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Q&A: Commonwealth Housing Group

Part 3 of 7

An interview with the CHG team

[Editor’s Note: This week, R4D in partnership with FieldWorks is highlighting the obstacles faced by local civil society organizations around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic — and the unique and innovative ways that local organizations are at the forefront of response and prevention in low- and middle-income countries. As international organizations and donors adapt to their new reality, we want to amplify the experience, voices, and perceptions of those on their own frontlines — of how the ripple effects of the pandemic are felt by the world’s most vulnerable people and what can be done to “build back better.” In this post, R4D’s Cynthia Charchi interviews the team at the Commonwealth Housing Group (CHG), an organization working on housing issues in Kenya.]

Cynthia Charchi: How would you describe your organization to someone unfamiliar with your work?

Commonwealth Housing Group (CHG): CHG is a nonprofit headquartered in Nairobi that works with a group of families from Korogocho slums to construct 25 housing units in Kamulu. As a small community-based organization, we are working to support people from informal settlements, such as slums, to access better housing.

Our focus is on empowering the community to have ownership over housing initiatives and to build construction capacity and motivation around this. We also seek to train young men and women on construction skills such as masonry, mixing concrete, etc., so they can support their families in the future — when they intend to build their own homes or as potential jobs.

We work by asking families to select a piece of land and supporting the families to raise funds to purchase this land to build their homes on. Our role in the purchase of the land is to serve as trustees on the main title of the land to guarantee that donor resources are well-managed. However, the process of securing proper title deeds and other land documents has been difficult as is the norm with matters of real estate in Kenya but especially in Nairobi. As trustees we ensure the families receive a tenancy lease for 20 years to ensure the housing unit build benefits multiple generations in the family and we require families to maintain their tenancy over the unit without renting or leasing to others. After the 20 years have lapsed, the families receive individual title deeds. We arrived at this model having benchmarked other similar projects in Kenya especially in Kibera slums where the government put up houses for poor families and we established that this was necessary to break the cycle of poor housing across generations.

Cynthia: What ultimately do you hope to achieve with your work?

CHG: We hope to help communities and specifically the first set of families to benefit from this pilot project to have access to better housing and to have progressive empowerment. Meaning that besides housing, they will also be able to care for their families and access basic amenities lacking in slums including having a small garden to grow vegetables, have space for a poultry farm and access water frequently which is often lacking in these areas. This would grant them economic empowerment. To note, the people we are trying to support live next to the oldest Nairobi dump site that is full and there is a lot of environmental degradation and pollution which these people have had to tolerate for many years. For instance, they have been affected by acidic fumes from the dumpsite which has affected the lives of their children. Therefore our objective is to uplift and empower families by removing the burden of seeking safe housing and providing an opportunity for economic independence thereby giving these people a more dignified life.

Cynthia: What are some of the effects that you have seen the COVID-19 pandemic have on CSOs and NGOs in your country?

CHG: Firstly, in terms of NGOs and CBOs that work directly with people and rely on movement to and interaction with the communities to implement activities, they have had challenges due to social distancing and other precautionary COVIDmeasures. These measures have limited the movement of teams leading to disruption of project activities as evidenced by the delays even we faced in rolling out our project. [Note: At the time of this interview there was a ban on movement across counties in Kenya.]

Second is regarding fundraising. Fundraising is a continuous process in our world, but resource mobilization and fundraising has been disrupted due to changes in donor priorities in response to COVID. Additionally, donors have scaled down operations and funding and redirected support to COVID interventions at the national level such as the local European Union in Kenya that has dispersed money to the vulnerable. Other donors have been more concerned with the procurement of PPEs, food distribution, water sanitation booths, soaps, sanitizers etc. This means that resources for original non-COVID activities have been halted and the original plans disrupted.

Cynthia: How has the pandemic affected your organization’s work locally?

CHG: COVID-19 has rendered one million people jobless while others have been forced to work in shifts meaning reduced pay making them unable to provide for their families and meet their basic needs as before the pandemic. With regards to our specific work, covid-19 has delayed our plans for fundraising. For example, we planned to run a cement campaign to raise bags of cement locally, but this is now next to impossible because the people and the companies we wanted to approach have closed. So right now, we are trying to prepare proposals to approach international donors to see if we can get support for these types of interventions.

We also had planned to launch a brick and roofing tiles business, but we have found it difficult to secure funding. We were to raise funds to do the business and the output which are the bricks and roofing tiles were going to be used as materials for construction of the homes.  We were unable to roll out these projects due to COVID and, at present, we are scaling back to see which smaller projects we can do even during this period.

Cynthia: Is there anything that you are doing now to combat the pandemic — or consequences of the pandemic (like food access, corruption or closing civic space, economic inequalities)?

CHG: We have been doing a series of monthly food donations to people at Korogocho slums within and around the area. We have managed to support 40 families over the course of 3 months, e.g., April–June. We have also been able to distribute sanitary towels to girls within Korogocho slums and in neighboring estates.

Cynthia: What changes do you think would help your country “Build Back Better” after the pandemic?

CHG: For now, we are a bit worried because in our country there is a lot of uncertainty with regards to what is next in terms of COVID-19. Like other African countries, we do not manage our resources well, so the Kenyan government is dependent on donors and taking more international loans to sustain the economy and to manage the COVID response.

Looking toward the future, we are also worried. If the pandemic goes beyond September, this could push our economy into a recession, which would further jeopardize our work., including our resources and fundraising opportunities. In fact, part of our strategy this year was to approach local corporates, philanthropists, foundations and individuals to support our projects. But, after a recession, even these groups will struggle to support CSOs like us.

While the government and other key stakeholders have availed funding to support groups such as ours, unfortunately, to date we have yet to receive support from the various task forces and COVID-19 committee. People are wondering how the COVID-19 committee has been collecting donations and there is a general lack of clarity on how to access these resources. For example, we wrote to the committee to get sanitizers to distribute in the community; however, we did not get a response. This is likely due to the mode of distribution proving challenging, so they are opting to work with local government departments but not NGOs.

The government can do more to raise awareness on the virus  and reinvest in communities through community initiatives and public-private partnerships. However, the government of Kenya still lacks public participation. But, by ensuring community participation, we can empower the community to take ownership of the initiatives and efforts in place to manage the COVID response.

Cynthia: What support could other partners/countries provide to help your country “Build Back Better” after the pandemic?

CHG: CSOs need flexible long-term strategic funding that gives them space to innovate and thus build back better. Thus, partners and donors have a role in providing this access to strategic long-term funding to enable CSOs to focus on delivering long-term results. Many organizations and CSOs are finding it difficult to run their day-to-day activities since they are mainly depending on the donations from donors. If donors can direct funds to CSOs, those organizations can run their activities more effectively.

Secondly, donors, partners, and lead agencies, should realize that not all CSOs are created equal and that different CSOs have different roles to play to effect change in their societies. Therefore, requirements on financing, match funding and due diligence and so on need to be tailored to ensure that all CSOs can be funded. What this means is we need to adjust financing measures to ensure the different CSOs with different goals and different target beneficiaries can receive some level of funding regardless. This means that if donors and lead agencies focus their funding on specific CSOs or goals, other CSOs find it quite difficult to raise funds for their activities. Therefore, donors need to expand their support to all CSOs.

Lastly, CSOs and CBOs reach the poorest and most marginalized in communities and so donors, partners and lead agencies, need to leverage CSOs to create and sustain projects for the community members during and after the pandemic in order to build back better. This is especially important for supporting doctors in both the public and private sector, social workers, creating plans to ensure availability of foods and creation of jobs in response to the emergency.

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Photo © USAID Kenya and East Africa

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