Housing expertise is a global resource

Housing has a significant role to play in Scotland’s international aid programme, says Alister Steele

Residents get involved in the planning of their new homes in Nairobi. Picture: Homeless International

THE Scottish Government’s international development programme, which aims to help the world’s poorest, provides financial support under policy strands that reflect the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.

These are eight goals which cover health, education, sustainability and economic development. The UN is driven by an ambition to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger worldwide, yet the role of housing in contributing to a nation’s health and economic wellbeing has been overlooked.

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Good quality affordable housing offers an opportunity that is otherwise constrained by poor living conditions. The quality and social environment of housing contributes towards physical and mental health, education, employment and childhood development. Indeed Oxfam’s Humankind Index for Scotland has shown the most important influences on people’s wellbeing and prosperity is an affordable, decent and safe home, good physical and mental health, living in a neighbourhood where people can enjoy going outside, and having a clean, healthy and safe environment. The social housing sector, with our knowledge of funding models, community building and experience of juggling state and market demands, has so much to offer developing countries.

My experiences in Kenya with Homeless International opened my eyes to the value our sector could bring to Scotland’s international aid programme. I was struck by the huge grassroots effort being made in challenging conditions to face up to the issues around the provision of good quality affordable housing. Working with a local community development organisation which redevelops slum areas and runs savings and loan schemes in Nairobi, I was able to help identify more effective ways of making their payment structures both affordable and sustainable in the long-term.

I also spent time with members of the National Co-operative Housing Union which is working on an investment project to provide affordable homes for key workers, including the professionals needed in local schools and hospitals. Plans are for 300 homes in a mixed tenure development 25km outside Nairobi. Surpluses from each of the six phases of the project, which include properties available for outright sale as well as more affordable apartments, will be ploughed into future development.

Again, my experience here in Scotland allowed me to share knowledge on the technical aspects of cross-subsidy developments which they have since put in to action, attracting investment from the Kenyan Commercial Banks and a special purpose vehicle set up to support the venture.

Sharing knowledge is a two-way street and we can also learn from developing countries. This was evident when Siku Nkhoma of the Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE) in Malawi spoke at the recent Chartered Institute of Housing conference held in Glasgow. CCODE is based in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, where a lack of reliable public IT infrastructure has not proved a barrier to growth. The sophistication of cloud-based services has allowed the organisation to leapfrog some of the more cumbersome stages of developing an IT infrastructure. While many residents do not have a toilet or running water, they all have mobile phones so Facebook is used for advertising and co-ordinating letting and mobile banking is used for rent payments. This kind of fresh thinking that embraces modern technology successfully instead of eyeing it suspiciously should jolt us into examining if the way we do things here is still the most effective.

Homeless International is a permanent UK-based organisation set up by housing activists more than 25 years ago to support community- led shelter and settlement initiatives in the developing world. Housing professionals today continue to support the cause and staff within my own organisation are volunteering their time to raise awareness of global slum poverty and raise funds for the charity.

At the end of last year world leaders renewed their commitment to anti-poverty targets and agreed to adopt new goals to focus continued efforts post 2015, the target for the Millennium Development Goals. It was agreed that “purposeful and co-ordinated” action is required to accelerate progress. Quality affordable housing for all has not yet been mentioned. The Scottish Government recognises the role housing plays in economic growth, health and wellbeing in this country. Surely it would be a step forward to share this wealth of knowledge and experience with fledgling housing co-operatives in the developing world. Sector expertise in business planning, asset management, risk, community impacts and neighbourhood development can help these organisations survive and thrive. Housing has a significant role to play in meeting the health, education and sustainability goals of Scotland’s international aid programme and to meet the needs of the world’s poorest.

• Alister Steele is managing director of Castle Rock Edinvar Housing Association