Aims and Objectives
- To improve the quality of life of the local population through improving housing conditions, livelihood opportunities and access to clean water and electricity.
- To establish a revolving fund that enables the local residents to improve their existing housing or build new homes.
- To establish a local housing movement and raise awareness of households’ legal rights concerning land tenure.
Minia is one of the poorest areas in Egypt, with a high unemployment rate. The villages in which Better Life works are inhabited by quarry labours, fishermen and poor farmers. Housing in the villages is inadequate. Built from mud over 50 years ago, the houses do not cope well with the cold in winter and the heat in summer. The region is susceptible to flooding and inhabitants suffer from waterborne diseases. Many households are without potable water and electricity, and there are also disputes over land ownership. A needs assessment carried out by Better Life in 1997 found that over 3,000 families were without latrines and potable water.
While implementing a project in response to these findings, it became clear that for many families their housing conditions were unsafe and unhealthy. Women have traditionally been excluded from decision-making processes and have been particularly affected by inadequate housing. They possess the arduous task of collecting water (up to four trips a day) and having to wait until after dark to relieve themselves (due to the lack of sanitation facilities), which in turn affects their health and increases their vulnerability to violence. Moreover, the practice of female genital mutilation is widespread (98 per cent of females are affected).
Initiated in 1997, the Local Housing Movement programme works with local communities to improve and develop their housing, basic services, security of tenure, construction skills and training opportunities. Working with quarry workers, fishermen, low-income farmers and female-headed households in Minia, 400 new houses have been built to date and nearly 600 houses have been improved. The programme has also seen over 5,900 households gain potable drinking water and latrines in their homes.
Local construction workers from the communities are trained to design and build environmentally appropriate, safe, healthy houses using locally available materials that reduce the total cost for construction. They carry out the repair and construction work with the assistance of the owners of the houses and their neighbours in line with the social solidarity principle promoted to villagers through home visits. A revolving fund has been established from which beneficiaries can apply for a loan to improve their house. The maximum size of the loan is EL6,000 (approximately US$1,000), payable in two stages of EL3,000, the amount being determined based on the cost of the repairs needed. While repayment normally takes place over one to three years, there is sufficient flexibility to help families cope with any short-term difficulties.
Improvements made to houses include separation between stables and houses, construction of ceilings, and installation of electricity, doors and windows. The programme trains local volunteers and active community leaders to manage the project in their respective villages and works to empower women to support the social and health rights of women. Communities are provided with information and skills to maintain their properties and surrounding streets, and two manuals have been issued to facilitate transfer: the first outlines local building practices and the use of low-cost, environmentally sustainable building materials; and the second is a guide for the design of safe and healthy rural housing. They are the first manuals of their kind to be produced by an NGO in Egypt.
The programme also works to increase awareness amongst local people of the legal right to own their homes and land. Better Life provides legal assistance to families in cases of land tenure disputes and has prepared a widely distributed poster on legal rights with regards to housing. Better Life has also organised meetings where beneficiaries can ask questions and receive answers about various legal issues, and local community groups have emerged that advocate for their rights to housing and land.
The programme funds its housing improvement work through a combination of grants and loans that become a revolving fund from which the participating households borrow. The programme was initiated using a Novib grant (US$60,000) and a loan from Habitat for Humanity (US$68,500), which was repaid in five years. Other funding has been received to facilitate subsequent phases of the programme, as it has increased in scale and geographical scope (current funding amounts to US$1.25 million). Grant funding is also used for training and for provision of potable water and latrines for those unable to afford it. The capital in the revolving fund currently stands at US$214,403. The loans are paid back with an annual interest rate of eight per cent. The charge covers inflation (currently 10 per cent to 12 per cent per annum), administration and bad debt allowance, and thus is not able to completely retain its value. The repayment rate on the loans is 98 per cent.
- The programme has enabled marginalised households to significantly improve their housing conditions, reducing the prevalence of diseases and achieving a sense of stability.
- In a region of the world where privacy and dignity are fundamental considerations, the provision of running water and latrines has had an immeasurable impact. This is particularly true for women, who spoke of the shame and embarrassment of having to ask for water from their neighbours or wait until nightfall to relieve themselves outdoors, risking their personal safety.
- The capacity of local civil society has been greatly increased such that organised movements made up of local residents now exist to advocate for the right to adequate housing and land.
- Whilst the government has not had involvement in the project, the effectiveness of the approach has led to a change in local government practices. Local authorities have stopped preventing the installation of electricity and potable water in villages and informal settlements where previously they had done so and are now taking seriously the need to improve slum housing. The Minia governorate has begun, in some villages, to provide potable water for those who can’t afford it. In addition, some local government taxation policies have been abolished, exempting the poor from paying arbitrary taxes and fees.
Why is it innovative?
- The thorough involvement, participation and sense of ownership felt by low-income households are innovative, particularly within the context of the region.
- The programme uses an integrated development approach involving the improvement of physical living conditions as well as the provision of legal help, raising awareness of health and environmental issues and the empowerment of women.
- Training local construction workers in the use of environmentally appropriate building materials and techniques.
- Developing partnerships with the private sector to fund the implementation of water, sanitation and improved housing.
- Producing construction manuals, the first of their kind in Egypt, which have been shared with a number of local NGOs.
- Developing strong networks and building the capacity of local community-based organisations to ensure sustainability.
- Raising awareness of marginalised groups to, and enabling them to claim, their legal rights to own land and housing.
What is the environmental impact?
- Locally-sourced building materials, such as limestone, lime mortar and sand, are used and training has been given on how materials can be gathered in a way that minimises degradation of the surrounding agricultural land and the wider environment.
- The project provides families with access to piped water and basic services, and training on the efficient use of resources.
- Better Life designs allow more daylight and ventilation into the homes in comparison to existing housing.
- In one of the villages solar energy is being used to heat water (41 heaters). Better Life plans to extend this to other villages.
- Flooding has been addressed through an improved drainage system and materials (e.g. use of limestone instead of mud).
- The programme encourages residents to plant trees and conduct tree-planting campaigns in the target villages.
- Contamination of water supplies and agricultural land with human waste has been reduced through the provision of latrines.
- The programme helps to educate fishermen on environmental protection laws and how to limit the pollution of the Nile.
- A current project aims to improve traditional stoves in the villages, reducing the amount of smoke and gases they produce.
Is it financially sustainable?
- Initiated using a loan from Habitat for Humanity (which has now been repaid), Better Life has proved successful at gaining grant funding from a range of international donor agencies, and has recently begun developing funding relationships with the private sector. Better Life is developing a long term strategy for financial sustainability, establishing a fund to cover costs in case of difficulties in securing funding. This fund is generated by Better Life’s Minia-based training centre, with rooms hired out to other groups and NGOs, generating an annual income of approximately US$45,000. Cash deposits also generate revenue to cover some costs.
- The programme employs labourers from the local communities to carry out the construction work with families and uses local suppliers and transporters of raw materials and quarry blocks, helping to stimulate the local economy. Twenty-five construction workers have been trained by Better Life to date in the use of locally available materials.
- Houses are built or improved using loans taken out from Better Life by the households themselves. This asset is then owned outright by the household. Livestock is now kept securely, reducing the risk of being eaten by foxes or other wild animals.
- The use of locally produced building materials supports local markets as well as the quarries, where many residents work.
- Improving or constructing houses has not previously been affordable to those families that Better Life work with. This programme provides access to credit through the revolving fund, and reduces costs wherever possible. The use of locally available building materials and labour not only creates employment opportunities, it is also more affordable for the participating households.
- The programme also encourages a mutual self-help approach within the community to reduce labour and material costs and improve community relations. Participants have noted that because the revolving loan fund provided them with cash they could purchase materials at lower prices rather than when buying through instalments. The loans are offered without the required collateral of freehold title and the 10 per cent interest rate is low in comparison with other credit providers.
What is the social impact?
- Managed by local leaders and volunteers, the project works together with residents and 16 grassroots organisations in the area to increase participation, strengthen social networks and establish a housing movement to defend their human rights.
- The project provides in-situ upgrading and reconstruction, ensuring the continuity of social relations and cultural practices.
- The project carries out social activities with men, women, children and youth to facilitate integration and has also crossed religious sectarian lines, with Christians and Muslims working together in cooperation to build each others’ houses.
- Over 100 women have been trained to increase awareness, and support the realisation of, social and health rights of women in the area.
- The programme has trained local leaders and volunteers in construction, management, evaluation and budgeting skills.
- Better Life has worked to build the institutional capacity of other local NGOs such as Wadi El-Nil Association for Protection of Quarry Workers and Hope Association for Women’s Development, providing training, technical and financial support.
- Better Life manages a 1,000 m2 training centre where it runs workshops and can generate additional income for its activities.
- The project has given residents access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation. Local doctors have noted that diarrhoea, dehydration, and digestive system diseases, particularly among children, have noticeably decreased.
- The houses are now well ventilated and of stable construction. Health problems associated with inadequate ventilation have decreased, as have incidences of scorpion bites. Children have a clean, healthy place in which to study.
- There has been a decrease in incidences of domestic violence, which is attributed to the increased stability and improved access to adequate housing and living conditions.
- Some families have built a separation wall between human living space and livestock, reducing the risk of disease.
- The project works with the most marginalised and dispossessed groups in the region. Families benefiting from the project are selected by a joint committee of Better Life staff and a local committee of residents in each community, who prioritise the needs according to a set of criteria (e.g. those earning below US$100 per month) that ensure that the most vulnerable are reached.
- Traditional gender roles allotted few rights to women, who rarely took part in activities outside the home. Women and girls in particular have benefited greatly from the project and have been empowered to manage projects and make decisions affecting their communities. For example, they no longer need to struggle to collect water several times a day to take to their homes, and women-based community associations have been developed.
- Better Life provides legal assistance to residents, litigating on behalf of families under threat of eviction, working to ensure their rights and negotiating with authorities in cases where residents have been jailed due to inability to pay land-rent increases.
- The project has built the capacity of local leaders to raise environmental and health awareness in their communities.
- Better Life has managed an EU-funded project to support local popular councils and community-based organisations to identify and pursue self-determined development solutions as well as a Ford Foundation supported project in 12 villages to facilitate dialogue between residents and local decision-makers regarding development priorities and goals.
- Residents have organised themselves and publicly demonstrated against female genital mutilation and unfair taxation laws imposed on the poor, as well as participating in rallies as part of the Global Call to Action against Poverty.
- Better Life has established 4 low cost schools (primary and preparatory level) in its target communities. These schools were built from local and environmentally-friendly materials. This has dramatically improved educational services in this remote isolated area, as it has given thousands of inhabitants the opportunity to be educated.
- Better Life supported one of its communities called ‘El-matahra’ to establish a local health unit, in order to offer different primary health services. This has saved inhabitants time and money because prior to this the nearest hospital was about 60 km away from their village.
It has been highly challenging to source funds for improving housing conditions, particularly in the current global economic climate. Despite this, however, Better Life has managed to obtain funding from a range of donors and was able to persuade the EFG-Hermes private sector financial group to invest in infrastructure for the poor. In order to address the unwillingness of banks to lend to the poor, Better Life has taken loans in its own name to pass on and a revolving fund has been set up for families.
- The poor are able to plan, implement and build their houses.
- The poor are able to repay fair loans. But in order to address the area’s housing needs, it is necessary to work on changing the banks’ policies towards lending to the poor.
- Decent housing is about more than loans or building materials, it is about human rights and power.
- Working with neighbours and supporting one another leads to a reduction in costs and helps to achieve a sense of solidarity.
- It is important that houses have adequate infrastructure/services in order to maintain human dignity, peace and security.
- Training local labourers in the use of locally available materials and simple construction techniques contributes to a reduction in costs and straightforward work methodology, as well as reducing environmental and cultural degradation.
- To put an end to corruption and manipulation, it is crucial to support the poor in their rights and provide them with legal aid.
A number of impact studies and assessments have been carried out on the programme’s work. Regular meetings with local community groups take place throughout the process. Better Life’s international donors are regular visitors to the programme.
The programme began in 1998, working on improving conditions for 350 families. The project has since been extended and to date, housing has been improved for nearly 1,000 families and potable water and latrines provided for over 5,900 families. The programme now works in 18 rural villages and a wider housing movement has been formed and is gaining momentum.
Due to the documentation of the experience and the manuals produced, other households within the communities are able to construct their own houses and improve existing housing conditions using their own funds and locally produced materials, with very little outside training. These have been very well received and used by other organisations in the country.
Three community-based organisations in Nazlet Faragallah (Minia) and Abou Gharir (Bani Swief governorate) have adopted the Better Life approach to improving housing conditions.
Exchanges have been carried out with communities from Tanzania, South Africa and the Philippines. These have been organised and supported by the Ford Foundation.
The approach has been disseminated internationally through various networks, e.g. Habitat International Coalition and the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.