The following is the edited transcript of an interview with Rebecca, volunteer coordinator at Habitat for Humanity Brazil.

We have been working in the neighbourhood of Alto Santa Terezinha since 2015, working on home improvements for families who couldn’t afford it otherwise.

Construction material and the necessary workers would be financially unbearable for families living in this favela located in the outskirts of Recife.

What we do is to offer the opportunity to have their homes renovated thanks to the help of international and local volunteers. Families also have access to a not-for-profit loan if they wish to, depending on their revenue. Once the loan is repaid, that money helps fund more work for more families.

Habitat for Humanity Brazil works in 4 states across the country: Ceara, Pernambuco, Bahia and Sao Paolo – through three different programmes:

  • Improving access to water
  • Home improvements and renovation
  • House building

Volunteering and Habitat for Humanity Brazil’s work

Volunteering is open to everyone and anyone who is willing to contribute to society and make an impact in someone’s life.

We’ve worked with groups of adolescents (13-15 year olds),as well as volunteers from all over the world (with many in their 70s).

It’s hard work but we adapt to everyone’s capability and how much they can handle. It’s hard but it’s very gratifying work.

In the home improvement programme, we focus on :

  • Families who live on one minimum wage (less thanUSD$250/month - £200/month)
  • Families who have children suffering from health problems
  • Families who own their house which is crucial to allow for the home improvements to happen

Then we also give priority to people with lung diseases or any special needs which we can help with.

About poverty in Recife

When you journey through Recife by car, many visitors ask about the stilt houses you can still see by the mangroves. If we go back 10-20years when there were a lot more people living in those conditions, that was a lot worse than what you can find today in the favelas. Many of those houses were extremely precarious and unsafe.

But even so, in favelas today, we see many homes at risk of collapsing, others without toilets, without a proper flooring or even a roof. Things just aren’t very safe for those people. What we’re doing today is to tackle these issues.

The data we have today on the housing deficit is that about 15% of the Brazilian population is either homeless or lives in a precarious situation, at risk of homelessness.

People might have a roof over their heads but it’s an unsafe one, one that might be temporary, one they might be evicted from and so on.

Meritocracy in Brazil

Looking at this multitude of homes in Alto Santa Terezinha, I realise how extremely hard-working people are here. They often work much more than those who live in nice flats in the city centre.

I find it unfair to talk about meritocracy to justify poverty in Brazil, it doesn’t make any sense. When you think of it, you can’t compare what life is like here with anyone who had the chance of receiving an education, a good family, and the right living conditions.

Often, you have to struggle much more to survive in favelas. It’s not a matter of individual merit, it’s a structural problem. A problem of inequality that is deep rooted in Brazil. That’s why I find it very unfair to say that people live in favelas because they don’t work hard enough.

On the contrary, I’ve found that they work hard to change their lives for the better, one small step at a time.

You can only talk about meritocracy when everyone has equal opportunities which as we all know doesn’t happen here. Brazil doesn’t provide equal access to basic healthcare, education, housing, and many other key aspects of life that contribute to a successful life.