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'We try to help people understand the need to break the cycle of poverty'

October 26, 2006 13:55 IST
At a hill station near Mumbai, India, 100 new homes are coming up. But instead of bungalows where the well-heeled can rest their feet, these homes in Lonavala are for the poor. Courtesy, Habitat for Humanity, the organisation founded by former US President Jimmy Carter.

Jonathan Reckford took over as Habitat's CEO last year after a career that saw him wind his way, among other places, through Goldman and Sachs, Marriot Corp, Disney, Circuit City and Best Buy, finally becoming executive pastor of the 4,300-member Christ Presbyterian Church of Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.

Reckford, 42, said a team led by Carter, who turned 82 on October 1, and his wife Rosalyn will work for five days, starting October 30, to set up the 100 homes in Lonavala.

"This project has lot of emotional attachment for Jimmy Carter as his mother Lillian, when she was 67, served in the Peace Corps many years back and she worked in the Lonavala area as a nurse helping local people," said Reckford.

These homes will be given to local people who have already been selected by Habitat's local partners, the Abhinav Co-operative Credit Society, a non-governmental organisation with 600 shareholders from 48 groups in 26 villages that promotes education, and organises programmes on nutrition, health care, legal rights, women's empowerment, income-generation, social forestry and community development.

But its 'IndiaBuild' programme has grander goals -- to build 50,000 homes for 250,000 people in India in the next five years. And given its record -- it has already set up 12,000 homes and, in tsunami-struck South India, it built more than 1,700 homes in the year that followed.

In an interview to Rediff India Abroad Senior Editor Ajit Jain in Canada, Reckford discusses the housing problem in India and Habitat's plans there.

Is this is the first time Habitat is going to India?

The programme has existed since 1984. But Jimmy Carter and Mrs Carter will be going to India on behalf of Habitat International for the first time to build 100 homes in Lonavala, near Mumbai.

President Carter first went to India in 1978 when he was still in office. Is this just his second visit there?

Yes. But there are also personal ties that take him to India. His mother Lillian, when she served in the Peace Corps many years ago, was based in this very town -- Lonavala.

I hear there will be thousands of volunteers from many countries working in Lonavala?

That's our hope. Historically, we would have typically 2,000 volunteers participating. One thing special about this project is it will bring together volunteers from the host country with volunteers from around the world.

I also read that these houses will cost just Rs 100,000. Can you build a house at that price?

The prices vary from country to country. In the US, houses are more expensive, obviously, because of building codes and other requirements. We have been able to build homes in some parts of the world for as little as US $800 to $1,000. Those, of course, are very simple structures.

And what about the ones you hope to build now?

In India also, very simple homes will be built. They will comprise of a living room, kitchen, toilet, bathroom, etc. The house, for a family of 4 to 5 people, will include plumbing, running water, electricity, etc.

How can you ensure that your local affiliate, Habitat India, and the local NGO, Abhinav, will stick to your plan?

This is not for Habitat International to come and do everything. We only go into areas where we are invited. So the official host and the sponsor is Habitat India and the local partners working with us in the Mumbai region is Abhinav.

Your press release says you will have large number of volunteers from local churches. This is a sensitive issue in Maharashtra region, given that it could be given a communal colour.

I appreciate your caution. We are very sensitive about this ourselves. It is important to understand that Habitat International is an ecumenical Christian ministry in that it is a very inclusive one. We very happily work with people of all faiths who want to support eradication of poverty. So, we joyfully welcome volunteers of all faiths who want to participate in our efforts to serve these families.

But isn't this still a contentious issue?

There are few important things to remember here. We don't discriminate against anyone. We serve any family that meets our three criteria. One is, you are low-income family earning 20 to 50 per cent less than the median income of the area.

Second, you are willing to put in 'sweat' equity. We require the families' participation in the building of their homes and to help other families build their homes.

Third, families commit to paying back a very low mortgage. They pay their loan back and thus help other families.

There is a serious housing problem in India. Over 350 million people still need homes. Then there are 40 million people living in urban slums, a number that is increasing as more and more people move to urban areas in search of work

It's obviously an enormous and complicated problem in India. We fully recognise it. Habitat can be one very small part of the total solution. One reason we do this project is because it draws a lot of media attention to the needs for affordable housing. It is something people who have decent housing take for granted and don't think about.

So how do you resolve this?

Our experience for housing in a substantive way is to have a partnership. The government has to be involved along with the private sector, along with NGOs. It will take that triangle -- all these working together to make significant progress.

The private sector can have a big impact in helping create a work force for building decent housing. We believe the government needs to be involved in terms of housing policies, in terms of creating land and infrastructure and utilities. We need the NGOs to marshal resources.

How and why?

We try to help people understand the need to break the cycle of poverty. I think people first think of food, clean water, health care and education. We would like people to be aware of decent shelter as the foundation for achieving many of these things.

And how does that help?

Several studies have shown that if a child who grows up in a simple but decent home with a solid floor and a dry roof, it has a dramatic impact on the child's health, which in turn has dramatic impact on the child being in school, which in turn has an impact on the child being able to earn an income and break that cycle of poverty.

So is housing the ultimate solution?

We recognise that housing is one piece but a critical piece for families to emerge out of poverty. It will take a concerted effort on the part of all these sectors.

To what extent is the Indian government, the Maharashtra state government or the local government involved in the Lonavala project?

I don't believe the Indian government is involved. We are working with a number of corporations and NGOs, stakeholders and partners in India. There's, of course, our close cooperation with Habitat India and different local governments.

President Carter can draw a lot of media attention in India. Are there advantages beyond the short-term ones?

In addition to the short-term attention, we will engage local volunteers who start to understand the impact of housing. They often become leaders of this movement. Our hope is that the many volunteers will become the backbone of this IndiaBuild campaign. We have seen similar things happen in South Korea and Philippines -- sustained, long-term expansion. The Carter project is an important catalyst.

Once this project is done and you leave, will you keep a close eye on work there?

We stay very engaged at the local level because Habitat International workers are in a relationship with each partner. The regional office for India headquartered in Bangkok works closely with the international headquarters.

And what are your inputs here?

We provide them support -- financial, training and other types of support -- so they can be effective. We do all what we can to support them but still they are locally owned. We (Jimmy Carter, Mrs Carter and volunteers) are going to an India-owned mission. IndiaBuild programme will only have some support from Habitat International.

What are your plans for it?

We also have a whole series of plans and standards for each country programme. That's why we feel so strongly about this IndiaBuild programme. These 100 homes we construct will be (the first) in a five-year programme. That way we ensure that it's not just one big splash, one event.

Do you have a message for your volunteers and those corporate entities supporting the IndiaBuild programme?

First, I must thank these volunteers. It would never be possible without these critical partners. It is their support and volunteering which makes this IndiaBuild programme happen. We are grateful to them.

India has an enormous housing problem, as you also admit. Are you still optimistic that you can help solve the problem?

I am optimistic but I don't want to downplay how serious the problem is. I know how enormous the challenge is -- there are 350 million people without homes and 40 million living in urban slums. So, the challenge is for more and more people to get involved and try to make a difference. I think it is solvable but it is not solvable without an enormous effort. It will be tough, expensive and very hard work but it is really important work.

Ajit Jain