Do we ever return the gift?

Do we ever return the gift?

By Roger O’Halloran

I’ve just read a talk by Ivan Illich from 1968 that we filed on our drive in 2015.  I don’t remember reading it then.  If I did, perhaps the file was evocative of “the too hard basket”.

Illich was speaking to a volunteer/mission agency in the United States that sent young Americans to vacation volunteering among the poor in Latin America.  The message is powerfully disturbing, even for Palms.  Illich advised his young short-term voluntourist audience:

 “… that the only thing you can legitimately volunteer for in Latin America might be voluntary powerlessness, voluntary presence as receivers … as beloved or adopted ones, without any way of returning the gift.” 

Illich opined that those being sent were “… the products of a society of achievers and consumers, with its two-party system, its universal schooling, and its family-car affluence.”

As such he reminds me that unless Palms preparation deprograms those we send they will remain:

“… consciously or unconsciously – “salesmen” for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise among people who haven’t the possibility of profiting from these.” 

Palms Australia claims to contribute to justice in global development by engaging with grass roots organisations seeking sustainable solutions to poverty in their communities.  We recruit those with the qualifications and experience to assist developments identified by a requesting organisation wanting to foster the strengths of their people.  I trust Illich would like that we thoroughly prepare and support those we recruit for mutual development with their counterparts in long-term assignments.

Those on long-term assignments might have time to return the gifts, but unless they first begin with a willingness to be powerless receivers while humbly building cultural competence and respect for existing community assets, that won’t happen.  Hopefully, after six months, but maybe longer, pre-conceived Western ideas of what works diminish, and gifts are returned via appropriate mentoring to achieve counterpart determined objectives.

Is radical development required?

Illich clearly believes it is more important that those sent are radically developed by the engagement so that other ways to return the gifts then become apparent:

  • stop consuming in ways that destroy communities globally,
  • realise that having less can bring us to life, and
  • become better advocates and conduits for change in one’s home community.

As I said in June “all the mentoring from those with the greatest skill sets in the world amounts to nothing if other structural barriers prevent equal access to global resources.”  That’s not me speaking off the top of my head.  Partner organisations in the Pacific are very clear about the fact that unless climate change is arrested they will lose their homes.  Click here to see a direct request for assistance predicated on the fact.

Cassandra, Teranun, Kevin, Roger and Christine en route to the climate strike while Rachel hides behind the camera.

On Friday September 20th all Palms staff supported the climate strike led by our youth because all believe that our global relationships do give us a responsibility to inform one’s home community.  It lost us a regular donor, but in turn prompted me to reiterate how important it is for us to change if we’re serious about justice and development for the communities in which we send Australians to work. 

Roger looking out over the climate activists (and for us, his straggling staff members)

As Palms director Bishop Long points out:

“When we work for the justice of God’s reign, we will be confronted by issues of economic and political power. Although the Church always works for peace and unity among the human family, we sometimes need to take sides and stand with those who are the poorest, the most pushed aside and excluded, those whose dignity and rights have been abused. We call it making an option for the poor.”

Perhaps like St. Oscar Romero, a latecomer to acting with the poor, we will one day reflect:

“What a terrible thing to have lived quite comfortably, with no suffering, not getting involved in problems, quite tranquil, quite settled, with good connections politically, economically, socially, lacking nothing, having everything.”

Any wanting to avoid being too late can learn more about why and how agencies such as Palms can act by clicking here to read Red Cross – The Cost of Doing Nothing.

The many who reassured us that joining the climate strike was the right stand assist to reinforce that our awareness and analysis of injustice can require activism as much as it requires appropriate mentoring, or donating.  You encourage our authenticity.  If you can also extend regular financial support it will assist to continue the assignment the regular donor has abandoned, and the many others we are hoping to fill in the coming years.

Please click here to donate.