Friday, December 23, 2011

Gift Economy

In its purest form, a gift economy is about the collective, allocation based on need, and abundance. Behind gifting is human relationship, generation of goodwill, and attention to the nurturance of the whole society and not just one’s immediate self and family. Maintaining economic and social relations outside of the market keeps cooperation and ethics thriving.

The Value of the Gift

A courtyard in Mali
A gift is never just a material object or service. One of its purposes is to maintain social connections. Be it a bracelet for the arm or a bed for the night, gifts are strings which create and strengthen friendships, family, regional community, religious grouping, and other social networks. dama reflects a worldview that society, indeed the world, is a web of relationships—not just between individuals, but between an inseparable whole. Gifting is not an economic activity so much as a spinning of that web, continually reinforcing interconnectedness and the collective. IEP educator and cultural worker Coumba Toure says, “Who we are is very much defined by how much we give to others. The objects are just the symbol. The highest gift is recognizing people and accepting to be connected to them.”

A second purpose of dama is to sustain and celebrate the values of sharing and humanity—what is known as maaya or ‘being human.’  “Maaya, the link we have between ourselves, is why dama works,” says Djingarey Maïga, president of the organization Women and Human Rights. “It’s the link with your neighbors, your parents, your relatives. If you can’t keep that link, you are not a human being.” She illustrates with the case of her children who, if they are at a neighbor’s house at mealtime, will be fed. If it is bath time, the neighbors will bathe her children as well. A common Malian expression explains maaya: “Life is a cord. We make the cord between ourselves, and you have to hold on to it. One should not drop the cord.”
Thirdly, dama is an essential strategy for keeping the community well. Malians’ understanding of community is that it is only as strong as its parts. Only by all providing for each other will all survive and thrive.

Wherever your gift ends up will be an important contribution toward everyone’s welfare. For example, one afternoon I pass a small cash gift on to my friend Madou. Yaye, a bystander looking on, immediately thanks me. “What you give Madou you also give me, because I will also benefit from his well-being.”

Coumba says, “If you ask any number of people how they live, what they eat, where they get what they wear, you would quickly notice that most of it has been given by someone.” dama is a time-honored, well-honed means of keeping away hunger, prolonged illness, and early death. It provides the social safety net which the state—egged on by the World Bank and IMF—has neglected: a working health system, social security for the elders, education, and child care.

In addition to trying to prevent anyone from being too poor, yet another purpose of dama is to prevent most everyone from becoming too rich. While in the U.S. there often exists social reinforcement to accumulate as much as possible, with wealth and the wealthy frequently being revered, in Mali the cultural norm is to give away as much of your accumulation as possible, with generosity and the generous being most respected. The social pressure to give acts as a disincentive to hoard, or what we call save. Coumba offers, “Being rich here means that the person has abandoned his or her values, that he or she is not giving enough to the needs around. People really start worrying about what has happened to that person.”

Passing it On 

School girls in Mali

In one study in Bamako, each person gave an average of 1.5 gifts per day. Another study found that gifts account for 18% of total expenditures among Malian villagers, comprising the largest single category. Presents are passed along everywhere: a small household decoration, change to buy a school notebook. When a family’s harvest of millet or peanuts is ready, they pass on a portion to the homes around them. If a household is hosting guests, neighbors will typically send over food.

Services are rendered, too, mainly by girls and women: sweeping or washing dishes, running to the corner to buy sugar, tending a market stall, lending a chair or a pot, braiding hair. Women often care for the children of a neighbor who has to leave home to work.

During the rainy season, when the heavens open with a stupendous force, standard practice is that the closest household offers hospitality to an immediately drenched passer-by, inviting the friend or stranger in to dry off with a towel, share a cup of hot tea, and wait out the torrent. Community organizations regularly give small contributions of money or the loan of a conference room to another group. Town residents give lodging to those from their original village until the new migrants can get on their feet. The examples are endless.

Malian homes themselves are testaments to dama. One study found that households consist of an average of 11.5 individuals. They may include orphans, refugees of abuse, or those whose first (biological) family is too poor to feed them or too far from a school to educate them.

Gifts encircle each life cycle. When a woman gives birth, neighbors care for all her material needs for the first forty days, organizing themselves to share in providing meals, milk, and the like. At a baptism and wedding, guests show up with soap, a length of cloth, some palm wine, or a dish of food. On the seventh day after the death of a wealthy person, his or her family distributes food to the children of the area.

Signs of dama abound throughout religious practice, too. Every Friday, Muslim communities distribute milk and bread to village children. Catholic women organize themselves to feed the village priest throughout the year, each one signing up for two weeks at a time. The Rastafari Movement of Mali gives half of the produce of its community gardens to street children.

Lines of giving are complex and often circuitous. “You never know how it will come back. But you have to give because you can’t let the cord break with you,” explains IEP backbone Maria Diarra. She tells of helping a man in the community some years back. Now the man’s sister brings Maria’s family gifts of charcoal and food, gives them rides, and visits whenever she comes to Kati.

“Maybe the link gets broken in a larger community," says Coumba. "But when you are in a community where everyone believes that, it really does work.”

And in the World's Richest Nation...

Western academics are often tempted, as one of them noted, to delineate “a radical break between premodern and modern cultures, with the gift reserved for the premodern, while we must deal through the market and the state.”  We are to believe that, as capitalism developed and exchange systems spread, markets supplanted morals and gifting was destroyed.

Certainly the messages many of us got from childhood to accumulate riches and spend them on ourselves, strive to make that theory real. And yet, in the most consumptive nation on earth, gifts are given frequently, spontaneously, and without thought of reciprocity. One gift advocate offers this analysis: “We just don’t have the right glasses on to see the gifting happening all around us. We see it as exchange manqué or only a defensive position of those who aren’t capable of exchange.”

In fact, people in the U.S. give infinite forms of services and goods to family and friends, neighbors, and strangers without calculation of return. We give where there is no emotional tie, no reciprocity, and often (in the case of a donation to a community organization, for example) not even a thanks from the ultimate recipient. We give anonymously; think of those multi-million dollar donations from unnamed individuals reported from time to time in the newspaper. We push strangers’ cars, give their batteries a jump in a parking lot, shovel snow from elderly neighbors’ walks, leave tips for waitresses we’ll never see again. We even donate organs. In 2005, people in the U.S. gave $260.28 billion to non-profits and charities,  and 61.2 million volunteered, with each person giving a median of 52 hours per year.

Escaping the Crocodile's Lake

dama is under threat by the neoliberal marketplace that is converting much of the gifting sphere to exchange relationships, monetizing the economy, and placing a dollar value on many forms of worth. West Africans’ challenge today is to keep dama thriving despite the expansion of markets, advertising, and cash transactions. A canary in the proverbial coal mine, dama is an indicator of how well cultural traditions can hold up under conditions of globalization.

What is certain is that dama will survive in at least a subterranean way, as do other gifting and solidarity economies throughout the world. Also certain is that dama and other non-market economies will remain strong and viable only if organized movements vigorously defend them.

Kadidiatou Baby, director of the Malian Association for the Support of Schooling of Girls, suggests that, “We can’t go fully back to the traditional economy. But we can organize people so they can better support each other in a parallel economy that nurtures society. You can exploit individuals easily, but it’s harder before a well-organized system.”

As free-market capitalism is being globalized, so are economies that function on a different logic, that of solidarity. Grassroots movements have organized community kitchens in Latin America, fair trade production in South Asia, clothing and book exchanges in North America, and open source software networks in Europe—to name only a few of the spiraling examples. They emphasize women's initiatives, ecological agriculture, ethical financing, and appropriate technology. The World Social Forum hosts a permanent solidarity economy network, and the U.S. Solidarity Economic Network held its first meeting in March, 2009. Brazil even has a secretary of state for solidarity economy.

“You know that difficulty usually gives way to creativity,” Kadidiatou says. “Sometimes people come out of the crocodiles’ lake alive. Go figure how they got out, but they do. Even if they leave with one less limb, they do. When you believe in the survival of humanity, you invent the response.”

Beverly Bell is Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the coordinator of Other Worlds, which collaborates with grassroots movements in documenting and publicizing large-scale economic alternatives, and generates support for them. Special thanks go to the research and analysis of Maria Diarra, Coumba Toure, Debbie Fredo, Anne Mayher, Genevieve Vaughan, and Moira Birss.
For more information on dama, including a short video, check Other Worlds’ web site: For more on gift economies, see

  Cooking Up Karma: A Taste of the Gift Economy

Video: At a restaurant in Berkeley, there's no bill at the end of the meal—just a request to pay it forward for those who come after you.
Video courtesy of ToanLamTV
What if your meal was paid for by the people who dined before you? At Karma Kitchen, an event that occurs every Sunday at Taste of Himalayas in Berkeley, Calif., that is exactly what happens. Volunteers serve food to hungry patrons who in turn pay forward what they value their experience at. There are no prices on the menu and the bill reads $0.00.

With busy locations now in D.C. and Chicago, Karma Kitchen is a success in attracting enthusiasm for a gift economy where what you give benefits those who come after you—and you benefit from everyone who came before. Pay it forward for future diners and rack up the karma points!

37 Ways to Join the Gift Economy

You don't have to participate in a local currency or service exchange to be part of the cooperative gift economy. Any time you do a favor for a family member, neighbor, colleague, or stranger you're part of it. Here are some ways you can spend time in the gift economy, where you'll find fun, freedom, and connection. 
  1. Start a dinner co-op. Rotate among the homes of friends and neighbors for weekly or monthly potlucks.
  2. Help a local farmer with the harvest in exchange for some of the crop.
  3. Put up a traveler.
  4. Hold twice-yearly sport supply exchanges so kids can acquire new skis and baseball mitts and everyone can try out a new sport.
  5. Harvest wild or unwanted fruits and vegetables.
  6. Grow your own, and give some of it away.
  7. Share seeds and clippings from your garden - especially native and "heritage" species. Hold an annual plant exchange.
  8. Organize a "non-consumption booth" at a farmers' market or street fair. At the Charlottetown Farmers' Market, the Environmental Chat Corner hosts discussions of environmental issues, sustainable building and landscaping, ecotourism, and community development.
  9. Buy food or supplies in bulk and share with friends.
  10. Form a home-repair team to fix your own place and others'.
  11. Request help of someone usually regarded as needy.
  12. Create your own rainy-day fund with your friends. One group pooled $1,000 each, which they lent to any in the group who needed it. The fund helped members survive a lost job, a stolen bicycle, and a broken arm.
  13. Make space available to other people to grow food on your land.
  14. Borrow garden space from someone who has extra land; give them,or a food bank, some of the produce.
  15. Give co-workers neck and shoulder massages.
  16. Offer to mentor a young person.
  17. Ask a 12-year-old to show you how to get onto the Worldwide Web.
  18. Throw a block party.
  19. Show up at a soup kitchen and ask to volunteer help.
  20. Rent out extra space to people needing a place to sleep, work, or just to get away, or exchange the space for yard work or baby-sitting.
  21. Convert a duplex, apartment building, old nursing home, or seminary into a cohousing community.
  22. Convert a barn or warehouse into a space for artists and start-up businesses.
  23. Create a space for neighbors to keep and share infrequently used tools and extra garden supplies.
  24. Start a baby-sitting or child care co-op.
  25. Hold a monthly clean-up of a beach, park, roadway, river bank; get coffee houses to donate goodies.
  26. Plant trees. Get the city to select and donate them.
  27. Find a person on each block who will help neighbors get assistance when needed - from other neighbors when possible.
  28. Share a car.
  29. Or start a car co-op with various vehicles for different uses. Share expenses based on mileage.
  30. Paint donated bicycles and place them in downtown areas with signs indicating they're for anyone to use.
  31. Become a foster parent, a 'big brother' or 'big sister.' Notice the ways everyone benefits!
  32. Exchange lessons, for example, cooking for carpentry.
  33. Teach a skill, like carpentry, and ask your students to donate time to others.
  34. Adopt a stream or a highway to restore, maintain, and beautify.
  35. Work with your neighbors to develop a vision for your neighborhood's future.
  36. Hold talent shows. Give kids lots of recognition, and everyone opportunity to discover their hidden talents.
  37. Create your own money. Use ideas from YES! to start a community currency or skills exchange.