Monday, March 9, 2015

The Plan for Helping Our Branch Members--George's Post

The worst seasonal rains of this wet season, which caused most of the property damage and loss of life, are now six weeks behind us.  The rains have continued, but we have been spared the high winds and nasty torrential rains of January that did most of the damage.  The final tally among the Zingwangwa Branch members was two homes destroyed and four others with one or more walls down, leaving the homes dangerous or uninhabitable.  This inventory does not include damage to outbuildings or leaky roofs or cracks in walls, all nasty problems, but nothing like the loss of a wall or roof.  Had more minor problems been included, the list of affected families would be much longer.   Members in the three other congregations in Blantyre (Blantyre First, Blantyre Second, and Ndirande Branches) sustained similar levels of damage.   Recently we were told that roughly 20 member owned homes in the Blantyre District were totally or partially destroyed.

For weeks, the local Church leaders have worried about how best to help these families.  Not surprisingly, even though the homes are modest structures, the affected Church members do not have the savings at hand to purchase the bricks, cement, sand, support beams, and metal roofing materials, and to hire the labor, needed to restore their homes.    In most cases, the families have been able to move into temporary housing, often staying in crowded quarters with other family members.   Malawians are amazing generous, always willing to open their homes, frequently for months on end, to help out others in the family, even though distantly related.  They do this without fanfare; it is simply what family does.  Few, if any, have private insurance and local government assistance is non-existent.  Foreign aid, and there are many NGOs working in Malawi, is primarily directed at the high density disaster areas, where the needs are the most visible.   And while extended family can and does help with shelter and food, they are usually as poor as those displaced and can’t loan or gift the money necessary to fund major restoration projects.

By Westerner standards, the requisite financial outlay to repair or restore one of these homes is inconsequential in amount.   The bricks, sand and cement needed to build a wall will not cost more than 100,000 kwacha or roughly $200.  Two or three men or women, working one or two eight hour days, can supply all the labor needed.  Labor costs are cheap, so it is not expensive to hire the labor to replace a wall.   Roof materials (the wood beams, nails, and corrugated metal strips) are more costly, but all of the materials to build one of these small brick homes, from scratch, could be acquired for less than 500,000 kwacha or $1,000.   Remember most of these homes do not have electricity, indoor plumbing or water—adding those amenities would substantially increase the construction costs.  Usually, the main home is serviced by at least two outbuildings—one an outdoor toilet, the other a small shed for cooking and to ensure privacy for sponge baths.  We estimate the construction materials for the five affected home in the Zingwangwa Branch would not exceed 1,250,000 kwacha or $2,500, a manageable number in the United States, but an unreachable sum for our poor members.

An easy solution will come to mind for most of you.  We could fund the total costs out of our reserves or, if we wanted to spread the expense, could fund it with our own monies together with modest contributions from family and friends.  It would be easy to raise the money, knowing the generosity of friends back home. 

But the easy solution ends up being a bad one for the members, even if it is simple for us, represents a quick fix, and may make us feel good.  The problem is that undermines the teaching of important principles that many Africans, including Church members, have yet to learn fully.  The Church is working hard to teach the African members the importance of self-reliance—the skill of standing on their own--so that they are not dependent upon gifts or loans from senior missionaries, aid from NGOs, handouts from Westerners.  Instead, they are to look to their own resources, working with what they have at hand, to make ends meet.  That way they can stand on their own, in the months and years to come, without external aid or crutches.  By solving their own problems, through initiative, hard work and resourcefulness, they will develop the skills and aptitude requisite to becoming and staying independent.  And as they do so, they will acquire feelings of independence, develop a pride in hard work and obtain a sense of self-worth.  

The Church recognizes self-reliance is a skill that must be taught and is in the process of implementing a major program throughout all of Africa, available to Church members and others as well, teaching the basic skills people need to master to stand on their own—budgeting, distinguishing between basic needs and wants, learning to save a portion of one’s income (however modest it may be), learning to “invest” in oneself through education and training.  The program also includes materials to help participants continue their education, get a job or start a new business.  Learning these skills is the ultimate solution to Africa’s poverty.  While the task may seem daunting, there are enough local resources in Blantyre, if harnessed and properly put to use, to improve dramatically the quality of life here.  Hard work, initiative, budgeting, investment, and shrewdness are the qualities that must be harnessed.  The weather in Blantyre is close to being perfect—almost everything grows here—with diligence and sweat, it could be transformed into the Garden of Eden

Still floods, earthquakes, devastating rains, and other natural disasters call for short-term solutions, to address the critical, and immediate, needs of shelter, food and water.   The challenge the Church faces is to care for the poor and needy in their distress, without undermining the core principles of self-reliance that the Church is so urgently trying to teach.  How is it possible to help out without making Africans aid dependent, undercutting the urge to work hard (why work if it will be given to you), or destroying the personal discipline one needs to invest and save for the future.  Why should an Africa work or invest or save, if Westerners (whether the Church or others) always are around to bail them out when they have unexpected crises.  

There is an undeniable irony here that is hard to ignore: when aid is given to those who are already self-reliant and hardworking and self-disciplined, one does not worry about the effect of giving the aid upon those receiving the help.  The act of charity is precisely that--an act of charity—a blessing to the recipient at the same time it is a reward to the one showing compassion.  No one thinks that the recipient of the aid, after it is received, will be any less hard working, independent, self-motivated, or prudent.  The aid is nothing more than a bridge to span what is seen as an unexpected, but short-term, gulf in one’s journey through life.    On the other hand, when aid is given to those already aid-dependent, or lacking discipline, or prone to laziness, the receipt of aid may have a corrosive effect upon the ones being helped, causing them to be more dependent, and less able to fend for themselves.  It is perverse that it is easier to help those who need less help, and more challenging to help those who need help the most. 

Our local Church leaders struggled to find the correct balance: teaching correct principles of personal responsibility, while at the same time demonstrating compassion and charity.  After considerable thought and prayer, the district presidency, and the four branch presidents, endorsed a plan, to be implemented on a district wide basis, incorporating these key elements.

First, Church leaders had to come up with guidelines defining which members the Church would assist.  After discussion, there was quick consensus.  The Church should focus on dwelling houses—not outbuildings--and should limit their assistance to those members who owned their own homes, not those who were renting. The landlords of the renters should be responsible for restoring rental homes and, if they couldn’t or won’t, the members should move out of their current homes, even then livable, into new rental homes.  The scope of the restoration was also defined.  The project should be confined to restoring, as nearly as possible, the existing structure, using the current footprint to set the boundaries.  The intent was not to use the Church’s funds to expand or improve the homes.  Everyone agreed, however, to one qualification to this rule.  The Church would use “fired bricks” for the new construction, even if the home had previously been constructed using “unfired bricks.” 

The second element of the plan dealt with the level of sacrifice that members participating in the program would be asked to make.  The sacrifice required was finally defined in two ways: one financial, and other in terms of donated labor.  With respect to money, each family should be asked to contribute some money toward the rebuilding of their homes, however modest that contribution might be.  It was not considered wise to establish a fixed percentage.  Some of the affected members were extremely poor and would be hard pressed to come up with any money for the project.  In other cases, they were better off, and could probably come up with 5% to 20% of the estimated material costs.  So it was decided that the branch president would first sit down with each family separately to review their finances and to assess whether extended family members were in a position to help.  Based on that assessment, the branch president would determine the amount of money the family needed to raise before getting financial support from the Church.  The family’s donation would need to be in hand, before the construction began.

The branch presidents thought teams of 6 to 8 men and/or women would be ideal for doing the labor.  Each team would need at least one member who had experience in building homes of this type—laying the foundation, building up the initial layers of bricks, getting the right mixture of sand to cement, fixing the right plumb line.  Given that most homes are homemade, this requirement is easy to satisfy.  With teams of this size, single walls could be reconstructed with a day or two of labor, and an entire house within a week, once all building materials were on site.  While families may not have money, they certainly can work.  The general rule was that each assisted family should work, not only on the construction of their own house, but also on at least three to four other homes.  The branch presidents would also ask other members to help provide labor, following the model of the early Mormon pioneers, when they can together as whole communities to help one another in building their barns and homes.   The leaders thought this communal effort would do much to knit the branch together.

As the plan was being devised, the leaders worried about whether other members would become envious of those being helped or would get unrealistic, and unhealthy, expectations about the level of assistance they might receive in the future.   Members should stand on their own and should look to their own resources, and those of their own extended family, before asking the Church for help.  If they act prudently, and invest wisely, they will be blessed and should, absent extraordinary events, be positioned to weather the adversities they face.  Even in this case, it should be remembered that the families affected were in part at blame for their own problems.  Most had built their homes without proper foundations, using unfired bricks and mortar with too much sand to concrete.  Had they been more patient in the first place, their homes could have withstood the problems.  Moreover, others, even with homes similarly constructed, were able to screen their walls with large sheets of plastic on the days of the worst weather and hence keep their walls standing upright, despite the driving rain.

The members whose homes survived the bad weather should not resent the help to be given to the less fortunate.  Their blessing was that they were preserved.  But the members are still new in the Church, and envy, jealousy, pettiness, back biting can still creep in.  And, as mentioned before, the greatest risk was that of undermining the members' understanding of the principle that they are responsible for themselves and their own families and should not look to others for help.  After much discussion, it was decided to dedicate this past Fast Sunday to praying for and remembering the needy, asking all members to be even more generous than normal in contributing their fast offerings.   President Chikapa spent time, both the Sunday before the fast, and the Sunday of the fast, explaining the role of fast offerings in the Church.  He encouraged everyone to be more generous than usual when contributing fast offering, and to pray for the relief and comfort of those whose homes had been destroyed or substantially damaged.  I thought he did a marvelous job and, as best I can tell, the Branch members have rallied around those most in need of help.