The Publication of Habitat for Humanity International | October / November 2001
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Volunteerism Takes Root in Hungary

When former U.S. President Jimmy Carter led some 500 volunteers to build 10 houses in five days in Vc, Hungary, in 1996, he started something big. To date, HFH Hungary has built more Habitat houses than any other country in the region and now is poised for greater growth. In August, HFH Hungary participated in the World Leaders Build, had completed nearly 50 houses and had planned to finish 17 more this year.

It hasn’t always been so. Following an initial start in 1994, Habitat’s program in Hungary had to get its proverbial house in order.

“After everything that was forbidden and impossible to introduce and manage in Hungary under communism, Habitat was very much welcome in the early ’90s since housing was such a critical issue,” says Zoltan Bona, HFH Hungary’s executive director since 1999.

"But under communism, everything was state oriented, state managed, state controlled ... so they had to take into consideration: How can Habitat be planted in a different soil?"

In those early days, Hungary’s transition to a market economy and the absence of Habitat’s key success factors—such as volunteerism and church support—yielded rocky ground in which to plant Habitat for Humanity. In that climate, the initial organization veered away from the proven principles of Habitat. In 1996, the Jimmy Carter Work Project provided the impetus for a new beginning.

“Regardless of what you do, if you do it with the enthusiasm of a beginner, it is clear that you will carry the pains of birth,” says Bona. “But there can be fruits coming out of problems.”

A new foundation for HFH Hungary was laid and a new organization created—this time with a firm rooting in the core values and principles of Habitat for Humanity. Family selection, local board development, educational training, church involvement and volunteerism became integral components on which to build the future of Habitat in Hungary.
Today, local involvement plays a vital role in ensuring those components are in place. HFH Hungary requires a year of grassroots development and training before a local affiliate board and its committees become “official.” Affiliate development begins with church participation and involvement. Family selection committees comprise every level of the local community.

And volunteerism—a difficult concept in a country where “forced volunteerism” was the norm not so many years ago—is building.

“If you want a really widespread Habitat, then it has to be ‘indigenized’ or ‘Hungarianized,’ but in a way that does not lose the heart of that which is Habitat for Humanity,” says Bona. “The aim of Habitat is that the proportion of the international partnership in terms of decision-making, support and money, every day decreases, while Hungary’s participation in all these respects increases.

“We started here with 99 percent international participation and 1 percent Hungarian participation,” he says. “Now we have reached a balance of around fifty/fifty. I hope this will be pushed further. Then the proportion is reversed and we have achieved international solidarity. This is when the mission, the house building, the family care, everything, is done with our wisdom, our spirit, our money.”

Bona relates the life cycle of such a goal to that of the life of a mortgage. By the time the first mortgage is fully paid over the course of some 20 years, the local Habitat initiative would increase while the international Habitat involvement would decrease.

As for the future, HFH Hungary’s goals are simple: to build more houses each year with at least one more affiliate in place than the previous year.

The organization is right on target. In 1996, the Jimmy Carter Work Project completed 10 houses in Vc. By 1998, 16 houses were completed in Gd. By 1999, 10 houses had been built in Csepel and in 2000, six houses were built in Gd, along with six more in Dunavarsny. This year, a total of 17 houses is slated for construction in Dunavarsny, Gd and Csurg, the nation’s newest affiliate.

It is a good start in a country where no less than one-third of the population is living in poverty, and for lack of affordable housing, multiple generations live under one roof—often in 50-square-meter block flats. At least half of the existing housing units in Hungary suffer from severe infrastructure problems, including a lack of running water, or cooking, laundry and bathing facilities.

Housing options are few for people earning less than the average Hungarian salary, approximately $300US monthly. Bank mortgage loans are out of the question for most, as interest rates are in the 18-20 percent range. The government, for the first time ever, recently made a type of mortgage loan available to those who qualify—but qualifying is possible only for those people earning 50-100 percent more than the average income.

For the many who remain in need of adequate housing, Habitat for Humanity brings hope, as in the case of Ilona and Tibor Balazs, Habitat homeowners in Csepel. A young couple with no other housing options available to them, Habitat was the fulfillment of an impossible dream.

They’ve lived in their house since 1998, and they still occasionally volunteer for Habitat. “Now there is a way ahead for us,” says Tibor. “That’s why we want other people to have a house, because we know how good it is to have our own home.”

And so, five years after President Carter helped raise the name of Habitat for Humanity to a higher level in Hungary, at long last, volunteerism takes root and local initiative lives.

Local Vision Ignites Armenian Habitat
Following a disastrous earthquake in Armenia in 1988, a spark of interest in Habitat for Humanity ignited and then promptly fizzled. By 1999, HFH international partner Kristi Rendahl again sparked interest in this rugged country. Her efforts in the years since have yielded local involvement, Habitat’s vital link to success. Today, a locally driven board of directors based in the capital city of Yerevan is directing both the program and financial activities of Armenian Habitat. The seven-member board—comprised of professionals in architecture, mathematics and nursing—share a vision for Habitat’s work in their country. In 2000, the Habitat organization was successfully registered with the Ministry of Justice. Since then, the board has hired a director, accountant, construction engineer and a volunteer coordinator to help implement the group’s vision. Some 60 local volunteers have handled administrative tasks in addition to construction. In its first year, Armenian Habitat renovated six houses and built one house. Currently, the board is selecting partner families and plans to begin construction on 15 houses during the next year. Family selection will be among the board’s primary challenges, as more than 100 applications have been received to date. Other challenges to their efforts include increasing local donations to help fund the house building.

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