EPISODE 1: Covid-19 and Housing

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On the 12th of march, when the covid-19 disease was detected in almost all states around the globe, the disease was declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This rushed many countries, including Australia to shut its borders from the world. We spoke with Nicole Stanmore, CEO of Habitat for Humanity Australia about the greater impact this pandemic has left in developing countries, as well as the perception of local governments in response to funding areas of development.

 

 

Nicole Stanmore is the CEO of Habitat for Humanity Australia, an international NGO that works in partnership with volunteers, corporate partners and families to provide appropriate housing solutions in sustainable communities. Prior to joining Habitat, Nicole held senior positions at the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) and at Good Return, an international development agency providing microfinance and financial literacy. Nicoles is a lawer by training, has an MBA from Cambridge University in the UK and is originally from Santiago, Chile.

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Transcript in this conversation


Nicole

We sent 600 volunteers a year overseas to build houses. And since January, nobody has been able to travel overseas to build those houses. So the impact that COVID-19 is having on our programmes is dramatic.


Peter

How should we now approach the government in terms of maintaining funding for development activities that our organisations do, given that they're going to have other competing priorities or a limited amount of resources?


Nicole

We're all in it together, you know, one human race and we really have to help developing countries in this crisis Because we can't shut them out from the world. We're a connected world. And if we don't help them, we'll never get rid of this pandemic. And I think there is an understanding that we have a responsibility and that if we don't help them, get rid of it, well, we're never going to get rid of it. It's going to come back to bite us anyway.


Peter

Welcome to the second Season of conversations in development, a podcast about challenges, life stories and experiences in the development sector. I'm Peter Mason, your host and CEO of Cufa, an international development agency, working across the Asia Pacific region. In this episode, we welcome Nicole Stanmore, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity, an international not for profit organisation helping disadvantaged communities to obtain Shelter by building affordable homes through financial support and volunteers. Nicole, welcome to conversations in development.


Nicole

Thank you very much. Thanks, Peter, for having me.


Peter

So can you tell me a little bit about yourself what your background is? How did you come into the development sector and now as the CEO of Habitat for Humanity?


Nicole

Sure. Well, I'm a lawyer by training. I actually grew up in Chile and I studied law in Chile. And then amazingly enough, I decided to do an MBA and for that, I went to Cambridge University and for many years I worked in government for consulting. But then more than 10 years ago, I had this thought that I really wanted to do something inspirational that it really inspired me in my life. And when I looked hard, and I thought, well, what really motivates me it's really helping women and children. And having grown up in a developing country like Chile, I saw the plight of women and children everywhere around me, women working hard to feed their children to send them to school. And unfortunately, the men in that society in those communities weren't very present. And I always thought, you know, this is so unfair, and I really would like to help people that are going through these circumstances. So 10 years ago, I decided to change track and I saw volunteer opportunity with a small NGO and they were looking to offer microfinance services and literacy to communities in the Asia Pacific region. And so I started volunteering with them. I always say It's the hardest job I ever had to get. And that was 10 years ago. And now I feel so privileged to be the CEO of Habitat for Humanity.


Peter

So you said you trained as a lawyer, and I won't hold that against you. But how does that inform your work today? Does that have any impact on the way you look at your work?


Nicole

I think it does. I think everything you study and all of your experiences, you bring all of them into your daily job. And having studied law, it gives me an appreciation of the different frameworks under which every society operates. I think I'm lucky that I studied law in Chile and practiced in Chile, but have lived both in New York and then in England. So you know, it's given me a good conception of how different societies operate. And although I'm not an expert in Australian law, having the legal framework it helps me to ask the right questions and at least to know when I need to seek legal advice,


Peter

right. Okay. Enter Covid-19 back in January this year. So how's your everyday work changed now that we're facing this health crisis or facing this pandemic?


Nicole

Well, it's lots of changes, as I'm sure many Australians are experiencing. I mean, the first one is, of course, no travel to the office working from home, which is a huge adaptation that we all have to make. I mean, I'm at home with my husband, with my two children with the dog. It's not easy. You know, it's not easy to concentrate to find the private space that you need. We're all juggling different things in different circumstances. But my job has also changed because working in international development, I need to do a lot of travel Habitat for Humanity. If you know your listeners don't know what we do is that we believe that everybody deserves a safe home. So we're a major homebuilder across the world. I mean, we've built 29 million homes since the 1970s all over the The world we're actually in in 70 countries and usually my job would involve going to remote communities in Fiji for example, in the islands of Bandra where we're helping women not only with building homes but with water, sanitation and hygiene, or, for example, visiting the homes we're building in Australia because we also operate in Australia. So last year, I was in Devlin Park and Adelaide meeting people like Christina who has three children. She doesn't have a safe home to call her own. She has suffered domestic violence unfortunately, and was living with her elderly parents who also suffer mental issues. And so she was very happy that she was going to be the recipient of habitat home. So that's what my job involves, you know, looking at all our programmes, visiting the programmes, understanding what's happening in the different countries where we were, and also seeing the team on a daily basis. And of course, all that has changed you know, no more travel, still have a lot of zoom and Teams videos with overseas offices, but it's not the same. And many of our programmes overseas have also stopped because countries like Fiji have been in lockdown. Countries like Vietnam. And so it's challenging circumstances. And of course, that habitat the priority is the safety of our staff, the safety of our volunteers, which we have many of, and the safety of the communities where we work. And so we really, you know, have to balance all of that and see and understand what is possible. It's interesting, maybe for your listeners to know Peter that we sent 600 volunteers a year overseas to build houses. And since January, nobody has been able to travel overseas to build those houses. So the impact that COVID-19 is having on our programmes is dramatic.


Peter

It's interesting, you talk about the challenges on the programmes, but obviously there's a huge impact on the beneficiaries or the communities with which you Work. I'm assuming then from your conversation that you're actually not building any homes at this moment. And so therefore there must be an impact on those communities. Is that correct?


Nicole

Yes, that's correct. I mean, we're hoping to continue with our home building programme because in light of COVID-19, we know that having a safe home is more important than ever now, a safe home is the vaccine and it's also the medicine that you need against COVID-19. It's the only protection that we have. So we're not stopping our efforts. When a country's in lockdown. Of course, we can't sometimes continue with the homebuilding programmes, but as soon as the lockdown is lifted, we're ready to start again, and even more determined to do so. But we are doing other things. We believe we also have a role to play in terms of stopping the spread of COVID-19 because habitat also works in the areas of water sanitation and hygiene. Because when you build a home, you know, sanitation is absolutely integral to that homebuilding project. I mean, you need water and you need a toilet. And so we do work in those areas. And so we do a lot of training for communities. We have a big programme in Fiji under the water for women programme in partnership with DFAT. And we're pivoting we're using language now that the startups use, we're pivoting our programmes to fight COVID-19. And we're actually doing a lot of communication to the community in terms of you know, hand washing and what it is they can do. We're hoping that we'll be able to do that communication with posters but also using virtual channels. I mean, most of the communities you work in, they will have a mobile phone, or at least one member of the community will have a mobile phone and they'll subscribe to tik tok and to Facebook and to Snapchat. So we're looking at how we can transmit messages using the social media channels. And we're also delivering sanitation kits so we know who the community members are. We've been working in these communities for a long time. So we're delivering to them sanitation kits that includes hand sanitation, cleaning products for your home and other necessities like face masks.


Peter

Fantastic. How have you found that pivot? Obviously, building a house in comparison to actually delivering sanitation kits is a very big pivot. How have you found retooling and refocusing your project staff in a different direction? How has that worked?


Nicole

Well, in actual fact, it's not such a big pivot because in simple terms, we say that habitat is about building houses, but in actual fact, we work all along the housing value chain. So we're about securing land rights for people we're about having a market where you can access the right financing products. We make sure that this materials proper materials in the market, we also make sure that there is skilled labour in the market, and because our role is to work with vulnerable communities, we know that those that are most vulnerable, those that have suffered a disaster. And so we work very much in the disaster space. And for example, when a cyclone a tsunami hits, we're right there giving people shelter kits that might include a tent or other tools, so they can do with something until we can get more permanent housing for them. And in this sense, you know, COVID-19, it's another disaster. So instead of delivering shelter kits, we're delivering sanitation kits, but the premise is the same, you know, a disaster hits, and we need to be on the ground, and we need to tackle that maybe with temporary measures, until we can find a permanent solution.


Peter

Nicola, I would imagine though, the delivery of kits after a disaster is very different to a pandemic. How do you look after the well being of your field staff delivering those sanitation kids in this type of environment?


Nicole

Yes. And that that is a very important question. And I'll have to be honest, Peter, there's no rulebook on how to do this. Exactly. Um, you know, we're trialling, and we're considering the different applications as we go. It's some. But I guess the good news is that, you know, we're doing a lot of this work through the Australia humanitarian partnership, so we do it in partnership with other NGOs. So we're not operating in isolation. So as you know, the sector is very collaborative. So we are working together on this.


Peter

Fantastic. So what have you decided in terms of your programming, and we're talking about until the December I think the politicians are talking about until December until people will be able to travel overseas. Are you looking at the longer term with this pivot?


Nicole

Yeah, in the programme side, you know, it's very difficult to know I mean, the situation is so unpredictable. So at the moment, you know, we are pivoting, we're changing the programmes where we can where it makes sense. Another wise, we're waiting to see how things will unfold and where when we will be able to operate more in a normal basis in terms of, you know, continuing the constructions of our home, of the homes that we build. But for example, one of the things we're doing in Nepal is that we realise that, okay, we might not be able to continue the construction of homes. But we also understand that the communities that we work with are suffering greatly because they're also not able to go out there and earn a living. So what we're doing for them is that we're giving them the essential groceries and making them a payment, you know, in places like Nepal, it's not like in Australia where you can get the job keeper you know, Seeker payments. So we're doing that instead of the government where we can with the support of foundations like the hilty foundations, so we're doing what we can and it's on a case by case basis, globally, we're considering the situation And I don't think we've come up yet with an exact position. I do know that in terms of the trips of volunteers overseas to build houses, we have a global directive that says that nobody can go and build a house overseas until December of this year. And again, you're being extra conservative because the safety of our volunteers in the community is absolutely paramount for us. So we're planning now on that basis that no volunteers will go overseas until after December. And that, of course, has consequences for the funding of our programmes, because volunteers help us with their labour, but also with a fundraising.


Peter

It's interesting as a fellow CEO of an NGO, we're often so focused on our organisation and you know, our programming, you know, all of those sorts of things. What is your sense of what's happening out there in the field in terms of the impacts? You talked about people losing their livelihoods, their source of employment, what are the other sorts impacts if you're hearing about out in the field.


Nicole

Yeah, the loss of livelihood is a very big one. Because, you know, I think we're all in development for the same reason. You know, we want to end poverty, we want to make people's lives better. And we've made such strides in the last, you know, 10 years. And it's such a shame to hear that we might lose some of these gains that we have achieved think Oxfam was talking about 500 million people being thrown into poverty, again, living below the $3 20 US dollars a day, which is the poverty line that the World Bank states, and we know that we might lose a lot of those gains, because if people and especially the vulnerable communities that we work with are not able to go out there and make a living, it's going to become very hard for them.


Peter

And of course, you've also got the issue of domestic violence on the rise alcoholism on the rise. Yeah, and it's not just developing countries. We're also talking about the developed countries as well. Are you hearing Anything about that out in the locations that you're working in?


Nicole

Not yet, because I think the staff, the countries that we work with are so focused on on the programmatic side of things, that they haven't provided additional feedback yet of how the communities are suffering. And in other areas, they're just telling us that you know, shelter is so important, even more in the circumstances that vulnerable families that don't have a proper space to live in, how can they fight COVID-19 and even in terms of, you know, delivering the hell, you need a safe place where you can, you know, keep the appropriate distances with people. If you don't have that, how can you even deliver any help? So that's the initial conversations we're having with the programme and country partners. But I'm sure as you say, as the days follow on, you know, the programmes unfold, we will be hearing a lot more unfortunately.


Peter

So let's turn to fundraising. I know, our organisation has taken a little bit of a hit with people focused on sort of issues closer to home. How are you going with fundraising? And have you noticed a difference? Or is the messaging having to change as well?


Nicole

Yeah, for us, it's a massive hit not being able to send our volunteers overseas. So that's more than 20% of our overall revenue, the fundraising that volunteers do when they go overseas and build houses. And this is really affecting us, of course, and if on top of that, you consider the fact that the economy is suffering, and that, you know, people might lower their donations. It's really a double whammy, and we were seeing it coming from the bushfires. I mean, I'm sure your organisation was also affected by that once. You know, people obviously wanted to help Australians. I mean, we're lucky in the sense that habitat has also domestic programmes and we do do a lot of work in bushfire recovery. So in that sense Who is still receiving donations for that purpose, but donations for overseas programmes have definitely decreased. And then comes COVID-19. And everybody's suffering, you know, the whole economy is suffering. So again, you know, we're seeing a decrease, and we expect the further decrease, but at the same time, we know how important the home is. And we're launching a new initiative called the home together fun, because, you know, Australians understand how important is having a home and we have to tackle this challenge as one world. I mean, it's no use getting rid of COVID-19 in one country, if when we open borders, again, it's going to hit us from another country. So I think there is an understanding that as a human race, we're all in this together. And we're all home together, because that's the only way to protect yourself. Hence the importance and the concept behind this home together fund. And we're already seeing some positive responses in this regard and Australians are very generous. So we're hoping that they'll hold us in this initiative.


Peter

Speaking of funding, I mean, how should we now approach the government in terms of maintaining funding for development activities that our organisations do given that they're going to have other competing priorities for a limited amount of resources?


Nicole

Yeah, I look forward to hearing your views. Peter. It's a difficult one. It's a difficult question. I mean, from my perspective, well, first of all, is the importance of coming together as a sector. And I think we do that quite well in international development space that, you know, we do work very collaboratively and together. But second is, again, this idea that we're all in it together, you know, one human race and really have to help developing countries in this crisis, because we can't shut them out from the world. We're a connected world. And if we don't help them, we'll never get rid of this pandemic. And I think there is an understanding that we have a responsibility and that if we don't help them, get rid of it, well, we're never gonna To get rid of it, it's going to come back to bite us anyway.


Peter

I mean, we can all have our different NGOs, whether you're in housing, or shelter us in economic development, we're all focused on alleviating poverty. But that all feeds into making sure that this pandemic has a limited life. But I figure though, that the government is going to refocus a lot of the funding on health and I worry whether or not they're actually going to do more harm than good doing that. So do you have the same sort of fears that perhaps the limited amount of development expenditure will start to look at sort of pandemic in isolation rather than as a holistic poverty alleviation mechanism?


Nicole

Yeah, no, there's always that risk. You know, that instead of adding to the pie, they take away from something too and refocus their efforts and something else.. And health is not a standalone. You know, you need educated people that can read so they can understand what the health directives are. You need people that have a home so they, they can still isolate it. That's the directives that are being received. So it's all interlinked. And we know that and I think the government, you know, needs to understand that. So in the short term, understand that, you know, there might be a focus on health and in terms of how do you deal with this pandemic, which is, you know, which is what we're doing here. I mean, you know, how many beds how many ventilators Do we have, how many at mask how many protective equipment, but in order to really tackle this pandemic, it's a lot more than health that we need to do.


Peter

The other thing that I think is going to occur, I mean, this is just crystal ball gazing, but I guess you know, we are going to see this incorporated into development plans, I would imagine in terms of DFAT in terms of the ANCP, where they're going to actually consider how we manage these disasters as in when they occur. We've seen this little bit with the tsunami when the tsunami happened in 2004, boxing day where there was a whole lot of risk management and risk mitigation placed on the development sector to consider when actually developing project plans. And I fear that that's also going to happen now that this pandemic is arrived on our doorstep. And I wonder whether or not you know, the development sector is pretty stretched as it is. I mean, we're probably a little bit smaller than you. But you know, you only have so many resources to focus on the structural stuff that you need to do. Do you also worry about that?


Nicole

Well, I think all things happen like the swing of a pendulum to notice.


Peter

yes.


Nicole

I think initially there'll be a strong focus on the pandemic and what should we do? And I think there should be a focus because this is not something that where we have prepared for as a human race, basically, you know, people like gates, people like Obama were talking about this many years ago, and Nobody was listening. So, you know, I think there's an interesting thought. And I was reading Bill Gates, who was writing an interesting column actually on this, that we will come out stronger of this as a society that we will have to build stronger WHO or whatever the institution is to tackle this kind of situation. So it doesn't surprise me that initially everything, you know, every disaster's going to be focused on what do we do in the case of a pandemic, but hopefully, the pendulum will swing again, more in the centre to acknowledge that yes, of course, we have to be prepared. And we have to build the right institutions to tackle this challenge. But there's also many challenges. It's not the only one, and it's okay to have different areas of expertise. So I'm hoping that you know, the government will have a longer term perspective in terms of the projects they're funding and to be able to think that okay, this is short term, there's a medium term, but there's also a long term. And what we have all been working on doesn't really go away you know, people still need access to finance, to occasion, they need access to housing. And of course, they also need that care. One worry that I have is will the development sector survive this crisis? And how will it look like once this crisis finishes? Because it's obviously affecting us so much, you know, fundraising dollars going down for everyone.


Peter

It's very true. I mean, if this pandemic stretches out over a number of years, yeah, it could decimate our sector.


Nicole

One thing is the immediate aftermath because the government has been so proactive, we should be able to get through it. But you're right, because what happens afterwards? Because this doesn't look like a short and sharp recession. This looks like something that could have a strong tail. And I mean, if if we look at history and the Spanish flu, you know, we can expect different ways that could hit us unless the vaccine obviously comes up quicker than expected, but if not, you know, the whole world economy is going to suffer. And obviously charities that rely on donations or retail shops like the big ones do are going to take a big hit,


Peter

but it's also good getting out into our communities again. I mean, it's one thing for Australia to get it under control. And you know, I think the government here has done an excellent job. They've acted early, they've gone in hard, and we're bearing the fruit from that. But if you look at other countries, certainly the ones we work in like Cambodia, Myanmar, I don't think by Christmas, they'll have it under control. Therefore, we have to make decisions. Do we travel to those countries? Do we put our staff out into the field? You know, we might be fine here in Australia, but I don't know that the pandemic is going to be short lived in some of the countries that we work in. And that's still gonna impact on the work that we can do.


Nicole

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, I've been thinking about the whole monitoring and evaluation and the support that we give to the programme countries, I think we really have to think of innovative ways on how to do that. And we know how hard it is sometimes to communicate through Zoom with our local partners, and they don't have such great internet or, you know, such a good setup, many of them can't even work from home. You know, they don't have laptops, they just work with desktops at the local offices. So I think it will require a bit of an investment in the hardware, we're going to change the way we do things.


Peter

Yeah, we're a little bit different, as you know, we've got staff in those countries, local staff, but still have a duty of care to them as well. So we need to make sure that they're not going out to the field and putting themselves in harm's way. So regardless of whether it's us going over there or our own staff, it's still problematic for our programmes progressing.


Nicole

Yes, yes, agree.


Peter

Fantastic. Well, thank you so much, Nicole, thank you for your time and your insights I really appreciate.


Nicole

Thanks, Peter.