Friday, March 23, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Jenny Watson, Habitat for Humanity

This week’s Off The Beaten Track guest is Australian Jenny Watson. Jenny is primarily a businesswoman, but whilst business is very important, it’s only a small part of what makes Jenny tick.  Her vision is a world where every family has access to decent housing, a clean water supply and sanitation facilities. To that end, she has developed a programme in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity to take Australian volunteers into Mongolia, Cambodia and Nepal to work alongside local homeowners, building safe and affordable housing and village infrastructure. For more information click here

The world is experiencing a global housing crisis. According to UN statistics, 1.6 billion people worldwide live in substandard housing and 100 million are homeless. Rapid population growth and urbanisation adds greater urgency to this crisis. Every week more than a million people are born in or move to cities in the developing world, increasing the demand for housing, water supply, sanitation and other urban infrastructure.

Right now, according to the United Nations, more than a billion people – 32 percent of the global urban population – live in urban slums in dilapidated housing characterised by poor structural quality, over-crowding, squalor, lack of tenure security and poor access to water and sanitation.

I first heard about Habitat for Humanity in the aftermath of the Tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004.  Habitat was heavily involved in the rebuilding of homes for some of the most devastated families in this disaster. I worked in the construction industry at the time and some of my friends were travelling to Aceh to assist with the rebuilding process. The idea fascinated me – to be able to help not only financially, but physically and emotionally as well – I needed to find out more about Habitat. What I discovered is an organisation based on advocacy, engagement, leadership, sustainability and dignity - all values that I respect and hold.

I believe that long term sustainable change is best achieved when families and communities are personally involved in improving their own circumstances, and Habitat provides micro-finance opportunities for low-income families and communities to build their own home or to build infrastructure in their community. It’s definitely not a hand out – homeowners pay back every penny of any money they borrow and that money is then available for others to borrow and improve their own lives. Many homeowners also go on to mentor others through the process of building their own home.

A decent home is a catalyst for change in the life of these vulnerable families. It opens the door to improved health, better performance in school, greater economic opportunities and increased community cohesion.   

As a volunteer with Habitat, I can’t help every one of those billion people, but I can help just a few people take charge of their circumstances and build a future of hope and potential for their families.

In order to be involved with Habitat for Humanity, I need a “pool” of funds available for micro financing (I can either donate this myself or raise the money through friends and family).  Then I travel to the country, or countries, of my choice (this year, Cambodia, Mongolia, and Nepal) and spend a week with a local family helping them to build their own home.  

I have no building experience – it’s not necessary. I move rocks, dig holes, mix concrete, paint walls, hammer nails, – none of which require any skills. I also learn to make and lay bricks, tie scaffolding, and build steps – all skills that I would never have learned in any other environment, and which I will take to future builds to help other families over the course of my life.

All that said – my involvement is not entirely altruistic – I get as much from the experience as the homeowners do!  I get to travel to some incredible places and meet some amazing people who I wouldn’t cross paths with normally. I get to work alongside them, see how they live, what they eat, I learn the history of their country and their culture and I get to learn about what dreams they old and what they wish for their children.

In July this year, I’m taking a team to Mongolia to participate in a “Blue Sky Build”, where we will join with volunteers from around the world and homeowners to build twenty energy efficient homes in one week. The families for whom we are building currently live in ramshackle wood huts, in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions. They lack connections to the city’s central heating – vital to combat the winter cold – and water systems. Each 32m2 home will have a small bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and a separate toilet. The families will also have access their own small garden, so that they can grow some of their own food.
I am also arranging some teams into Cambodia and Nepal this year, too.

If you’d like to find out more or if you’d like to join my team – please contact me at


  1. What fascinating, important work you are doing around the world, Jenny. Thanks for sharing your story with us. I've known about Habitat for Humanity for years but didn't realize they were involved in projects in so many countries.

  2. Jenny, thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge about Habitat for Humanity. What an amazing organisation you're involved in and how lucky they are to have you.