‘Toubaab, donne-moi un cadeau!’ ‘Hey white person, give me a gift!’ A sentence you hear on the streets from many children. A request which makes me clinch a little. I know the association of seeing a European and having money for many Africans is automatic as part of a long (de)colonial history. I also know that due to a lot of development work, people working in development have handed out a lot of ‘free gifts’, many times necessary, but perhaps not well thought of what kind of culture it would help create. A culture on the receiving end of expecting something without having to offer or do something in return. And a culture on the giving end of being appreciated and being acknowledge for this, just for providing this gift. Both are rather twisted outcomes of the actual principle of a gift.
- A gift in itself is something which does not need to be reciprocated
- A gift can be reciprocated and appreciated, but a gift in the end is only truly a gift when we expect neither.
Admittedly, my frugal Dutch in breast finds it rather odd to be asked for a gift from a total stranger, but I do believe we need to share what can be shared to overcome for example a humanitarian crises. We all in the end have a responsibility to share the gift of life as we all have a right to live.
In development work this has been the implicit assumption, an assumption which may come forth out of the best of intentions, but has in my experience the risk of becoming a hazard and hindering the opportunity for people and organisations to take up responsibilities for the work they do and the role they have in this themselves.
I was reminded of this in two ways when working here in Mali. The first was on our own expectations for appreciation and need for return for our ‘development investment’ in the shape of a good reporting practice. While working through the objectives and expected results of the programmes which the organisations are part of, I realised that the formulation of the results were sometimes not very realistic and next to this lacked clarity and precision. It certainly could be formulated in a much better way and I realised that it was far from fair and realistic to expect partners to achieve something I even had trouble understanding. This is not the first time I have seen this, and it reminds me of the fact that we have a much bigger responsibility in asking for critical feedback from our partners on the way the ‘gift’ of funding is provided. Are the expectations realistic and clear, or not?
The second was towards the end of the training for the partners of Oxfam, by the consultants of EyeOpenerWorks. We had to divide seven cameras and three computers among the participating organisations. The Burkinabé facilitator of EOW had informally asked what the participants had expected and each of the organisations had said they wanted more than one computer and 2-3 cameras per organisation, which were not available. We work with limited budgets and most participants had laptops that could run an editing programme, the computers were only considered as a back-up option. The cameras we had counted on, one per organisation, but not 3 as this was not necessary.
Our Burkinabé facilitator presented this ‘dilemma’ back to the group, with the message that the camera’s would be lend to the organisations, based on a contract and not a gift, having to pay cost in case a camera gets lost or damaged. Within minutes the participants changed their minds, one camera was more than enough to take responsibility for, but one of them added, ‘They should have been a gift!’
Both showed me again the need to honestly look at who we represent, what we are doing and what effects this has on the goals we are trying to achieve. In this case we invited partner organisations to take part in a process where they try to show their results of their projects by looking for the most significant changes in people’s lives since the start of the programme. They do this by making participatory videos in their communities. To do this they get professional training of a filmmaker, a training in the most significant change methodology and guidance while they are making the videos. In the training we already discovered some new results of the projects and the motivation from participants to make the videos was inspiring to witness.
From this perspective I think it will be a success, but I would honestly find the process an actual success if this would help start an honest dialogue on what we expect from our partners and what partners expect from us. We both know the time of handing out gifts is past, but there is an essential need for a reciprocal relationship to achieve our mission to improve people’s lives. Taking responsibility for this, would be the only real ‘gift’ left to give and I will personally follow up on in this process, to build my own capacity to make significant changes in the way I work towards a reciprocal relationship.