A Discussion with Stephen Weir, Vice President for Global Development and Support, Habitat for Humanity
April 4, 2007
Background: Stephen Weir is the vice president for Global Development and Support at Habitat for Humanity International. Previously, he worked in Bangkok where he was vice president for Habitat's Asia programs. He is an architect by profession. In April 2007 he participated in the Symposium sponsored by the Berkley Center on “Faith-Inspired Organizations and Global Development: US and International Perspectives.” In this interview, Weir draws from his experiences to explain how faith is incorporated into his work with Habitat for Humanity in unique ways. He also offers his opinion on how proselytism affects the work of faith-inspired organizations.
What path has brought you to your current job? How has it involved working with faith-based organizations and international development?
I am an architect by training, and after graduation, began working for a firm in San Francisco. It was a private architectural and real estate development firm begun by an Architect from Hong Kong, with a wide range of multinational and overseas Chinese clients. The work included large retail, office and mixed use developments. They were very different from those that Habitat builds. I happened to see Jimmy Carter on television, talking about a housing project in New York City where he was working, not long after he left the presidency, and I was moved that someone who was a recognized public figure was so deeply and personally interested in housing for poor people. This came at a time when I was myself interested in how best to reconcile my own faith commitment with my profession. It led me to volunteer to help start a local Habitat affiliate, in Oakland, where I served on the Board for a number of years. My wife and I, progressively over time, came to believe that we should tithe a portion of our careers, and accepted a stipended volunteer assignment in 1993 to start a Habitat national program in Sri Lanka. We both left lucrative professions, fully expecting, at the time, to return to our San Francisco lives. We took our two young girls and went from a quite affluent lifestyle to one where we were making $350 a month. After working in Sri Lanka for a time, we felt that we could not go back to our earlier lives. We are 14 years into our two year commitment that has turned into a real calling. It feels like the perfect integration between my faith commitment and my skill set.
What would you describe as the "faith element" in the work of Habitat? Can you identify ways in which the approach, ethos, and tangible work might differ from a non-faith-inspired NGO like CARE, Save the Children?
The mission principles of Habitat for Humanity as an organization are pretty clear. We state, as a very first principle, that we focus on the elimination of poverty housing, “as a demonstration of the love and teaching of Jesus Christ.” This is clear up front. We do not however, have a required faith statement that defines the faith link in our work. Our founder liked to describe Habitat as a “big tent ministry.” Habitat aims to reach out, as Jesus did, and tries to engage people where they are. That means working with them in the communities where they live and in the context of their own faith. Thus our organization's expression of its faith elements tends to look quite different in each culture. Habitat works through a network of volunteer affiliates, who are autonomously registered in each country and often each community, and takes on the characteristics of that community—the faith role plays out differently in each local context. Habitat is, nonetheless, overwhelmingly a Christian organization, in the way we try to operate.
A central principle for Habitat is our aim of working towards transformational and sustainable development. While we try to influence public policy through advocacy, we believe that real change happens on the ground. Faith plays a vital role in that. We believe that for change to be lasting, it must take place within the whole community, especially amongst the community of influence and affluence. People must come to believe that it is not acceptable to have families living in sub-human condition in their community. That calls for transformation at the level of the community. The community's world vision needs to be transformed for authentic change to happen.
We frame our values in terms of human rights that are grounded in Christian principles. This shares ideas and language with a rights based approach that might be more explicitly linked to the United Nations Declaration of Rights but has important differences. We hold that God created each human being equally, so there is no justification for any person to live indecently, as God created us equal. We have a different but complementary approach to discussing rights from those typically expressed by secular organizations, but I believe that we support the same objectives that are encompassed in a rights based approach. The two perspectives involve very similar elements of duty and obligation. As an observation from my experience working in the field, the average Habitat homeowner does not care who the duty bearer is, and whether what she is receiving is in some sense a human right; she cares about the house that her family receives and lives in.
Another way to consider faith elements in Habitat's work is to determine what role they play in project design and implementation in order to achieve transformation. My thinking about this process owes much to a wonderful book by Bryant Myers, Walking with the Poor. He talks about transformation as including three components: social, material, and spiritual. Unless transformation takes place in all three areas, it is not lasting. Sometimes faith-based organizations, especially churches, tend to take an approach that is only spiritual, or secular organizations one that is only material. What is needed is a holistic approach that involves all three. This seems to come quite naturally in Asia, where there is a tendency for people to see the world through a spiritual lens. It is unusual, even unsettling for many Asian cultures to confront an approach that does not involve a spiritual lens.
The challenge is how to measure transformation holistically. Habitat as an organization has been much concerned with this issue, and we have talked a great deal about it in a range of national contexts and through special global task forces. The approaches and suggestions for measuring change have been all over the map. Is it a measurement of success that someone becomes a Christian? No, most would argue, the objective is not proselytization, but simply to demonstrate through our work the love of Jesus. Perhaps we should measure success if a community or individual is drawn closer to some kind of spiritual depth; that Buddhists become better Buddhists or Hindus better Hindus. This is too non-Christian for many. We also have worked to measure our progress through Kingdom values. The Catholic Church is good at talking about Kingdom values. We recognize that we share a lot of these among the monotheistic faiths. Values such as integrity, and non-discrimination, cut across different faiths.
What do you and what does Habitat mean by transformation?
An outcome of these reflections, and this is my own approach, is to seek to measure transformation across four dimensions: recognition, replication, articulation, and transformation. These, of course, are not entirely linear and overlap in many respects. To take an example, honesty and integrity can be recognized and measured. We can ask whether the communities we work with recognize that we are working in ways that are different than the cultural norms they experience daily (for example, corrupt practices). If this is not evident, then we are not being faithful to the Kingdom values of our own faith. But can we measure its impact?
The second step in Transformation is to examine whether the community not only recognizes but appears to replicate our approach and behavior. To take an example, we might believe that people are created equally and develop non-discriminatory family selection practices; do they replicate this by beginning to interact with people of different castes and ethnic groups? They may not appreciate that our requirement that they provide support through sweat equity in a neighbor's house, is designed to break down social barriers and encourage justice, but they recognize that this practice was important in their improving their own housing. Would they then invest in helping a neighbor to develop a water system or contribute to a neighborhood school being constructed? Do they recognize that that Habitat for Humanity works with a different approach and replicate these practices and behaviors and even if it is motivated by self-interest?
The third step in transformation is articulation. Can they then articulate why we operate the way we do? They do not have to own this as a personal conviction but they can articulate why it is important to Habitat and why we believe it helps to transform communities. It is my experience that most faith-based organizations often do a pretty good job in implementing projects in a way that local communities recognize and replicate important Kingdom values, but we do not articulate well why they are operating in this way. Often we do not even try to understand whether communities share the values built into our methodologies and approaches, and may not even expect them to do so.
A story that Myers told gave me a graphic illustration of the difficulty and power of this challenge to Articulate our Kingdom values. He told of visiting a World Vision well drilling project in Africa, a good project that resulted in a drop in the child mortality rate. At the edge of the village at the local shrine, he noticed a small statue with the logo used by World Vision. It was clear to him that the people were praying to the World Vision object hoping to ensure a continuation of blessings like the well. He concluded (as did I) that World Vision had not succeeded there in articulating and communicating their approach. Not long afterward, I was at a Habitat for Humanity site in Sri Lanka. Habitat had a practice in Sri Lanka of casting one brick with the HFH logo on it, as an identifying symbol. The practice is designed to help create community cohesion, to show and celebrate the process of coming together. But in the community I visited, I saw people touch the HFH brick, as they went in and out of the house. As in the story that Myers told, they believed that the brick brought good fortune. It was serving as a good luck charm, not as a symbol that reminded them of the Kingdom values we were aiming to further.
The fourth and final step is authentic transformation. This is a change that can only be brought by the Holy Spirit. It is evidenced by people realizing the importance of a Kingdom value as a personal and community norm even when they do not personally benefit. They come to believe with conviction that it is the right thing to do to be non-discriminatory. No organization, faith-based or non-faith-based, can make transformation happen. But we can implement our programs in a way that the first three occur (recognition, replication, and articulation) and thus create the opening and awareness that is needed to be in consonance with God's Kingdom values. And this can be measured.
What is the experience of Habitat in working with other faith-based organizations?
In working in Asia, I have the sense that the world has changed, especially since September 11, 2001. While Asia is different in many respects, this global change has become more openly evident in recent years. There seems to be growing suspicion between different faith communities in many communities. This applies particularly when Christians are a small minority. Having said that, I still perceive today more openness than non-openness. The situation in Aceh is a good example where most people have not been exposed to Christianity due to decades of martial law. Children after the tsunami were surprised that Christians had come to help, based on what the imam had told them about Christians. Partly because of this background, our work there led to a lasting change in understanding and interfaith responses in the affected areas, itself contributing to a greater openness.
We work with many other faith-based organization organizations, especially some of the larger organizations like World Vision and Catholic Relief Services, but we probably work more often with local faith-based organizations. As an example, in Sri Lanka, we worked through ecumenical groups in our peace builds projects, consistent with our aim to create working relations with local communities. We, in Habitat, work somewhat differently from most INGOs in that we create and then work through our own affiliated CBOs, which are local autonomous community based organizations. The board and staff leadership in most country programs are local nationals.
Is it always Christian?
No, not always exclusively. There is a mix of faiths among Habitat staff. However, at the level of the Board and staff leadership the organization is largely made up of Christians. It would not be possible to live out completely and holistically our mission principles if a majority of our leadership and staff were not Christian. There is a covenant which states Habitat's mission objective, which board members sign. There are instances where people from other faiths sign the covenant, but that is not always the case. More often we will find ways to work as partners with people and organizations of other faiths who would not be at ease explicitly supporting the covenant.
Have you witnessed any special difficulties or issues facing faith-based groups or interfaith relations as they work in the development area?
In Indonesia, especially, we have found more reluctance amongst volunteers to work with Christian faith-based organizations than we normally do. This seems to have changed for the better in the wake of the tsunami. In the beginning, it took people in rural and peri-urban Muslim communities a long time to figure us out. In one place, the local Muslim leadership would not allow us to do community development ourselves but insisted that we work through local Muslim community based organizations. In one village outside of Jakarta, we worked through the local yayasan (Indonesian community based organization) and completed several hundred houses; the imam in the next district, however, was anxious about working with a Christian group. The imam persuaded people who had houses built and financed with Habitat support in the first village to stop making payments. As a result we had to stop working in that area. This was an illustration of the all too real problem of Christian Muslim tensions in rural Indonesia.
How, in your experience, does the issue of proselytization affect faith-based work?
In general, most faith-based organizations do abide by a tacit agreement which defines an appropriate code of conduct on proselytizing. The larger faith-based organizations, especially, those who are there for the long haul, are trying to create an atmosphere where they can work with local leaders. If, however, their long term project is really church planting, then social justice and development seems less important. Thus there are some groups that work actively to proselytize and aim to convert to Christianity. When this occurs it can alienate local leaders from other religions against all faith-based organizations. When, in reality or in appearance, development is offered as a prelude to or, worse still, incentive to conversion, it hurts. It creates animosity that spills over in many areas. The situation varies by organization and by their in- country leadership but is not widespread or universal. This is the origin of the term applied to some faith-based development strategies: “rice bowl Christians." The impression left is that when the work is finished, people go back to what they were before. It is not an authentic way to work or to demonstrate the gospel to people.
Do you see significant issues of coordination among faith-based organizations working in the field?
There are different ways to think about this issue. The Wilder Group, a Minneapolis foundation, offers a useful insight that helps to frame partnership. They define partnerships taking place at three different levels: cooperation, coordination, and collaboration. Cooperation involves meeting regularly, having a forum, for example, where individual organizations go and then take information and ideas back to their own project and use it as appropriate. It involves sharing information, and perhaps some joint activities. Coordination involves an increased level of partnership where, for example, World Vision might support a local microfinance institution which would result in increased family incomes to a level where it makes sense to add home construction loans through HFH to production loans through WVI. For Habitat's project to work efficiently, WVI's has to be successful. Collaboration is the highest and most complex form of partnership where the work of the organizations are so integrated that if one fails the whole project fails. An example is work in Timor Leste, where organizations are trying to work together in a collaborative way, sharing financial services, for example. The size of the area is small and it is clearly more cost-effective to share. But if the finance director fails, all organizations suffer.
My assessment is that faith-based organizations have pretty good luck in cooperation and coordination, but very little with true collaboration. Very similar comments would apply with secular organizations. I come from a business world and model, where there are advantages to sharing core competencies and expertise by working through a single entity such as a joint venture. In the development world, the model seems to be more competitive; faith-based organizations and churches seem better at splintering than collaborating.
How has Habitat worked with the major secular development organizations? What issues arise?
Relationships and operational engagement with other INGOs varies widely place to place. The United Nations agencies tend to be best at influencing governments; that is their mandate. If our programs align with areas they are trying to influence, then we may work together. An example might be an effort to contextualize the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) in a city alliance, creating MDG indicators at the level of a municipality. If we are working in a city that is moving in that direction, we could well be supportive. However, in most instances, the focus on projects by large development agencies really shifted to structural change about a decade ago. Their focus is far more on financial sector mechanisms and issues. But when there is support on a project basis, there can be alignment.
How far does Habitat work as part of the development community on policy dialogue?
We have traditionally been more involved with local regulatory change and public awareness than national policy development. However in a few countries we have been quite actively engaged at a national level in, for example, a President's Council on housing, or other opportunities to have an influence on national housing policy. We quite often testify before parliaments or a congress in these key countries. We work actively to influence legislation in the United States. We are rarely involved in policy discussions at the United Nations level. The UN annual human rights report does not often address relevant housing human rights indicators. Housing falls under cultural rights in the economic and cultural rights reporting and an area often under-represented. Amnesty International, for example, does get involved in evaluation of economic and cultural rights and Habitat could, if it so chose, become a country commentator. But we have not done so to date, and are far more active at country level and in addressing policy through the legislative process.
What will your job involve now that you have moved to the United States after many years in Asia?
My job, which is newly created, is officially called Global Program Development and Support and I will be responsible for strategic coordination of our overall program directions. Habitat, like many decentralized organizations, has a tradition of working more often regionally rather than in global collaboration. We share experience and lessons but have not been as good at developing and testing common strategic directions globally. There is more coordination than collaboration. We want to bring Habitat to a position where there is indeed more intentional collaboration, in the framework of global strategic directions.
My focus is to be global but Habitat does not have or see sharp barriers between the US and international operations. There is a common core methodology and we see more similarities than differences. Community development in the United States could benefit by learning from what we have done outside the United States. Internationally we can have a greater impact on legislation if we can replicate the successes of the US program.
What are the priority areas where you expect to focus your attention?
In the area of housing, the central issue is security of tenure. With secure rights to land there are demonstrated increases in investment and improved shelter by families. Security of tenure involves both access and discrimination (in Fiji native Indo-Fijians are barred from owning tribal land). A second major issue is gender and inheritance rights. Often women cannot co-sign loans or inherit homes they have helped to build and finance. A third major issue is affordability. In some countries, the issue is to create products that are affordable. In the U.S. this happens largely through the regulatory framework, which influences the costs of infrastructure and utilities. The way that codes are enforced has important cost implications. In developing countries the issues generally have less to do with the product and more to do with financing. The issues turn around access to capital at affordable rates, informal sector income, and barriers to land tenure security which make affordable housing more difficult because land cannot be used as collateral. The need is to create financing models that are affordable, and that allow the progressive building that is more commonly the norm outside the United States.
What do you see as the key roles of faith-based organizations in a global context?
There is much to be concerned about in increased interfaith tensions in many areas of the world, but there are also corresponding increased opportunities for faith-based organizations to make an important difference. Faith-based organizations can identify underlying religious tensions through our local constituencies and are often better positioned to develop strategies to address them. Looking at southern Thailand, the links with Malaysia and potential for interfaith cooperation involving not only Muslims and Buddhists but Christians as peacemakers are of great importance but may not be immediately obvious. There are real possibilities for faith-based organizations to contribute to peace and cooperation. They have the opportunity to use their teachings as a way to bring reconciliation. Development projects in many other ways can promote reconciliation. The way projects are designed can have an important influence. Development projects can push people into faith ghettos or urge them towards integration. There are many more opportunities to promote reconciliation through community development including housing than is generally recognized.
What about a U.S. agenda for faith-based organizations?
Habitat tends to focus on issues and legislation that relate to housing, but have recently partnered with other faith-based and secular organizations in support of general poverty reduction agendas. We have been less involved on international funding priorities for faith-based groups due in part to our traditional donor base, since most of our funding comes from private individuals, and much of this is raised through local affiliates. We also have larger corporate support than most non-profits, and depend less on government support. Until recently, Habitat's official position was that it did not accept government funding. This has morphed, though Habitat still does not accept public funding for housing, just for land and infrastructure. Some international funding support comes from USAID, but more for capacity building and disaster response. There has previously been some concern in the US within Habitat about accepting government involvement. Due to these funding priorities and policies, Habitat has been less involved in the past in faith-based coalition agendas.
What would you like to see as a focus of discussion during the April 16 Conference and in the Berkley Center FBO project more generally?
I believe that we should talk more openly and explicitly about what it means to be a faith-based organization. What methods are we trying to articulate to the broader society? How are we different? And if, indeed, we believe that we are different and are trying to operate in ways that are specific and special, are we measuring the effectiveness of our work? What is different in our approach to community development? Is it more effective than the work of secular groups? Evaluation studies of faith-based programs are quite rare (though I recall one study in Canada about a decade ago) and I am not aware of any that really address the issue of how a faith organization might assess the faith component of its work. I believe that evaluation is both feasible and desirable. My hypothesis is that while the outputs of secular and faith-based organizations might be similar, it is likely that the outcomes would differ. In practice, our evaluation work is very often driven by donor agendas. There is at present no common understanding of what we are trying to accomplish that is unique to the faith community that would encourage the development of common indicators of success.
In terms of bridging divides and finding common interest in global development policy issues, it would be interesting to have some leading faith-based organizations try to pick out some issues of live concern and package them in a way that would appeal to and interest non-faith-based organizations. I suspect that there would be many areas of common concern, for example, the empowerment of women, mechanisms of participation in civil society. A result could be to create more effective partnerships with both secular groups and those of other faiths that include Kingdom values that we hold as common values.