Tuesday, April 13, 2021

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The balance of giving and receiving

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Today is the National Day of Giving, popularly known as Giving Tuesday. Together with Thanksgiving, it reminds us to be grateful for what we have and to celebrate prosperity and health by sharing these gifts with family, friends and community. This festivity of giving is based on the concept of the power of giving.

Yet in this altruistic act those who give rarely stop to consider the effects this action may have on the person on the other end, the receiver or beneficiary. If giving is empowering, receiving can be disempowering. As much as giving can be fulfilling, receiving can be a traumatic experience for those always extending their hands to receive. 

Circumstances dictate who will be at the receiving end, someone for whom reaching out to receive means putting his or her self-dignity at stake. Receiving what the giver gives, can in fact mean losing so much else.

I have first-hand experience of the dynamics at play in the seemingly simple acts of giving and receiving. For several years I worked as a Resettlement Program Manager. I designed program outcomes, executed service plans, managed a team of case workers and dealt with a large pool of clients. 

As I also oversaw the resettlement budget, I was signing checks for my clients and vendors, thus assuming the role of not only service provider but also a giver of goods and money. I was also answerable to higher management, and we, the givers, convened regularly, budgeting and planning, executing and evaluating. On reflection I believe that such humanitarian organizations, always with the best of intentions, give whole-heartedly to such an extent that they appropriate the role of savior.

With unconscious self-conceit, we believe that our clients will not survive without us. Hence we continue giving with this supposedly magnanimous attitude and often forget to find out if what we give is what our clients, the beneficiaries, actually need.

The givers then celebrate success through numbers achieved – the number of clients served, the number of services provided, number of dollars raised. I am not against documentation and measuring success, but I found that losing sight of humans in a humanitarian setting was unsettling. I began to question the mechanization of giving and the production of statistics, but as a giver, I had to carry on giving without seeing the end.

As a former refugee, I could not (and will not) be able to disregard my past at the receiving end. As I handed a check to a client, I knew that he may be an empty-handed refugee now, but in the past may well have owned acres of land. As I conducted orientation exercises and taught clients how to follow traffic rules, I knew that some of them were owners of transportation companies. When I emphasized the importance of learning English I was aware that some were learned priests and scholars in their communities. But they were receivers and they had now to learn the ways of the givers.

The ‘giver-me’ tried telling my other givers and ‘higher-givers’ that clients needed not only to be provided with services and goods, but also needed to be empowered. For instance, clients must be taught how to read directions and how to ride a train instead of ‘hand-holding’ by being offered daily rides. 

What will they do when services end in 30-90 days? When no one shows up at their door, how will they step out? Some other givers could not believe that I emphasized encouragement and empowerment instead of services. We were service providers, and I was simply to complete a checklist of services. On the other hand, some givers could not believe that I, as a former refugee, seemingly lacked empathy and expected refugees to know how to ride buses and trains. Apparently, I, out of all the givers, should know that our clients depended on us.

Beneficiaries, especially those who have been living as refugees for many decades, develop a culture of dependency. Numbed by the trauma of helplessness, clients internalize the act of receiving and depend on external help, pecuniary or emotional. They will ask for more and expect more. 

‘Hand-holding’ is necessary when clients first arrive, but both organizations and clients need to understand that in order to succeed clients will have to gradually be weaned off being dependent on the giver. A client might change immigration status to a permanent resident or a citizen, but, until a receiver shifts their attitude and learns to be independent, they will remain bound inside by the limitations of a receiver, their hands always reaching out.

As conflicting as my experience sounds, I have learned optimism from other former Bhutanese refugees. We have not let the atrocities of our past limit us, but instead have used the experience to reawaken our sense of giving. We have given to assist when calamities hit, given to help the sick, and to encourage artists and students; the list is ever growing. But when we give, let us not forget that the receiver at the end is a human being, not a statistic. And when we give, let us do so with humility in order to refrain from imbibing an ethnocentric givers’ attitude. Let us give with the belief that we will heal ourselves as we heal our friends, family and members of our community.

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One of the columnists for Bhutan News Service, the author is currently a PhD candidate at Georgia State University, specializing in Victorian Literature with a focus on women authorship and readership. Her next column is due in February 2021. Views expressed here are those of the author and not that of BNS.

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