Gifts that Matter – Part One

Gifts that Matter – Part One

By Roger O’Halloran

At Home

So how did your Christmas giving go?  Everybody happy?

I took the acceptable option of buying gifts.  It’s the easy option in my time-poor life, and while making something special maybe touching, it would take me a very long time.

Our Secret Santa group set a limit to avoid us wondering if one has spent enough.  And to be even safer we provide a list of the things we want at about the right price.  No surprises, so I think my gift went down okay.

I guess I still have that romantic childhood desire for a wonderful surprise at Christmas.  Knowing my loved ones well enough should enable me to purchase a gift that assists them to work towards their next goal.   It requires a deep knowledge, so I guess asking is better than buying the commodified package that marketing convinces us will suit every Mum/Dad/teenage boy/girl, home handy person etc.

One can of course volunteer some time.  On his 33rd birthday I offered my son 21 hours to assist make his new house a little more liveable.  Despite him living with my renovator’s efforts at home for 30 years, we started with only scant knowledge of what each could bring to his development objectives.  We shared a few skills and tricks, but even with someone I know very well, I realised this gift would not reach great potential in 21 hours.

A documentary I found on-line since Christmas helped to reassure me that in the longer-term what parents give can be far more valuable than the material goods at Christmas.  Malala’s parents were responsible for giving Malala the gift of taking action for justice and peace.  It helped me to realise that, albeit in far less demanding circumstances, I have shared such gifts with my loved ones over their lives.

And Abroad

It’s no wonder we revert to buying stuff.  The same often happens in International Development.  Building the relationships that underpin good mutual development can seem to take too long, so we revert to buying stuff.  Sometimes stuff we believe they need based on our use for it; sometimes what we don’t need anymore.  Books are a favourite on that score.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) recently distributed small friendship grants ($30,000 – $60,000) to Australian organisations to further the work they do with global partners in our region.  It seems it was not designed to fund what Palms does: recruit, prepare and send volunteers to work alongside counterparts to meet skill development requests.  Funded projects generally included buying things not available locally.

Friendship grants are available again in the next two years, which prompted a suggestion that rather than request funds for what we do, we might buy goods that a volunteer decides could be useful to assist the work in their particular sector (e.g. Providing first aid kits to complement the work of our school nurse in Kiribati). Aside from providing more kits than required, spending $30,000 – $60,000 has other issues.

The concern is that it encourages dependence on cargo that the local community may have no capacity to continue providing.  Once when a volunteer raised funds in Australia for a building our overseas partner angrily told us:  “People here had just started to realise the value and fulfilment of identifying and coordinating development priorities from within their own resources and in one stroke she turned them back to a cargo cult mentality.”

If particular goods are their priority would the locals not have prioritised their use of resources to make them available already?  If they’ve no sustainable way to resource the importation of such goods, providing them for a time sets up a cruel reliance on those goods.  Is it not better for the local community to explore sustainable ways within local capacity for achieving the outcomes provided by whatever goods can be sent?

Palms also discourages those who volunteer from funding supplies for partner communities because we are concerned with the potential to distort assignments.  Our concerns are that:

  1. requests for assignments to be filled may be based on funds volunteers can bring rather than skills they might impart and
  2. funds provided by the guest will give him/her power over community members in development decisions.

We don’t want requests for volunteers to be more for the things they bring than for the skill assistance provided to build capacity for self-reliance.  As good as the things may be, reinforcing dependence diminishes building skills and knowledge as a path to developing opportunities.  Note this does not preclude short-term emergency relief after a disaster.

As well, we know our capacity limitations.  Agencies that manage the distribution of funds well have educated and experienced teams of program coordinators who ensure such funds are provided to programs that sustainably build self-reliance. Our team has been developed with a specific capacity for recruiting, preparing, sending and supporting volunteers in local partner programs that build self-reliance.   Switching to buying goods to satisfying a grant opportunity can become a distraction to our core activity and not something we would necessarily manage well.