Oct 06 2007

Habitat for Humanity, Philippines: a Reflection

Shanghai American School Habitat for Humanity – Lucena City, Philippines. October 2007

This afternoon my wife and I returned to Shanghai after an amazing week in the Philippinese where we led 16 students on a Habitat for Humanity house building project on the island of Luzon (see map here). While this experience is still fresh in my mind, I wanted to share a few comments about how my thinking about Habitat for Humanity evolved over the last eight days.A warm welcome on our first day

A week ago right now, the 18 of us from SAS were bouncing scarily southward along Luzon’s main north-south highway, which is only a highway in the western sense for about 30 km outside of Manila, beyond which it turns to a two-lane, pot-holed, multi-use thoroughfare shared by buses, three-wheeled motorcycle taxis, lorries, a handful of personal automobiles and thousands of jeepneys. Three hours of nerve and bone rattling travel brought us to our lovely guest house near the southern Luzon city of Lucena, where we would spend five days building a house in a community on the outskirts of the city.

During the bumpy drive, I got to thinking a lot about this, my first, Habitat trip, and the whole concept of Habitat for Humanity, which brings people from the rich world great distances at a great expense to poor countries to help construct affordable housing to get families out of unsafe and unsanitary situations into stable and clean houses. I calculated that between the 16 students I was chaperoning this week, their total expenses for the seven day trip totaled around $19,200, including airfare, transport, accommodation, food, and a contribution to the local Habitat office. I could not help but think to myself on that first night: wouldn’t $19,000 go a lot further and have a much greater impact on the people of the Philippines if it were simply given as a cash donation to a community? I mean, how could the benefits of this trip really outweigh the incredibly high costs?

I will admit, I was a bit skeptical as to the motives and ethics of a program like that which we were about to embark on. If helping poor communities was our goal, then surely a cash donation could do a lot more for a community than 18 inexperienced builders over five days. In fact, in a discussion with our local host, Rudy, I gleaned that the raw material and labor costs of a Habitat house usually come to around $1,500 in the Philippines. That means that a cash donation equal to the amount paid by our 16 students for their trips could have built around 15 houses! Assuming our group would build one house, how could this possibly be a worthwhile program given the opportunity cost of 14 houses that could have been built had we simply donated the cash instead of coming to the island ourselves? My initial cost/benefit analysis seemed to indicate that the idea of a Habitat trip was somewhat flawed and, economically speaking, irrational given the narrow goal of helping get poor people into quality homes. It was with this pessimistic calculation in my head that I showed up to Saint Dominic Village on the morning of October 1, work gloves on, ready to build.

Over the next five days the 18 of us, along with many local high school kids who came to volunteer and the guidance of three professional builders, literally built a house from the ground up! When we arrive Monday morning, there was little more than a 6 by 6 meter square marked off with fishing line on a sloping hillside covered with mud and brush. The first day consisted of nothing more than digging through Luzon’s rock-filled soil a trench in which we would build the foundation walls.The house's first dance party!

By the end of day 2 we had built walls up to waist height, and with the help of 20 volunteers from a local high school, we had filled the foundation with 12 cubic meters of dirt using the highly technical method of “bucket-passing”. Our goal for the end of day 2 was to have the foundation filled and the dirt compacted, ready to poor the concrete floor the next morning. Question: What’s the best way to compact a 6 by 6 meter square foundation filled with 12 cubic meters of dirt in a village with 200 children? Answer: DANCE PARTY! With the boom box blasting and the children screaming with glee, day 2 concluded with our house’s first dance party, attended by about 50 of the coolest, hippest cats in Saint Dominic Village, all bouncing to the rhythm of the music, successfully compacting the foundation for the next day’s concrete poor.

This meant we had two and a half days to build the walls of our house, a task which by mid-day on Friday, we had successfully accomplished. By the time we finished our work, all that was left was the roof beams, a corrugated tin roof, a layer of plaster, and Tivo to make the house liveable! What an accomplishment! 16 students who barely knew the difference between a nail and a screw (inside joke), had actually built a house from mud to roof beams!

Over the five days of our Habitat build, I came to settle my misgivings regarding the costs and benefits of the program. I realized that Habitat for Humanity is not only about helping the poor by building them houses to help them live affordably and safely. It Village children pitching indawned on me by the end of the week that the humanity we’re helping does not only refer to the poor villagers, or the Filipino people, or the people of the developing world in general; rather, the humanity at stake exists within the builders themselves.

Humanity has two definitions: one refers to “humans as a group; the human race”. The other refers to “the quality of being humane; benevolence”. I used to think Habitat for Humanity was about the first definition, that it was mainly about building houses for poor people. Now I know that the program is also, and perhaps most importantly, about the second type of humanity, that it’s just as much about building humaneness, benevolence, empathy and an appreciation for others within the volunteers, the locals, and all people involved in the program, rich and poor alike.

The growth I saw among the students this week was greater than simply an improvement in carpentry skills. They became more humane and caring individuals. That’s what they were paying for, and for that reason, my economic critique of one week ago needs to be reconsidered. The opportunity cost of not simply donating $19,000 to the Philippines may indeed by 14 houses. But the opportunity cost of not going to the Philippines with students, not experiencing the humanity and love of a community like Saint Dominic Village, of not building something with our own bare hands to make others’ lives a little bit easier, and the subsequent growth and strengthening of the humanity within the 16 students (and two lucky chaperones) themselves, outweighs any other considerations of costs.

In other words, the benefits of a Habitat trip are bestowed not only on the village where the house is built, but within the communities to which each of the volunteers belongs now and forever in the future. The tranformation within the builders is the greatest benefit; because of their experience this week, these students will forever be better people, more willing and able to act humanely in their communities in a way that makes the world a better place for all people. My conclusion is therefore that the intrinsic and implicit benefits of Habitat for Humanity far outweigh the explicit costs. For that reason, my wife and I have already decided we can’t wait to lead another Habitat trip.

It was truly a blessed and transformational week for everyone. The village itself (especially its 200 children) was touched by the humanity and love of our students, as were the students by the village. Please follow the link at the top of this post to see the pictures from this amazing week. And if you haven’t already, consider joining a Habitat for Humanity trip in your own country; trust me, the benefits far outweigh the costs!

Built with our own two hands...


About the author:  Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Habitat for Humanity, Philippines: a Reflection”

  1. Gerry Ecklandon 30 Nov 1999 at 1:00 am

    United Airlines Mileage Plus Upgrade Co-Pay Fee Investigation

  2. Mayaon 08 Oct 2007 at 6:35 am

    I am so glad you shared your blog in your recent email about Liz's Iron Man. What great observations on Habitat.

  3. Mikaon 25 Oct 2007 at 3:59 pm

    This is a very beautiful and inspiring entry. I have been helping with the communications of Habitat for Humanity Philippines, and it's quite heartwarming to read such insightful accounts from those who have volunteered and have helped make a difference in the lives of the home partners.

  4. Jeff Charfauroson 17 Apr 2011 at 2:09 am

    What you did was commendable… but still the greatest benefit is to the "rich" people's kids. Hopefully they will lead more charitable lives from this experience. I can't help but think in the short-term there would have been 15 more houses..