The Complexity of the Gift Relationship

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

Sophocles: “An enemy’s gift is ruinous and no gift”.

Emerson: “We do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten”.

Antonio Porchia: “I know what I have given you but  I do not know what you have received”.

Beggars’ Day

In Badulla, every Friday is Beggars’ Day (remember that great track by Crazy Horse from 1973?) Many Sri Lankans (like many English) are dubious about beggars – some people will tell you that beggars  belong to organised gangs and are really very rich. There is a less cynical strain in the culture which lays an obligation to give alms to the poor. Every Friday, the town is full of beggars receiving from  shops and restaurants. Customers and proprietors all give something. I was coming out of Wine City when I was accosted by a small elderly woman in Muslim garb. I paid my dues and went over the road to get a cell phone repaired. My egress from the phone shop was blocked by another minute Muslim woman who was expanding to fill the space available. I paid her off and made my escape. When we were back on the street we were surrounded by another three of them. Was this some esoteric sorority, a Muslim midget Mafia? I had difficulty getting served in Wine City the other day because the Muslim Midget Mafia was out in even greater force, their tiny arms reaching above the counter grasping for coins, their heads invisible.


I was used to seeing beggars in Ireland in the 1950s and subsequently was not surprised to see them in India. I still remember the time in 1983 when a young woman on the South Bank in London asked me for “change”. It took me a while to realise she was begging. Soon, as a result of Thatcher’s policies – selling off public housing , killing off manufacturing industry, cutting public spending – The Strand began to resemble Calcutta – City of Dreadful Night, with hundreds sleeping in shop doorways. I have not been to London for five years – are the homeless back on the streets now with Cameron’s Big Society relying on under-funded charities and volunteers to do the work that government should do?

I  received Christmas and New Year greetings from Tessa Doe, a friend I met on a tour of South India many years ago. Tessa and Frank live in rural Wiltshire (I’m trying to think of something that Wiltshire is famous for and can only come up with Andy Partridge and XTC) in the UK. This reminded me that after the 2004 tsunami, Tessa sent me some cuttings from her local newspapers showing what the residents of Seend Cleeve and Melksham were doing in response to the disaster.

Melksham resident  Pete King took it upon himself to travel to Sri Lanka to deliver and distribute 700 kilos worth of supplies from Wiltshire hospitals and pharmacies which Krishan Perera of Sri Lankan Airlines agreed to carry free of charge (the same man was very helpful to us when we transported our three cats from Ireland to Sri Lanka). Pete King reported: “Over the last two weeks I have seen many individuals in Sri Lanka doing their bit … every little effort helps”.

Seend village primary school organized bring and buy sales. One pupil, Hannah, was in Thailand when the tsunami struck but was safely inland. Many of the pupils expressed empathy with those who were suffering. Jenny said: “It’s amazing how the whole world is sticking together and sending money to the places worst affected. Even if people didn’t get killed themselves, they probably have lost family and have nothing”.

Seven-year-old Liam Cutler was so upset by his Aunt Sara Mapp’s experience in Thailand that, according to his mother, he “stayed very quiet. He always keeps his worries inside him.” He asked to speak to a teacher in private and came up with the idea of setting up a cake stall for the benefit of tsunami victims. “He has organized the whole thing himself. He got most of the parents making cakes and the rest of his  class making posters to advertise the event.”

A group called Mums of Melksham held an auction of men in the Assembly Rooms. Don’t ask me what they did with the men! Sheila Ward said: “I decided to get involved after seeing mothers and children separated because of the tsunami. It must be horrendous and I can’t bear to think what it would be like to rebuild your life without your children”.

I was particularly touched to read about the children at St Michael’s school who raised money for the appeal by decorating and selling heart-shaped biscuits. The interesting thing about this was that the children were encouraged to undertake this task quietly with soothing music and to meditate upon the suffering of those whose lives were devastated by the tsunami. Headteacher Beverley Martin said: “We wanted the children to think about what it would be like to have no clean water, no food, nowhere to live, no clothes and, most importantly, no family left.”

The response to the tsunami echoed the outpouring of sympathetic emotion that followed the Ethiopian famine which inspired Bob Geldof to organize Live Aid and Band Aid. Celebrity philanthropists such as Bono, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are today prominent on the world stage.

Richard Titmuss

Richard Titmuss left school aged 14 with no formal qualifications. He has been described as an “autodidactic, degree-less insurance clerk”. In spite of this, he was a pioneering British social researcher and teacher. He founded the academic discipline of Social Administration and held the founding chair in the subject at the London School of Economics. There is also now a Richard Titmuss chair in Social Policy at the LSE. Titmuss’s  books and articles of the 1950s helped to define the characteristics of Britain’s post-war welfare state.

His concerns focused especially on issues of social justice, a term used to describe a society with a greater degree of economic egalitarianism through progressive taxation, income redistribution, or even property redistribution, policies aimed toward achieving that which developmental economists refer to as equality of opportunity.

He was much criticised for his role as a vice-chairman of the government’s Supplementary Benefits Commission  (I was  Assistant Secretary to Sir Arthur Armitage, the chairman of the SBC’s successor body, the Social Security Advisory Committee) which some critics felt did not allow him enough distance from the establishment. Titmuss argued that it was good to try  to make inadequate institutions work better for the benefit of the poor even if his involvement with such institutions had the potential to sully the purity of his reputation.

Titmuss published  The Gift Relationship  in 1970. It compared blood donating in Britain (entirely voluntary) and the US (some donated, some bought and sold). Its conclusions – that the voluntary system was superior in efficiency, efficacy, quality, and safety – helped preserve the National Blood Service from Thatcherite privatisation. Titmuss’s most profound conclusions concerned the quality of life and community when people are encouraged to give to strangers. When blood becomes a commodity, he argued, its quality is corrupted (American blood was four times more likely to infect recipients with hepatitis than was British blood).

“Men are not born to give; as newcomers, they face none of the dilemmas of altruism and self-love. How can they and how do they learn to give – and to give to unnamed strangers irrespective of race, religion, or color – not in circumstances of shared misery but in societies continually multiplying new desires and syndicalist private wants concerned with property, status, and power? … If the opportunity to behave altruistically – to exercise a moral choice to give in non-monetary terms to strangers – is an essential human right, then this book is about the definition of freedom.”

Lewis Hyde

Lewis Hyde also has examined the concept of the gift. He locates the origin of gift economies in the sharing of food. In some societies even an ornament purposely made for passing as a gift is offered as “some food we could not eat”. Hyde argues that this led to a notion in many societies of the gift as something that must “perish”. Many societies have strong prohibitions against turning gifts into trade. Highly organized and technical modern society allows few opportunities for ordinary people to give beyond  their immediate network of family and personal relationships. Hyde investigates the effect our delusion with the market economy has  on our ability to give and receive. In a market economy, wealth is increased by  ‘saving’. In a gift economy, wealth is decreased by hoarding, for it is circulation  within the community that generates increase in connections and strong relationships. Here in Sri Lanka, people say: “you have to give to get”. It is as though giving creates a space for receiving. In Buddhism giving creates  ping, or merit.

Tainted Philanthropy

Philanthropy can be tainted by market considerations. According to Hyde giving is spiritually and psychologically transformative. To sell a transformative gift falsifies the relationship. Therapies and spiritual systems (Scientology is an obvious example)  delivered through the market will tend to draw the energy required for conversion into a commodity. Here in Sri Lanka, it is the custom to provide danes – food – to the priesthood. It seems somehow less meritorious if one pays a caterer to prepare it rather than cooking it oneself.

A Liberian woman we knew in Ireland was making a personal fortune from the second-hand clothes trade. See Apparently the clothes that westerners donate as “gifts” to charities are not passed on directly as “gifts” to poor Africans. The charity sells them in bulk to African middlemen who then sell them on African markets making large profits in the process.

What makes a philanthropist? There are four modern definitions of “philanthropy”: “private initiatives for the public good” – John W Gardner;  “voluntary action for the public good”-  Robert Payton;“the private giving of time or valuables…for public purposes”- Lester Salamon; “the aim of philanthropy…is improvement in the quality of human life” – Robert Bremner. Putting them together we might say that philanthropy means “private initiatives for public good, focusing on quality of life.”

Some cynics might believe that the  main concern of many philanthropists is less benevolence towards a community than self-aggrandizement and tax-avoidance. This is  demonstrated  by the prevalence of foundations boosting the name of some oligarch. Sometimes guilt might be a factor. Many of the noted philanthropists of England came from families who made their fortunes from chocolate – Cadbury, Fry, Rowntree.  Was guilt at the use of slave labor to make the family fortunes a reason for their philanthropic works? John Berger won the Booker Prize for his novel G in 1972. (Francis Hope damned Berger with faint praise saying he was not “inhibited by the fear of being pretentious”. Hope later perished in the Turkish DC10 crash). Berger took the opportunity to make an acceptance  speech at the Café Royal, in London condemning Booker-McConnell for trading for over 150 years in the Caribbean and using slave labor on their West Indian sugar plantations. Berger gave his prize money to the Black Panthers.

The Nobel Peace Prize is funded from the proceeds of instruments of war.

Charity as a Career Move

We all got a warm glow from helping out the Ethiopians through Live Aid and what harm in creating a bit of empathy?  It has to be recognised however that a number of fading rock careers were given a boost by Live Aid. In more recent times the fractious members of Pink Floyd were persuaded to play a live concert for charity and sales of their back catalogue surged miraculously. David Gilmour felt morally obliged to donate all the extra income to charity. (Good man – he also gave the proceeds of the sale of his London house to charity.) Bono has created a new job for himself as some kind of roving ambassador for the poor but evades paying his taxes. New Internationalist magazine has awarded the Dublin jackeen a Jammy Dodger (a sticky biscuit favoured by English children) as “Tax Dodger of the Year”. Estimates suggest that the world’s wealthiest individuals dodge over US$250 billion dollars each year in tax. This far exceeds what the UN has asked for its Millennium Development Goals to tackle global poverty – a cause with which Bono has been closely linked.


Unfortunately, one has little control over what charities do with our donations. We all felt that warm glow when we thought we were helping out starving Ethiopian children (and aging rock stars) but it seems, although Sir Bob vehemently denies it,  we might have been supporting the appalling Mengistu regime or the equally unlovely Eritrean or Tigrayan separatist rebels.


Institutionalised Aid and Corporate NGOs

Dutch journalist Linda Polman argues in her book War Games that aid has often had perverse and at times catastrophic effects. Polman argues that humanitarianism has become a massive industry that, along with the global media, forms an unholy alliance with warmongers. She cites a damning catalogue of examples from Biafra to Darfur, and including the Ethiopian famine, in which humanitarian aid has helped prolong wars, or rewarded the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing and genocide rather than the victims. Polman believes aid enabled the interhamwe, Rwandan  Hutu extremists to continue their attempt to exterminate  Tutsis from the security of the UNHCR camps in Goma.

A number of people from the NGO world rushed to attack Polman but to me, while they may have found errors of fact or examples of exaggeration in Polman’s book, they have not substantively addressed her central thesis. Conor Foley debated with Polman at the Frontline Club and the exchange can be viewed at


In The Guardian, Robert Fox  reacted to Polman’s book

“Linda Polman grinds her axe to the haft. By the end I gloomily felt like foreswearing aid donations and taking up guerrilla avoidance of the clipboard kids in the street at Oxford Circus for life. But taken together, Polman’s books have an unfortunate circularity: on aid she wants us to do that for which she condemns the UN in the first book: do precisely nothing.”  Fox’s views were challenged by many readers who commented.

The May 2010 issue of Opinion, the journal of the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute, carries a long article by Matthew Foley intended to be a rebuttal of Polman’s book. To me it reads more like a defence of her viewpoint.We tell donors that they’re not giving enough, while simultaneously telling ourselves that giving too much creates aid dependency, as if humanitarian assistance were the only resource for people in times of crisis (Harvey and Lind,2005). A lack of contextual knowledge, plus cultural insensitivity, often lead to inappropriate, unwanted or unsustainable projects. Displaced people are still herded into massive camps because delivering aid is easier and cheaper when they are in one place, despite evidence that camps are often incubators of disease and crime, and often develop into more-or-less permanent communities. At higher policy levels, we worry that humanitarian aid may become a substitute for the state, freeing governments of their responsibility to their own people.”

The full ODI response can be seen at:

Giving in Wartime

Ever since Henri Dunant set up the Red Cross back in the late 19th century, the role of the humanitarian has been to avoid taking sides in war. Dunant’s concern was not the rights or wrongs of any particular conflict. Instead he simply wished to ease the suffering of, and improve the care offered to, all victims of war, which at that time were mostly soldiers. In this endeavour he was opposed by Florence Nightingale who argued that Dunant’s compassionate vision was a charter for prolonging war. Linda Polman agrees with Nightingale that neutrality is as much of a problem as taking sides.

Polman argues that competition between agencies distorts the aid enterprise by forcing agencies to go where the money is, not necessarily where the greatest needs are. Aid can be  identified with Western political and strategic interests rather than altruism.

Aid and Dependence

Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo contends  that aid is the cause of rather than the solution to problems in the “developing” world.  William Easterly examines the pitfalls of humanitarian aid in his book  The White Man’s Burden and on his blog at An example of Easterly’s argument: “”The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get four-dollar bed nets to poor families.”


A feeling for the debate on this issue can be found at

 The Aid Business

Humanitarianism is a multi-billion-dollar business. Analysts at Development Initiatives estimate that the humanitarian aid sector globally was worth at least $18 billion in 2008. World Vision International, spent over $6.5 million on relief assistance in 60 countries that year, distributing over half a million tonnes of food to 8.5 million people. NGOs  are huge corporate businesses and they offer a career structure. NGO workers can build up an image of saintliness as well as developing a lucrative CV.

“Aid workers should respect the fact that local people live in poverty,” Polman  says. “It is perverse, for example in Haiti, that there are people sleeping outside in the streets and aid workers step over them to enter the clubs.” The notion of rich aid workers living in luxury compounds while those around them struggle to survive is grotesque and the destabilising effects of their high wages on local economies are well known. So too are allegations of sexual abuse. Here in Sri Lanka, Gomin Dayasri has written about the arrogance of NGOs who link up with what he has termed “Colombians”, whom he defines as a “social stratum in Colombo alienated from Sri Lankan society living in a small world of their own and sending the wrong signals”. Dayasri’s  Colombians form an educated westernised elite, ignorant of the kind of lives led by the majority of the population,  who fraternise with NGO employees and sport themselves in the capital’s luxury hotels and clubs (some of which are out-of-bounds to “locals”) .

During the Sri Lankan civil war there were many accusations of NGOs supporting the LTTE rebels beyond a reasonable boundary of humanitarian neutrality. Two employees of Care International were arrested and charged with plotting to assassinate defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. It  is interesting to note that Care is based in Atlanta, Georgia but in its mission statement specifically excludes itself from doing any poverty alleviation work in the USA. Is there no poverty in the USA?

NGOs the New Imperialists?

Susantha Goonatilake entitled his book on foreign  NGOs in Sri Lanka Recolonisation. He argues that organisations like Care undermine the civil society of “developing” countries like Sri Lanka. “Sri Lanka had enjoyed a rich and active civil society until it was emasculated by the simultaneous arrival of an authoritarian state and foreign-funded NGOs. Its voluntary sector was strangled by both…NGOs have prevented the growth of real society in Sri Lanka. They have been the opposite of almost all that civil society advocates wanted NGOs to be ..The coming years will see an outcome of a struggle between real civil society and foreign-funded NGOs. This struggle, which is partly between a Recolonisation agenda and local voices, echoes Sri Lanka’s 500-year-old struggle with western colonial powers. It will therefore yield lessons for  all developing countries in the new arena of multi-faceted globalisation”.

Goonatilake described the situation after the tsunami: ‘While NGOs stood wringing their hands or trying to mobilise funds only from international sources, Buddhist temples around the country were the quickest to respond. Those affected by the tsunami rushed into temples where they were received with warmth. These temples along the coast became havens of shelter, not only for Buddhists, but also for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. There are innumerable stories of the incredible generosity of these temples. Monks gave up their robes to bandage victims, looked after their children and babies, fed them from whatever little provisions they had, and comforted them. Illustrative of the genuineness of this response was the remote Eastern province temple of Arantalawa. Here LTTE death squads had once hacked to death young Buddhist monks. Now Arantalawa opened itself to nearly 1,000 refugees, most of whom were from the Tamil community and may well have included the very assassins who had hacked the young Buddhist monks’. At the time I visited one of these temples in Hambantota and spoke to Christians, Muslims and Hindus who were being cared for by the Buddhist monks.

Charity as a Conscience Salve

The ethical philosopher, Peter Singer recommends giving a sort of tithe to charities along the lines of religious organisations such as the Mormons. Of his book, The Life You Can Save he says  “The ultimate purpose of this book is to reduce extreme poverty, not to make you feel guilty.”  He begins with an example: You are walking past a shallow pond, and you notice that a small child has fallen into the water and is about to drown. Should you wade in and rescue the child, even though it will ruin your shoes and get your clothes muddy? Most people agree that anyone who didn’t rescue the child would be a moral monster. Even if the case is more demanding—the child has to be taken to a hospital, and that will make you miss a flight for which you have a non-refundable ticket—it would still plainly be wrong not to save the child’s life. The next question is, what is the principle that explains why failing to rescue the child would be wrong? Singer argues that any plausible explanation of what is wrong in this case has vast implications. He offers the following simple principle: “If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to.”

Singer has on his website the motto: “Making a difference”. He certainly made a difference to me with his book Animal Liberation. He changed the way many people think about the place of animals in the scheme of things. On his website he gives his e-mail address. I took the liberty of writing to him  when I was involved in a campaign about two veterinarians in Kandy who, by deception, acquired two street dogs from a shelter and mutilated them for some obscure “research” purposes. I believe that I did make a difference in this case, not by getting the perpetrators punished, but by getting codes of conduct improved. I made a significant contribution to drafting guidelines published by the Forum of Ethics Review Committees of Sri Lanka and the Ethics Review Committee (ERC) of the Colombo Medical Faculty  sponsored by the WHO (World Health Organisation). These guidelines on the use of animals in research were described by the Sri Lanka  Sunday Times as “milestones… Sri Lanka has turned a new leaf in its attitude towards animals used in research, laying down in print and concretizing what may have been practised. They show the right path and hopefully institutions dealing in animal research will encourage and persuade their employees to take them into consideration, thus preventing any misdemeanours.” Singer’s only response was to grumpily tell me to remove him from my mailing list. I appreciate that he is a busy man.

The Life You Can Save seems to me to fall short of  Singer’s normal subtlety of thought and is an example  of the fallacy of false analogy. Just because I choose to forgo some trivial pleasure and give the saved cash to some corporate body claiming to be engaged in philanthropy does not  guarantee that anything better will happen as a result. The most likely result is that I will feel some kind of self-gratification from making a donation. “The ultimate purpose of this book is to reduce extreme poverty, not to make you feel guilty.”  Reducing extreme poverty is a big ambition and is several degrees of separation away from setting up a standing order from my bank account.

I long ago became concerned about the way charities operated. We all accept that they rely on public donations and donations from private individuals. When I worked for the fraud section of the UK Department of Social Security I discovered that people collecting money in the street (these days I believe they are called ‘chuggers’) were paid to do so by the charity and some were doing this paid work at the same time as collecting welfare unemployment benefits. As a schoolboy I took part in street collections for Oxfam realising that I would get plenty of abuse from the great British public and no cash for myself. A more senior representative of the charity made several visits to my office and immediately alienated me by trying to ingratiate himself and cover up the fraud. Many years later, I had dealings with those at the very top of the organisation.

I was working on child protection at the Department of Health and was responsible for disbursing millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to charities working in the field. My view of charities has been jaundiced ever since. (Incidentally, my experience of working with animal welfare organisations taught me that they were more interested in fighting with each other than uniting against a common foe or promoting the interests of animals). Many organisations came to us with a very hard sell for some piece of research or promotion that they had dreamed up. Once they had the cash they became mightily offended when we expected them to produce something. The particular charity I mentioned  above was the most generously funded by  the government but also tried to project an image of the underdog when appealing for money  from the public. It went about soliciting individual donations by sensationalizing issues and distorting statistics in a manner to make Richard Titmuss revolve in his grave. For example, they did a TV ad campaign which suggested that there were very few people in the population of the UK who had managed to escape sexual abuse as children. They achieved this by adopting a very loose definition of sexual abuse which encompassed both a single encounter with a flasher in the park and  repeated violent rape. We felt that this was not helpful to the cause of combating real child abuse and seemed to be a cynical ploy to raise quick cash.

Most of these organisations had celebrity patrons. I met Princess Margaret at one function. Some of the celebrities were more active than her and could call on influential support for their cause. I got on particularly well with one organisation and wrote a speech for my minister to give to their annual conference. Jane Asher was a patron of this organisation. She used to be described as an actress but I don’t recall seeing her act in anything. Her main claim to fame in the early 60s was as the girl friend of Paul McCartney. She later married the artist Gerald Scarfe. She achieved a later fame in the UK for making cakes. She once baked a cake for this charity of which she was the patron. The idea was that money could be raised by a auction of the celebrity cake. She sent a bill to the charity for providing the cake.

Direct Giving

I find that active charity is more effective than passive giving. I have found ways to make my modest income work in a form of freelance micro-funding. We have had second –hand cell phones given to us and passed them on to three-wheeler drivers to help them in their businesses. An asthmatic woman who recently lost her husband came to us for help with her medication. We gave this and buy vegetables from her. I have provided a retired man with cash to buy seeds to start a vegetable-growing business. When we were having our water pipes extended we arranged for our plumber to put a water supply into a neighbour’s house. We put an electricity supply into another village house. That woman brings us breakfast from time to time. I have developed a friendship with a Buddhist monk from Sikkim (he speaks fluent Sinhalese, Tamil and English) who runs a temple in a remote village. I have helped him with some of his building projects which have improved the quality of life in his community. Two Buddhist nuns run a little school, again somewhat off the beaten track. We helped with their building work and arranged a water supply for them and send supplies to them.

There is a larger temple near our home. The high priest there has become a very good friend. We did not realize that he was a very senior priest – the president and the leader of the opposition call him to wish him on his birthday. He is very ecumenical. Our Muslim neighbours take their children to his Montessori school. Hindu Tamils work for him and bow down to show their respect. He has many projects on the go. He provides a water supply to village houses. A huge pit has been dug into which waste is dumped to produce gas for cooking. Computer classes are given to local children. Various job creation schemes such as growing mushrooms for sale are organised with the catholic priest.

When we decided that we needed a new car, selling the old one was problematic. A potential buyer seemed to be trouble – he moaned about the price and however much we lowered it we could foresee him coming back in perpetuity  to complain about defects. Our friend the high priest offered to buy it as it would be helpful to take him to his clinic appointments (he is 86 and diabetic but climbs about like a mountain goat) and various official functions. We gave him the car free of charge.

Community Projects


This gift had many beneficial consequences. When we first came to live in this area we felt a certain hostility. Mine is the only white face for many, many , many miles. Rural people anywhere in the world can be suspicious of strangers (we found this in Ireland also). After giving the car we were greeted with smiles everywhere. I am invited to functions at the temple and given the honour of carrying relics on my head and presenting prizes to schoolchildren, sharing the platform with the then Speaker of parliament and his son who is now an MP, and the local police chief. The usual practice is for the laity to provide food for the temple. We have not bought rice for over two years because the priest sends it to us from his field. We give the temple flowers from our garden and occasionally plants. He wants us to plant them  for him because he believes it will thrive better if it is planted with our hands. We also take ice cream for the baby monks.

The car itself has become a community project. A local mechanic, without charging,  has put everything right that was mechanically wrong and spray-painted the car. He says how can he expect payment when we gave the car as a gift.  Many little accoutrements and furbelows have been proudly added. A local builder  constructed a new garage free of charge to house the vehicle and the completion of the structure was marked with a little ceremony with songs sung by small schoolchildren.

I write all of this not to boast of my own saintliness but to demonstrate the effectiveness  of direct  and active rather than passive charity . Not everyone will have the time and circumstances to be active and giving is probably better than not giving even if we do not investigate the  political background. While charity doesn’t always benefit the intended recipient, it usually manages to make the donor feel better.