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Adequate housing for all remains a vital global challenge

Cities and Governance Webinar Series 2022/23 - Webinar 1: Civil Society's Role in Governance: through an international housing NGO lens



An ever larger percentage of the world’s population is opting to live in major urban centres for reasons that include work, education, lifestyle and hoped-for opportunity.


That, though, presents planners and policymakers with an urgent and complex task. In broad terms, they must decide how best to accommodate, oversee and care for the millions of people involved, with inevitable restrictions on space and resources and, just as surely, contending views on the preferred goals and priorities.


To examine a range of the most pressing issues, Lingnan University’s School of Graduate Studies and Institute of Policy Studies are co-organising the Cities and Governance Webinar Series 2022/23. This gives invited experts from different sectors the chance to inform and enlighten by explaining what is really happening and to specify, as they see it, what must be done to effect further meaningful change.    


The first event in late November 2022 dealt with “Civil Society’s Role in Governance” through the lens of an international NGO focused on providing adequate housing for those in need.  


For speaker Jo Hayes, the chief executive of Habitat for Humanity Hong Kong, the basic premise was that people everywhere experience inequity at multiple levels and in many different ways. Usually, the causes can be traced back to systemic bias and disruptions of one kind or another.


So, in the quest to provide necessary housing, the first thing is to consider the existing barriers and systemic failures and then devise ways to circumvent or overcome them. For an NGO, that typically means developing partnerships with a view to achieving scaled and sustained impact and being able to influence policy decisions. But it also means holding fast to a bold yet unquestionable long-term vision. In the case of Habitat for Humanity, that is a world where everyone has a decent place to live.


“We have a model of partnership that empowers people,” said Hayes, noting that, since it was founded in the United States in 1976, the international organisation has helped more than 39 million people around the world to build or improve the place they call home. “We have an audacious ambition and vision, but we can’t do it alone, so there are multiple partners and stakeholders.” 


She added that by 2030, according to UN projections, almost 60 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities and around 3 billion people will need access to adequate housing. Therefore, the race is on to find solutions which are in line with the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and generally affordable.  


“We have been challenging ourselves over the last few years to expand our model and strategy to be a more effective catalyst for systemic change,” Hayes said. “We are now building community, sector and societal impact.”


So, adapted for each location, there are programmes to serve families through sustainable construction and on-site assistance; to support market approaches that promote products and financing for affordable housing; and to engage with volunteers who want to be advocates for social change.


However, the organisation is also undergoing a period of transition as it introduces a “theory of change”. The purpose of this is to ensure that, as it grows, the system remains people-centred. But it must also be strong enough to survive, understand where best to undertake interventions, and have the connections to target bigger, more holistic outcomes.


“Doing this will contribute to more people thriving with dignity, security and resilience,” Hayes said. “These are not short-term goals, but it is where we want to make our contribution, recognising that housing leads to better health, education and livelihoods and that it is all circular and interlinked.”    


Consequently, the future metrics used to gauge outcomes for any vulnerable community will take due account of improvements in health and education, as well as the number of volunteers successfully mobilised to act as advocates. And each project will be expected to address root causes and understand the complexities of the local ecosystem, thus making sure suitable partners and suppliers are involved in the ongoing work.


“Failures in development programmes often stem from a mismatch between what the communities actually need and what support is being provided,” said Hayes, who is also co-founder of the volunteer-led initiative Voice for Social Good, which is committed to promoting cross-sector collaboration. “So, right from the start, we make sure to understand their perspective and the extent of the problems they are facing.”