How Church members’ donations and special fasts are helping those in need.

The terraced mountainsides and irregularly shaped valleys of northern Ethiopia, now parched and gray, belie the fact that this was once a fertile land. An occasional shrub is all that remains of the sea of green where nomads, moving north with the rainy season, grazed their flocks. Drought has stripped the pastureland and slain the flocks, and the wanderers have reluctantly traded boundless land for tiny agricultural plots or government aid. Without water, hopes for prospering—even for survival—erode along with the country’s precious topsoil.

But in Geddobar, in Ethiopia’s Wello Province, there is hope. Here, in a drought-threatened mountain valley 350 miles north of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city, is a small-scale irrigation project initiated by the Church. It is just one of the humanitarian service projects funded with donations from Church members.

In 1985, two precedent-setting letters from the First Presidency called upon Church members in the United States and Canada to join in special fasts. The funds donated during these fasts would be “dedicated for the use of victims of famine and other causes resulting in hunger and privation among people of Africa, and possibly some other areas.” The letters promised that “all funds contributed … will … assist the hungry and needy in distressed areas regardless of Church membership.” The Saints’ combined outpouring of compassion yielded almost eleven million dollars.

Immediately following the first special fast in January 1985, Church leaders identified “organizations of unquestioned integrity” that the Church could assist in distributing food, tents, and medical supplies to suffering victims in Ethiopia and neighboring African nations. During the remainder of 1985 and most of 1986, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Catholic Relief Services, and CARE delivered the Church-provided relief supplies.

In the spirit of the Church’s welfare services’ philosophy of helping people to help themselves, however, General Authorities determined that some money should also go into projects that would promote long-term self-reliance. So a portion of the donations was channeled into several projects like the one in Geddobar. Most of these activities, carried out in Ethiopia, Chad, Niger, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Ghana, have focused on water and agricultural development as a hedge against future drought. (See accompanying sidebars for details on some of these projects.) Monies from the second special fast held in November 1985 are currently being allocated for projects in other areas of Africa, as well as on other continents where severe need exists.

Under the direction of Africare, work in Geddobar began in mid-1985 to harness the water from a spring-fed mountain stream to provide irrigation to this valley of a thousand acres. The effort had been initiated by the Church in response to the 1984–85 African drought that left millions without food and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

The completion of the Ethiopian water project is a dream come true, both for its benefactors and for the nearly 1,650 farmer families who have worked hard to help make it a reality. When it is completed this summer, these farmers will have contributed more than 200,000 man-days of labor to the project. Sacrifice is not uncommon; some workers walk two to three hours from their mountain homes to put in a ten-and-a-half-hour workday, then walk home again. The average worker contributes five to eight days of labor per month on the project. A food-for-work system provides each worker with about six and a half pounds of grain for a day’s labor.

While high technology and modern equipment could have been used to shorten the construction time and lessen the human effort, the project was deliberately designed to be completed by residents using indigenous materials and local tools. This allowed the people to help themselves and to develop a pride of ownership in the finished product. This approach also helped to minimize the cost of the project.

As a result, local farmers dug all of the nearly fifteen miles of canals and did most of the site preparation for the construction of the diversion weir on the river. The technology of the system is designed so that maintenance can be handled locally by the farmers.

The Ethiopian government has quickly realized the value of having water available year-round in the valley, and it points to the project as a model that other humanitarian agencies can replicate. In the words of one government leader, “This is a very important project, and we want others to mirror [it]. It provides lifelong independence for these people—they can double or triple their output. It is a [successful] experiment for us—low cost technology, using the labor of local people themselves.”

The Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture has exhibited its confidence in the project by providing funds to start a dairy cooperative nearby. A small dairy herd has already been established.

The enthusiasm of the farmers is also evident. Even before the system was completed, a temporary ditch was cut to provide water to a forty-acre section of land. The farmers planted groves of papaya, guava, and banana trees, and prepared beds for a variety of vegetables. Such a risk would not have been taken earlier for fear of insufficient water during the growing season.

Elder Alexander B. Morrison, a member of the United Kingdom/Africa/Ireland Area Presidency, says of the project, “In essence what the project does is help ensure the future, insofar as food is concerned, for ten thousand people in three villages. They and their children and their children’s children will have the means, come what may in the way of rain, to grow the food they need, in greater amount and variety than ever before.” In light of the fact that the world community has called for massive contributions of food aid again this year, the significance of the Church’s efforts to provide perennial irrigation water for these communities looms even more significant.

While 1985’s Church-wide fasts to assist the world’s needy were a first, the Church has always helped people in times of crisis. Following World War II, tons of food, clothing, and medicines were sent to citizens of war-torn Europe, only a portion of whom were Church members. In 1954, the Church joined with the United Churches Ionian Relief Project in Utah to assist the needy in Greece, furnishing the major part of the donated commodities from its welfare program stores. In 1906 the Church sent wheat from the granaries of the Relief Societies to aid the Chinese who were suffering from famine. Throughout the past twenty years the Church has repeatedly provided aid to people throughout the world during times of crisis.

The Lord’s admonition to his Church to help the destitute is clear: “Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men.” (D&C 121:45.) The people of Nephi, as described in the first chapter of Alma, were living this principle: “And they did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick, and the afflicted. … And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished … whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.” (Alma 1:27, 30.)

Suffering knows no geographic or political boundaries. Church humanitarian assistance is part of our obligation to our fellowman, no matter what their creed or form of government. Reporting on a visit to Ethiopia, Bishop Glenn L. Pace wrote, “Our contributions helped all people irrespective of their political affiliation. When Elder [M. Russell] Ballard and I walked the land, we didn’t see Communists, Marxists or Capitalists, but hungry people, all sons and daughters of God.” (Church News, 26 December 1986, p. 3.) As we look beyond giving tangibles to sharing the gospel with every “nation, kindred, tongue, and people” (see Mosiah 15:28), we more fully realize that the gospel of Jesus Christ transcends man-made boundaries.

Generally speaking, Church-sponsored humanitarian projects are limited to: (1) acute life-threatening emergencies such as those brought about by natural disasters and which require immediate, direct relief; and (2) chronic debilitating conditions brought about by poverty, poor health, or unsafe environments that may be improved by self-help development. Church funding of such projects is limited to the resources donated by members for these purposes.

While a majority of the Church’s recent humanitarian efforts have focused on the needy in less-developed countries of the world, leaders have also been sensitive to the life-sustaining needs of those closer to home. Studies and news reports during the past few years have highlighted the plight of the growing homeless population in the United States. Many have been shocked to learn that in one of the richest nations of the world there are thousands of men, women, and children without food or shelter. Many of these “new homeless” are intact families with stable histories who suddenly find themselves unemployed and unable to pay for housing. To help alleviate these challenges, Church leaders have provided commodities to community food banks and soup kitchens and have donated funds to facilities that house, feed, and provide social services to the homeless.

The Church’s contributions to such facilities have been of necessity limited. But leaders encourage Church members to take an active role, as citizens, in worthy humanitarian projects in their own communities. In addition to donating cash and commodities, they can volunteer time and talents to the projects. Many Church members want to donate their skills, and communities are in need of the types of services Church members can provide.

In addition, service opportunities are emerging as the Church works with professional agencies to ease suffering worldwide. Such was the case recently for Brother Dewey Petersen and his wife, Patricia, who volunteered to spend several months in Nigeria setting up equipment and training local residents to drill wells. The Petersens, from Bountiful, Utah, served as volunteers for Africare on a Church-sponsored project. Private non-profit organizations welcome the volunteer efforts of Church members.

The Church has set an example for us in reaching out in a “no-strings-attached” way to provide charitable service. The challenge is ours as individual members of the Church to continue to give service to others without expecting anything in return. Whether at home or in a distant land, it makes little difference. As we serve and help others spontaneously, we experience the Christlike spirit of the gospel.

Agroforestry in Niger

Niger, a country in the Sub-Saharan belt of Africa, has chronic famine and drought conditions. The land is arable, but wind has eroded much of the topsoil.

Under the direction of CARE, funds Church members contributed during a special fast in 1985 have been used to help start nurseries in the Majia Valley in western Niger. Here villagers cultivate tree seedlings for windbreaks. Once the seedlings are mature enough, they are transplanted to the villagers’ small farms to protect agricultural crops, reduce wind erosion, and retain the vital topsoil. The project has helped area farmers increase agricultural production by as much as 30 percent.

These agroforestry activities are being carried out in close cooperation with the Nigerian Forest Service to ensure continuity and long-term success. The project is one of the most successful of its kind in the Sub-Saharan regions of Africa.

Wadis Development in Chad

Wadis are dry river beds or low areas of the desert typically thought of as oases. Surface water in these areas is usually too salty for human or animal consumption or even for irrigation, but the areas are fertile and crops can be grown using water from shallow wells (shadoofs) within the wadis.

Until recently, the resources of the wadis have been used only seasonally by nomadic herders. But heavy livestock losses during droughts are forcing Chadians to develop the agricultural potential of the wadis. A typical wadi must now be the main food source for three to four hundred people.

The traditional way to irrigate in the wadis is to draw water from the shadoof in a sack that holds only a few liters. Because the method is so time-consuming and ineffective, irrigation has not been widely used. Working with CARE, however, the Church is using humanitarian service funds to develop more efficient—but practical—water systems. As part of this project, a larger well system has been designed. Camels draw eighty-liter sacks of water from the well. The sacks empty into a trough that channels the water into a canal system to irrigate a variety of crops, including corn, potatoes, sorghum, and peppers.

Conservation practices are also being initiated in the wadis. Mud bricks, rather than wood from date palms, are being used to build shadoofs. This leaves the trees to serve as a windbreak, reducing the chances of the wadis being invaded by desert sands. Eventually, windbreaks for the wadis and wood for shadoof construction will come from drought-resistent tree species being grown locally in small nurseries.

Community Development on Bolivia’s Altiplano

The Church has recently teamed with the Andean Children’s Foundation to help residents of the Bolivian Altiplano improve their communities. In this project, development specialists meet with community leaders to determine the needs of their village. The specialists then assist the leaders in organizing projects for meeting those needs. In addition, the Andean Children’s Foundation helps obtain the technical resources needed to carry out projects.

This process teaches residents to think through their needs and work together to improve their communities. It also gives them a sense of accomplishment and builds confidence in their abilities to make future improvements.

For example, the leaders of the village of Sora Sora wanted to improve agricultural methods so that they could grow more crops. The foundation helped the people come up with a low-cost plan for digging wells, building windmills to pump water, constructing storage tanks to store that water, digging canals to irrigate crops, and building greenhouses in which to grow vegetables that cannot survive the cold of the high Andes. Villagers built the system and now maintain it themselves. As the people see the success of the community project, they are beginning to adapt it for their own farms.

Building schools, training community health workers, and developing new food sources are some of the other projects villages are now undertaking with help from the foundation.

Asian Refugee Vocational Development

Since 1975, thousands of Asian refugees have come to the United States to rebuild their lives. But the challenges of a new language and culture, along with incompatible vocational skills, have left a high percentage of these people unemployed or underemployed.

Working with the North America West Area Presidency and the Welfare Services staff in California, the Church is assisting LDS Asian refugees—and their nonmember friends—to develop language and vocational skills and to find adequate employment. Volunteers in local stakes teach orientation seminars, accelerated English language classes, and vocational skills such as hotel housekeeping, carpet laying, and basic computing. The volunteers also teach refugees about job interviewing, acceptable grooming, and American work standards.

Participating stakes coordinate with the Church employment system and Deseret Industries to help identify potential employers as well as opportunities for group training.

[photos] Local farmers in Geddobar, in Ethiopia’s Wello province, dig a canal—part of an irrigation system for their thousand-acre valley. The canals and a weir to divert river water into them were completed by the residents, who worked with local tools and materials. Because the people built the system, they know how to maintain it; they have also developed a pride of ownership in the finished product. The completed weir provides water to the valley year-round, allowing farmers to plant fruits and vegetables they would not have been able to grow previously. (Photos by Isaac G. Ferguson.)

[photos] Above: In Niger’s Majia Valley, trees on agricultural land—planted two abreast in rows about one hundred yards apart—protect crops and conserve the topsoil by reducing wind erosion. (Photo courtesy of CARE.) Below: Trees are harvested on a rotating basis to provide wood for construction and fuel. Workers cut the branches off one of each pair of mature trees, leaving an eight- to nine-foot trunk to produce new branches. When the new branches have grown enough to shield the crops, branches from the other tree of the pair are harvested. (Photo by Isaac G. Ferguson.)

[photos] Above: The lush vegetation of this wadi (oasis) in Chad is a stark contrast to the surrounding desert. Agricultural production in the wadi depends on water from shallow, hand-dug wells because surface water is too salty to use. Left: The improved well system in this wadi allows more efficient irrigation. The system’s designer, a Moroccan trained in Paris, leans against a support made of mud bricks while a camel draws an eighty-liter sack of water from the well. (Photos courtesy of CARE.)

[photos] One of the projects sponsored by the Andean Children’s Foundation is fishpond development. Villagers dig a pond—fed by a freshwater source—and line it with rocks, then plant fish in the pond. This provides the people a source of protein as well as a potentially marketable commodity. Above: After seeing the fishponds in the village of Sora Sora, residents of the neighboring community of Sipe Sipe dug their own ponds and filled them with water, then came to the foundation to ask for technical advice and fish. (Photo by Isaac G. Ferguson.) Below: Villagers discuss community needs and potential projects for meeting those needs. (Photo courtesy of Andean Children’s Foundation.)

Isaac C. Ferguson is a Church Welfare Services staff member and is executive secretary to the Church’s Humanitarian Service Subcommittee. He serves as assistant stake clerk and Young Men secretary in the Bountiful Utah Mueller Park Stake.