Spending money on the extended family: Can we strike a healthy balance?

Money Laundering Euro File photo

Mon, 18 May 2020 Source: Chief Anane Crane

I am fascinated by the familiarity of John’s story. The thing is, you may too. At 35, here is an extremely concerned family man with a wife and three children.

For the last 240 months (over a course of 21 years), he has been the sole financial provider for his extended family. Medical bills, school fees, funeral contributions - you name it. Plus, monthly remittances to his unemployed parents; to ‘keep body and soul together’.

Like many others, John finds himself sandwiched between the core responsibilities to his young family and the social expectations to financially support ‘his people who sacrificed to get him where he is now’.

Ironically, John is struggling with mounting debt. His mental health and the quality of his domestic family life is not what it used to be. Regrettably, ‘some of the outside shareholders’ have now branded his wife ‘a greedy witch’, for demanding financial accountability in their household.

So, what has now changed after all these years of having seemed to manage just fine? Well, there is an African proverb that says, “When the baby grows, the cry changes”. John represents a growing population of progressive young people who have been forced to put their lives on hold to support members of their extended families.

Of course, sharing is a socially worthwhile thing to do. On the flipside, the way our society is structured along the lines of patronage, threatens to undo some of the fundamental human conditions necessary for sustainable developmental take off.

The findings from a recent focus group discussion of 12 economically mobile young people suggest the existence of multiple financial hurdles.

One of the participants summarised the emerging themes when she said “I am expected to pay my own bills, taxes, VAT, tithes at church and then, be on call to give money to whoever is in need.

It is as though no one really cares about how I make the money. As a result, I wont lie...I also find ways and means at work to top up my earnings. Some may call it corruption, but to me its just about making enough to spread the juice around”.

We now have arguably the most educated young population since the start of our nationhood. These people are inspired and need to be unleashed without the shackles that prevent them from building generational wealth.

However, is it selfish to consolidate wealth and comfort for one’s nuclear family, whilst members of the wider kin continue to struggle? Juggling this conundrum definitely brings on swathes of internal guilt and conflict.

Take for instance, the case of aging parents who might not have prepared conventionally for the future and instead, are either driven by choice or circumstances to rely on one or more of their children; to provide that social and financial safety net.

After all, the traditional viewpoint on this matter is reinforced by the proverb which says, “When a monkey becomes old, it is fed by its young ones”

The good news is that the young ones seem to be adept at feeding their old. Ghana is amongst the fastest growing mobile money markets in Africa.

Informal transactions of small amounts, to family and friends, make up over 70% of the internal operational MoMo market. Additionally, Ghanaians overseas also make a substantial input to the national economy through remittances. In 2019, approximately 4 billion dollars was sent to family and friends in Ghana for reasons of support and social development.

Yet, behind the scenes, all is not rosy. The current COVID-19 pandemic has severely hit the earnings of the majority. This means the resource capacity of bona fide benefactors is suddenly in decline. Previous generous outlays have been replaced by a sense of perspective.

People have begun asking the tough taboo questions; based on the theory of reciprocity. “Where were all these people when I was struggling to make a way for myself”? “They never even paid my school fees and shipped me off to serve my auntie in another town. Why should I care about them now”?

Global exposure and comparative learning are the factors increasingly pushing the agenda of self-reliance; even when it comes to seemingly frail and inactive members of the extended family.

Faced with the competing demands of their own households versus wider social financial obligations, frustrated ‘Family ATMS’ are now openly questioning the wisdom of kinsmen who failed to prepare for rainy days.

So, where do we go from here?

Let’s start with the implementation and management of some of our best national policies on social security and welfare. Efforts to formalise the economy need to be ramped up; so that all types of commercial activities are properly recognised, supported and taxed. This approach provides a seamless loop that eventually feeds into a broad-based system; that provides sustainable safety nets for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Spare a thought for the millions of our informal workers; like the ubiquitous hawkers, drivers and petty traders. How widespread is the national dialogue and preparedness for their eventual retirement and the expected decline in their health and wellbeing? Regardless of how little some of our people earn or contribute, they can still be supported within an effective system; which diligently collects and uses resources.

What about family planning? How are we actually leveraging on the exponential growth of the national population? The most marginalized and low-income sections of the populace statistically continue to produce on average 4.5 children. Based on this trend, and from all indications, the majority of our future human resource might turn out miseducated, ill prepared and sadly, with the same financial burdens this article is talking about.

The time is now. Political leadership has to bite the bullet and help manage our population growth. This should be in accordance with available resources, infrastructure, and a well thought out pathway for civic capability development. It is the responsibility of every centralized State to plan and support its people from cradle to grave.

Having said that, WE make the State and therefore, are obliged to put in the effort to write our own future. If we are truly as suffocated by our familial financial burdens as we make out, perhaps we have to start by setting our houses in order. We have to plan, prepare and support our children to grow without any sort of generational weight tied to their feet.

Whilst doing so, its imperative to invest in our own future social security and wellbeing. Forty years from now, the positive evolution of this issue for forthcoming generations will definitely be one of the indicators of our holistic national cultural and economic development.

In the meantime, let’s be honest with our folks regarding the kind of financial support we can comfortably offer; whilst juggling other demands in our lives.

A renowned social economist recently recommended the maximum allocation of 10% of earnings as a charity budget to cater for any such financial obligations – if required. Above all, we have to learn to live within our means, with the future in mind. Let’s remember the admonition of our ancestors who maintain that “A short person hangs his bag where his hands can reach”

If we have to, lets keep on practicing generosity with limits; so as not to eventually burden our children and create a nightmare déjà vu.

By: Chief Anane CRANE

(An International Development Consultant)

Columnist: Chief Anane Crane