The institution in Africa that does the most to care and provide for vulnerable members of society such as orphans, jobless individuals, sick people, the elderly, and all those in need is not the state, neither the church, nor non-governmental organisations, but the family!

At Nova we believe that the family constitutes a strategically vital social system in the African context. One of the best ways to combat poverty is to focus on households in the local context. We are convinced that an indispensable aspect in any strategy to improve the quality of life of the large numbers of vulnerable people in Africa is to find ways to empower households to function more effectively.

We consider the household from different angles: from a phenomenological angle, as a satisfier of fundamental human needs and as a micro-system consisting of a number of interdependent sub-systems. These three angles are described below.



In the phenomenological approach we are interested in understanding a given aspect of the household as it is experienced in the minds of the residents within the world they live in day by day. We meet household members and, through a process of interaction and participation, begin to understand the particular aspect that we are interested as they experience it. This is an important phase in finding the solution to a given problem, because the solution must solve a problem that the residents themselves experience as a problem, in a way that they experience as a solution to the problem, not only the problem that we as agents from outside the community want to solve, and the solution we regard as the one people should use.



This approach is based on the theory of fundamental human needs, as defined by the Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef (see article by Nova directors  Murray, M., Pauw, C with Holm., D.  The House as a Satisfier for Human Needs: A Framework for Analysis, Impact Measurement and Design.  XXXIII IAHS World Congress on Housing Transforming Housing Environments through Design September 27-30, 2005, Pretoria, South Africa.)


This approach also gives insight into the needs that people experience and the problems they would be motivated to solve.

Seeing the household as a satisfier of fundamental human needs is an asset-driven approach, which avoids the misunderstanding that the community only has needs that must be satisfied by others. In an asset-driven approach a thorough understanding of what people need in order to satisfy their fundamental needs remains important, but it is combined with a focus on the assets that are available in the community and what can be done by the community, in combination with what should be done by people from outside the community.



(For a quick overview, see System theory in community development by Andy Tamas (2000,, see also


One way to see the household is that it is a system consisting of a number of interdependent parts or sub-systems; it includes the household members as conscious human beings, the physical features of the site and dwelling and all products and artifacts used. The following must be considered:



A household consists of a number of aspects or sub-systems that can be determined in different ways, e.g. by the function each sub-system performs: housing, education, social relations, health care, income generation, etc.



Influences from the macro-structures of society that have an impact on the household meet and interact in the household and combine to form the household as it is



The household members interpret all the factors that have an impact on them according to their views of life, their values, culture, survival strategy, etc. and act according to this interpretation within their context



The way the household acts has a huge impact on the macro-structures of society , e.g. if all households refuse to pay for electricity, the authorities are almost powerless to force them to do so



Different aspects of the household are studied by different academic disciplines at the university. However, there is a mismatch between the household and the university: while these aspects interact and combine in the household, the academic approach tends to study them in isolation from each other. In response, Nova initially formed a research team that consisted of academics of a variety of disciplines, who spent a lot of time to develop a research team that could match the actual events in the household, and can study what happens between the aspects that are studied in different disciplines



When one part of the household malfunctions, it has an impact of the whole system. A specific problem can be seen as a malfunction of the system.


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