps in the value chain. We do not need to replicate what is already being done well by others.

It moves us from producing a product to promoting a demand-driven process that results in housing improvements selected by the family. It does not serve the poor to have highly efficient programs headed in the wrong direction. We need not be the builder or lender of record when all that is missing is a formal land title, construction technical assistance, support in accessing government housing subsidies, or guaranteed funds to financial institutions for families without formal salaries.

Approaches like this are taking hold throughout Habitat. Examples from Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Peru and Philippines are in this issue.

The changes in our approach to sustainable development are raising questions within Habitat. With whom should we partner, and how, when we are only part of the housing process? How does this change our Habitat brand? Are there any programs that make us uniquely “Habitat” that should not be compromised? How do we articulate a global environmental sustainability message in a political environment that disagrees on climate change?

It is my hope that this issue of The Forum can continue the global discussion on these important points.

Steve Weir is vice president of Global Program Development and Support at Habitat for Humanity International.