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Zen of giving and receiving: a Buddhist take on effective aid

Friday, April 30, 2010 by Marianne Elliott

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The past few days there has been a lot of discussion about effective aid and good intentions. It was triggered by the plan to send one million used t-shirts to Africa.

There is widespread agreement amongst international development professionals that this is not good aid. In fact, it has the potential to be quite harmful.

The few voices from the ground that I’ve seen in this debate (which is to say, the few voices from Africa) are also in agreement that this is not a good way to help reduce poverty.

The good news is that the people behind the idea have responded. The latest update on their site reads:

We have heard you and we are making sure we are doing the right thing. There are changes coming … Please understand we are listening and we care about making a difference around the world.

I was tweeting about this the other day when a follower of mine challenged me. She didn’t think it sat well with my ‘zen’ approach to life:

“Zen teaches us to take with gratitude what we are offered. “Give us cash only” is not exactly honouring the spirit of giving.”

It is true that one of the vows of the Zen priest ordination is:

I vow to take what I am given.

Now, I’m no Zen priest, but as a Zen Peacekeeper I wholeheartedly embrace this vow and I practice it every day. It’s the practice of ‘dana’ or generosity. It’s the principle behind my yoga classes, for which I invite you to pay what you can afford and at which I accept what I’m given with gratitude.

I also fail at it every day.

I guess that’s why we call it ‘practice’.

But when I tweeted: “Your old stuff is not good aid”, I wasn’t saying “I don’t want your old stuff.”

What I was really saying was “Our old stuff is not good aid.” (This seems to bear repeating over and over again, so here are 6 questions to ask before sending things overseas)

So here are a few thoughts about a Zen approach to effective aid.

1. Aid is about more than generosity.

Firstly, aid is not only about generosity. Aid is also about the first ethical precept of Buddhism (which is also the first yama of yoga) – ‘do no harm’.

As Karen Maezen Miller put it:

The slightest trace of self (in the act of giving) and it is not dana, it’s self-aggrandizement and it always does harm.

Aid is also a process of rebalancing an imbalanced and profoundly unjust global economic system. In Buddhist terms, therefore, aid is also about the second ethical precept – ‘do not take what is not yours to take’. It’s about recognising that we have taken what wasn’t ours to take, and acting to redress that.

Of course, it’s only because of the illusion of separation that we’ve allowed these injustices to happen in the first place. Injustice relies on the illusion that what happens in Uganda isn’t happening to me.

So international development is about awakening to the reality that we are not separate, that what happens in Uganda is happening to me. It’s about realising that importing one million used t-shirts from the US could destroy small local clothing manufacturers. It’s about recognising that all of this is connected.

2. Generosity is about a particular kind of ‘good intention’

One of the most common responses to criticism of ideas like the 1 million t-shirts is that the people behind the initiative had ‘good intentions’.

Others have already written about why good intentions are not enough in the context of international development. I agree. Effective and sustainable economic development is a complex equation. If poverty reduction were easy maybe we’d have done it by now.

Good intentions are not enough. They are not an excuse for causing harm.

But I also wonder what we mean by ‘good intentions’?

If we took the Buddhist principle of generosity, or dana, as our starting point, then good intentions would require us to have “the desire for someone else’s well-being”.

The desire for someone else’s well-being is not the same as ‘the desire to do something that feels like it might be good”. It implies a desire to give what is needed for that person’s well-being.

This principle is the flip-side of the vow to take what I’m given.

So I’ve come up with my own variation on the dana teaching (I’m not claiming originality here, just walking this path in my own time and learning what I need to learn as I go).

I vow to take what I’m given and to give what is needed.

3. Six magic words: “What do you need from me?”

If we vow to give only what is needed, then we need to know what is needed. This doesn’t only apply to international development. Let me bring it a bit closer to home.

A week or so ago I was sitting at my kitchen table with a group of friends. One of my friends started talking about a situation in her life that was causing her a lot of pain. As I listened I noticed a part of my mind whirr into action, trying to think of what I could do to be of help to my friend. Thanks mostly to my meditation practice I actually noticed this happening and was able to bring my awareness back to my friend in front of me.

Instead of trying to predict what she might need, I simply asked her, “What do you need from me? What can I do to help?”

Her answer was something I couldn’t possibly have guessed. I also suspect it was something that she would not have told me had I not remembered, in that moment, to ask this simple question:

What do you need from me?

This is a fundamental principle of good development. It is the foundation of generosity. Generosity is giving what is needed.

If what I think I have to offer isn’t needed and yet I insist on giving it, then I’ve got to suspect that something other than generosity is at play.

Laura wrote about this in a great post proposing alternatives for the 1 Million Shirt guys to look into, she said:

Find out what the community needs. … Direct your efforts as a response to needs the intended recipients have directly expressed.

It’s that simple really.

Generosity starts with the desire for the well-being of another (not with the desire to ‘do something’, which is more about me than anyone else) and therefore requires some insight into what is needed for that person’s well-being.

In our all my relationships, I vow to keep asking:

“What do you need from me?”

PS: One of the respected international development bloggers who has weighed in on this debate is Alanna Shaikh. I’m really excited to announce that I’ll be hosting an interview and then a follow-up live chat with Alanna in the next week or so. So remember to save your questions about effective aid for her!

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24 Responses to "Zen of giving and receiving: a Buddhist take on effective aid"

  1. Thanks for this post, Marianne. (And for the link!) You’ve beautifully articulated what I’ve been thinking – and I don’t think these are only Buddhist principles. It all essentially comes down to doing to others what you’d like done to yourself.

    I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s round table and hoping it will be productive, peaceful, and grounded in generosity.

    • Marianne Elliott says:

      Thanks Helen and Laura.

      Laura, I agree – these are not uniquely Buddhist principles. That’s just my entry point into the discussion. Lovely work on your posts as well! I hope the roundtable discussion goes well.

  2. Helen says:

    Fascinating post, Marianne!
    So much to chew on here, tying international aid with Buddhist teachings and all our personal relationships.
    “What do you need from me?” – such a crucial question that we often forget.

    Love it!

  3. FYI my mother says tell marianne she is beautiful. :)

    great post.

    thank so much.

    i hope you will turn all your posts into a book! you probably already thought that. yaaay for humans!

  4. […] do you need from me?” rather than jumping up and just doing what I think is right. Marianne made me see that. (see I told you about amazing […]

  5. kerin rose says:

    A powerful and thought provoking post ,Marianne….
    thank you for this!

  6. Richenda says:

    “Generosity starts with the desire for the well-being of another (not with the desire to ‘do something’, which is more about me than anyone else”

    This is such an important distinction for aid and volunteerism. I know that I often hear people say “We have to do something” without a lot of consideration about what would serve the situation/need best. Hell, I find myself saying it! But sometimes when the situation is overwhelming it’s easiest to dive right in and send your old shoes instead of consciously connecting with the real need. I suppose *this* is where the concept of conscious activism comes into play.

    Great post. Thanks for getting me to think about how I respond to others’ need.

  7. Stephanie says:

    Great post, Marianne. I’m particularly interested in your comment on how good intensions bring about more harm than good for the intended recipients. As someone doing international development work in Africa at the moment (and interested in Buddhist teachings), I couldn’t agree more that shipping donation overseas is rarely the solution and usually fails to meet the true needs of the recipients. It’s important to get the message out so that well meaning people can focus their efforts on more appropriate responses. Having said that, my heart goes out to those who truly long to “make a difference” but go about it in ineffective ways, usually due to a lack of understanding about the complex underlying factors. I hear a lot of criticisms of attempts by uniformed but well intended individuals, and I’ve seen people get disheartened and defensive as a result. Nobody benefits from this situation. Offering constructive alternatives and a little more compassion towards those feeling helpless to right the injustices in the world (and who doesn’t at times?) might pave the way to more meaningful action. Your message to give what is truly needed is an important one and something I struggle with regularly. Thanks for your insight!

  8. Hannah says:

    Wow, Marianne! You’re so wise. I have a friend who’s been living and working in Senegal for two years now, and she always tells me we don’t realize in the Western World that we are used to do things our way and it doesn’t necessarily work there, even when we think it’s the best way. They do need help with things, but we keep pushing our ways on them and they don’t know what to do with our “help”. So yes, we should definitely ask them first what is it that they need and how we can be of help. Maybe that way the world would work a little more smoothly.

  9. What an amazing post. Thank you! The simple “What do you need from me?” is pure gold.

  10. Brigid says:

    So glad to have come by your post from “Good Intentions Are Not Enough” blog. I work in fundraising and philanthropy and have a personal interest in Buddhism and very much liked your analysis.

    So much of giving is about the donor’s ego. A donor gives to feel well about himself, a donor gives in order to have an impact on the world (a more subtle way of massaging his ego, considering only HIS impact), a donor gives to meet the donor’s need to be thought of as a good person. All ego. All illusion!

    You’re suggestion of “What do I need from me” releases the donor’s ego from those gifts, and makes giving actually the self-less generosity we should aspire to.

  11. […] Zen of Giving and Receiving: A Buddhist Take on Effective Aid […]

  12. Swirly says:

    So much to ponder here…and this actually touches upon something I have been thinking about quite a lot lately, albeit from a different angle. As always, I appreciate you sharing your journeys, both inward and outward.

  13. Thanks for this, Marianne–
    As a life-long laborer in non-profits in the USA, and a student of Buddhism, the ideas you have laid out here have come, hard fought.

    And the ‘good intentions’ issue is the hardest one of all, as it is what fuels much philanthropy.

    Thanks for this–going to go tweet it!

  14. […] the zen part: in staying conscious, I will quite possibly do more for the world than I’ve done in all my years o…  And I honor the path that it has taken to get me here.   Since it’s not a race to […]

  15. Marianne–
    Not sure this will show up as a trackback, but wanted to let you know that I linked to this post in a post I made this morning.

    Thank you again–

  16. […] point of letting you know that all opportunities to “help” are not equal. You can read my post on effective aid for links to many more great posts about examples of bad aid. But that’s not going to help […]

  17. […] Zen of giving and receiving: a Buddist take on effective aid – Zen Peacekeeper […]

  18. […] What is Generosity? (this is a great follow up to The Dangers of Doing Good published in Yoga Modern last week) […]

  19. Claire P says:

    Mmmmmmmm!!! More proof of how vital humility is!!

    Humbleness. Service. Asking!!!!

    And why do I resist asking? One big thing is because maybe you need something I can’t give…. and then I will feel bad, and I will feel helpless and I will feel guilty and I I I I I oh sorry this was supposed to be about you, wasn’t it?

    But when, REALLY, is there NOTHING I can give towards what you need? Ever? Never.

    Sometimes, at worst, we feel bad we cannot give more. And generosity is ALSO, surely, the willingness to share with you the sorrow and suffering that you do not have what you need. Solidarity. Recognizing that the separation IS an illusion and that what is happening in Uganda IS happening to me.

    And to allow myself, humbly (because it’s not about me) to surrender to what needs to happen to make effective change, little bit by tiny, tiny little bit. My shopping choices, my thoughtful donations, the values and identities I hold onto and those I let go of, the ones I impart to my children.

    To give what is needed. And accept what I am given.

    Oh, YES! That is a life practice to commit to!

    xoxoxoxoxo Namaste and deep bow!!!

  20. […] exploring these issues, I discovered Marianne Elliot’s blog and she has written some great posts and has some terrific links that talk about these issues clearly and succinctly.  If anything I […]

  21. […] This was one of the first I read and I think it is just terrific. So many excellent questions, great links and compassionately written.  I wish, wish, wish more people would read this link from it!!!  She asks more interesting questions about aid here and has 10 questions to ask before you start a non profit organisation. […]

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