IHS’s Ellen Geurts explains why she strives for better housing in the Global South

The very first reason to organize a International Social Housing Festival was sharing knowledge on housing internationally, as we are very much aware that the biggest challege regarding housing lays in the developing world. Therefore we dedicated one festival day, the 20th of June, to sharing knowledge with countries outside of the European continent. Here is an interview with Ellen Geurts of IHS, who organizes the ‘Housing for the Global South, policies and design‘ event.

Article by Crispin Pownall, ISHF team

Can you tell us about your background and your relation to social housing?

I was born in the hilly Dutch province of Limburg, I studied Technology and Society at Eindhoven University and  now live in Delft, from where I commute to IHS, the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies, at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

Being from the Netherlands, where social housing is central to so many people’s lives, I have a very personal experience with social housing: I myself was also a tenant in social housing for part of my life. And throughout my studies and work, I have always focused on affordable housing for low-income households and vulnerable groups.

But it is important to draw a distinction between ‘social’ and ‘affordable’ housing: whilst ‘affordable housing’ is a broader concept, ‘social housing’ as we know it in the Netherlands can be very different from how the same term is understood in for instance Albania, Nigeria, South Africa, India or Brazil.


What is the IHS? Why should people get to know your organization?

The IHS is an international institute of Erasmus University Rotterdam where we offer post-graduate education, training, advisory services and applied research. Our mission is to develop human and institutional capacities to reduce poverty and improve the quality of life in cities. We focus on cities, wherein over 50% of the global population lives. We train people to improve the quality of life in cities on a global scale.

Our training and education is based on our research and advisory work in a triangular way; just like our education feeds into advisory work and research and vice versa. As staff we are constantly balancing between education, advisory work and research.

If people are interested to better understand the challenges of urban development in the Global South, they should come and meet us at our ISHF event!

IHS has conducted training programs in, and shared copious amounts of information and knowledge with, developing countries.  Can you indicate what effect the courses have had?

In nearly 60 years of existence we have trained over 9,000 people in more than 140 countries. With education and training you have an immediate impact on people’s personal lives; we often see them get promotions after their return from IHS or setting up new organisations, changing their existing ones and most importantly having an impact in their cities or even on a global scale.

So among our alumni we have mayors, ministers, prominent professionals and NGO activists. These include: Tri Rismaharini, mayor of Surabaya in Indonesia is a proud alumnus; Claudio Acioly, head of training at UN-Habitat, an alumnus and former colleague; Andrea Fitrianto, community architect and part of ASF international; and U Win Zaw, Director of the Construction and Housing Development Bank in Myanmar. Our alumni network is very active and we also continue to work with many of them after completion, with research and professionally.

When I started to work and travel for IHS, it was only when visiting the Global South that I realized how many people in our professional work field had been at IHS at some stage in their life and fostered warm memories and continued warm relations with IHS staff but also fellow colleagues – it is truly a global network.

What is the importance of building strong housing traditions in developing countries?

The necessity of shelter is one of the basics of human life. But housing is more than shelter— it is a foundation for secure livelihoods, security, access to other basic needs and opportunities, to economically develop and very importantly to enjoy one of the most fundamental human rights, namely that of decent, adequate and affordable housing. But it is also a human right that is under threat from many different sides: e.g. market forces, weak governments, climate change. Hence, a focus on housing is crucial, but not only in developing countries.

Personally, I believe that inequality at all levels is a major concern when it comes to housing— and intensifying inequality is certainly not something exclusive to developing countries. Although the number of ‘have-nots’ and marginalized people is much smaller in developed counties compared to developing countries, I do observe that the structures for housing tradition here are also crumbling.

But this is of course a matter of ‘no size fits all’ and requires a careful and tailored process. Each region, country or city might need very different actions when it comes to affordable housing. Social housing as we know it is but one part of the wider housing equation in many countries.

In many places, good public housing programmes also have to incorporate the upgrading of informal settlements. Look at a country like South Africa where the government is no longer singularly investing in the eradication of slums but also dedicates resources to the upgrading of these informal settlements. In some countries, we see NGOs playing an important role in the delivery of affordable housing; in others like Ethiopia, government has achieved massive progress. In large countries like Brazil, we see some cities being far more successful than others.

For me, any housing activity should always have the 4A’s as checks and balances in place: is it affordable, accessible, available and acceptable? If not all four are present, something is not quite right. And then there is the so-called ‘Housing ladder’ – people should be able to move up and down this ladder and have steps (i.e. choices) along the way.

Your event ‘Housing for the Global South, policies and design’, on Tuesday 20 June, focuses on housing in developing countries. Can you tell us what exactly will happen?

Many things! It will be participatory and diverse. We are organizing it in collaboration with Cities Alliance, Reall and the Global Housing Study Centre (GHSC) of the TU Delft – three partners who all work with and on the challenges of affordable and social housing across the globe. What binds us is that we all believe knowledge sharing and capacity development are key to making an impact.

After a plenary session with our joint view of the challenges of housing in the Global South, we have small group debates in a so-called coffee table exercise. This is an exercise which we also successfully used to get the debate started on social housing in an IHS short course called ‘Developing Social Housing Projects’, which we reflect on in a plenary afterwards.

After a coffee break, we offer two tracks: ‘design’ and ‘policies’. In the design track participants get to play Southopolis, a game developed by the GHSC that tackles the challenges of designing affordable housing in the context of the urban Global South. In the policies track, participants will hear the stories and first-hand experiences from Cities Alliance, REALL and IHS of social housing projects and programmes we worked on on the ground.

At the end of the afternoon, both tracks will share their outcomes, giving participants an insight into social housing in the Global South, but also highlighting the universal principles, tools and insights that can successfully be applied to tackle the housing challenge on either side of the equator.

What other ISHF events are you planning to attend yourself and why?

There is so much to choose from! I have yet to make my final decisions. I really want to attend the opening event and will certainly like to attend some of the excursions. As one of the few other inputs from the Global South, I will certainly attend the event by the Nigerian Union of Tenants. In addition, I also see this an opportunity to get up to speed on what is happening across Europe, which is discussed in a number of sessions. And with some energy left, I might round off the day with a cinema event.

Why should all readers attend ‘Housing for the Global South’?

If you are interested to learn more about social housing from the Global South and/or share your experience and expertise of this, and make the most of the opportunities that a globally and professionally diverse audience presents, our workshop is the one for you.

Can you tell about the picture that is attached to this article?

This is me at a course in Minna, Nigeria. I am the lady on the far right!

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