Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Gifts for Honduras

Happy Fourth of July!

Now for some fireworks. 

I expect that this entry will be controversial because what I say may seem to be attacking sacred cows.

But I am concerned about what some people want to give to people here and I am not sure how to respond well.

Many people are generous and, face to face with poverty, want to help.

A number of people ask me what they can bring or send to help people here in Honduras?

The obvious answer is money. But many people want to send something tangible.

So people think of collecting stuff to send. And so the poor in Honduras are offered clothes, shoes, school supplies, hygiene products and much more. God knows how much material comes here, especially with more than 50,000 coming here on “mission” trips.

But is there something wrong with this? Does this really help? Or is it just a band-aid or worse, something that has unforeseen negative consequences? Does this type of giving really keep the cycle of poverty going?

What do you think?

This is not a rhetorical question? I’d like to start a conversation on this. I have more questions than answers, as you’ll see below. But I think it’s essential that we ask the questions.

I’ll start by offering my ideas – based on my experience of five years here in Honduras and years of working with service projects in the US as well as immersion trips to places in the US and in Central America.

There are a number of issues to consider.

First of all, what kinds of gifts?

Some questionable gifts:
  • Used clothes: Are the clothes appropriate for the climate and the culture? Are they really good quality or just cast-offs? Do they undercut the local economy?
  • Copybooks for kids: They are just too heavy to bring and usually they are not the size or the type that are used in the schools here.
Some mixed gifts:
  • Shoes: Are they appropriate for the climate and the culture? Are they new? Do they undercut the local economy?
  • Toothbrushes and toothpaste: Bringing toothbrushes, especially if connected with a country-based dental hygiene project and coordinated with community health leaders, can be helpful. Toothpaste is expensive and it is much better to insure that the people know how to make a use inexpensive alternatives (e.g., salt and bicarbonate of soda). Those who bring the gifts should make sure that people in the community show how to use the toothbrushes.
Some possibly better ideas:
  • Pencils, distributed by catechists or school teachers.
  • Tools or parts for agriculture, electrical work, or construction that are not readily available here. 
  • Stickers: A kindergarten teacher is always asking me for stickers for her kids. They are inexpensive in the US and are hard to find here.
  • Symbolic gifts to those who host a group are, I believe, appropriate. For example, an apron for the cook, a mug with the insignia of the church for a host family.

    • Buying things in country is often better than bringing them down. It also helps the local economy.
    • The gifts should most often be distributed by local leaders - a community health worker, a catechist or school teacher, but not by politicians nor by the visiting group. This shows respect for local leadership.
       What are other ideas about the types of gifts?

Secondly, the gifts should be in response to requests from the people.
  • Do the people really need something – or are the requests coming from leaders?
  • Is this in response to a real need or a need that people outside the community perceive to be a need?
Thirdly, what is the purpose of giving?
  • Is it to make the givers feel good, feel that they can do something in the face of poverty?
  • Is it to help the community go forward in its own, locally developed projects to transform their communities?
  • Is it a one-time giving or part of an ongoing process of promoting solidarity between the giving and receiving communities?
Fourthly, what does it do to or for the receiving community?
  • Does it create or promote dependency relationships in which the rich givers are seen as the ones who can solve the problems of the poor?
  • Does it undermine the self-esteem of the receiving community? They might feel that they cannot provide for themselves and their families and therefore are worth less than the rich outsiders.
  • Does it promote a “gimme” attitude among the receiving community? Do it create expectations that visitors will always give them something?
What does it do to the giving community?
  • Does it create or reinforce unhealthy power relations? We “have” what you need. We “know” what you need. You should listen to us.
  • Does it create the impression that the people who receive have minimal capabilities and resources?
  • Does it promote a "god complex" or a "savior" complex in the givers?
Some important points, in my opinion:           
  • Those who come into a poor community need to respect and value the wisdom and capabilities of the people.
  • Any giving should be in the spirit of sharing, not coming just to give. Those coming from outside need to be willing to receive from the people who are often extremely generous, offering a meal even when they are very poor or giving the visitors little gifts. Receive these gifts with real gratitude. Don't deny the people the opportunity to be generous.
  • Giving should promote doing things together. If you bring a soccer ball, play soccer.
  • Giving should be part of a process that promotes the people’s efforts at real transformation of their communities.
  • Giving should be part of building ongoing relationships, for example, between communities, between churches. Are the givers willing to be involved in the struggles of the poor communities, not just today but also for years to come?
Above all give yourselves, not just things.

Seek to establish real relationships of solidarity and friendship.

And don’t forget money.

What do you think?



One of the more interesting gifts from the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas (STA) in Ames, Iowa, where I served until I came to Honduras, was 20 pyxes.

Pyxes are small round containers for the consecrated hosts that are used to carry Communion, mostly to the sick. When a visitor from STA came and heard about the upcoming blessing of communion ministers, she suggested sending pyxes. She herself takes Communion to the sick in the local hospital.

The pastor of STA visited in February this year and distributed the pyxes to the Communion Ministers at the end of a Mass. The associate pastor of Dulce Nombre and he jointly blessed them but the STA pastor gave the pyxes to each communion minister individually.

Fr. Jon giving pyx to Doña Agüeda

This gift was a way of promoting solidarity between the parishes. It provided something the Communion Ministers would not have even thought of, but it is something that enhances their ministry in the parish here.

Several things strike me about this gift.

The gift connects the parish in a central aspect of faith - the Eucharist.

The gift is not to the persons as "individuals," but to them in terms of their service to the community.

The gift recalls the importance of bringing communion to the sick.

The gift is a sign of solidarity.

A deeper reflection on this might help us think about gift-giving.


Charles said...

I think your list is comprehensive and astute.

I usually bring gifts to whoever I am visiting. I have just three criteria:

1. It should be something exceptional that expresses where I am coming from (for example, if from Pennsylvania, something Amish or something from the museums of Philadelphia)
2. It should be genuinely useful for the recipient.
3. It should be beautiful, something that will remind them of our time together.

A food item, being perishable, doesn't fit the last criterion, but is sometimes the best, especially for someone very old or very young.

Large gifts can humiliate people, since they feel they can never return them. Small gifts are good. Sometimes the best gift of all is accepting a gift.

I agree that bringing goods can undercut the local economy, and that local goods should be substituted when possible, but I don't think that should be a determining factor. As individuals, we cannot shape economies. We can shape friendships.

Money is an awkward gift. It screams "I am rich and you are not." But suppose it is given to the children. Then the adults don't feel quite as burdened by obligation.

John (Juan) Donaghy said...

When I mentioned money, I did not mean that as a gift for a person - but rather for an institution (like a church). I agree that one should not give money to individuals, but to help projects in an institution it can be extremely helpful.

As for gifts of food items to individuals, a few times when visiting El Salvador over Christmas I brought fruit cake - which the family liked.

I like your suggestion of a small gift. Nothing that is overwhelming. The gift is an expression of friendship and solidarity, above all.

Tom and Laura (Tomas y Laurita) said...

Please add to your list of questionable gifts: outdated electronics. We're trying to get these young people INTO the twenty-first century, your VCRs/Monitors/Computers/laptops/TV/camera that are more than 5-10 years old are not helpful. Also shipping electronics (or basically anything else) is never worth it. BUT bringing NEW electronics on your person is because prices are lower in the US. Bascially whenever anyone comes to visit here we ask them to bring a laptop or computer parts with them (that we pay for ahead of time, but they're welcome to donate towards it). This echoes what you said about mechanical parts that are hard to find.
Also as a Kinder teacher I whole-heartedly agree about the stickers! US stickers are amazing compared to what's available in Bolivia.

Tim said...

John, excellent post. I think your questions are the important ones that are too seldom asked, and I think the basic principles you offer are great. I wish that well-intended givers didn't feel threatened by such well-articulated guidance, but as you say, giving stuff to poor people is a "sacred cow."

It seems that for many ministries like your own and the ones with which I've been involved struggle to be fully open about these kinds of guidelines for fear of alienating potential givers. Much better to redirect these givers and their good intentions into gifts and actions (and, perhaps more important, mindsets) that do no harm. But doing so is far easier said than done.

Ultimately, it seems to me that if an organization that forms the bridge between a poor community and potential visitors/donors truly believes that some kinds of gifts and visits do harm to those they intend to serve, they need to take the courageous and perhaps unpopular stance of refusing that kind of "help." I suspect some organizations choose to accept them thinking that the ends (more involvement from more donors) justify the means, however unfortunate those means may be.

I look forward to reading more on this when you write it.

Sharon said...

Great post John... and very interesting questions. I've posted my thoughts in response on my (very new) blog: http://sjmclennan.info/sjm/some-thought-provoking-questions-on-giving/

John (Juan) Donaghy said...

Sharon McClennan includes a quote from Elvia Alvarado in her blog entry which is worth pondering. Elvia is featured in Don’t Be Afraid Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart:

"I’m very grateful to all these organizations in the United States, especially the private and religious organizations. I appreciate the food and clothing they send. I thank them sincerely for their willingness to help, and I know they do it with great love. But I’d also like to say that this relationship–where we’re dependent on the goodwill of outsiders–isn’t the kind of relationship we’d like to have…. We’re not going to solve our problem through handouts. Because our problem is a social one. And until we change this system, all the charity in the world won’t take us out of poverty."