I was feeling pretty good about myself when, in fact, I was being an arrogant jerk. I was in a rural Nicaraguan village being interviewed by the government about all we had done to help the hungry people. The village’s crops had been wiped out in torrential rains and we arrived with truckloads of beans, rice, and other staples to help them through. Oh, yeah, and I brought along my arrogance.

Standing in the shade of a Jicaro tree in the tropical sun, I boasted of our team and how we’d come to save-the-day for these poor people.  It was early-on in my passion to fight hunger and I had a few things to learn. Boy, did I have a few things to learn!

As I talked, it occurred to me how arrogant I sounded. In fact, one part of my brain whispered to the other, “Get off your big white horse!”  So I did; I shifted my conversation around to what they had done for us.  Their hospitality had been more welcoming than any I had ever known, their gifts back to us were proportionately far more than anything we had ever given them, and they treated us like family.

Near the end of the conversation, I was approached by Santiago- The Man Who Taught Me to Hate Charity. He came up to me holding a wiggling burlap bag. I had no idea what live creature was in there such as a boa, an iguana, or chicken, but I opened the bag carefully and, down in the bottom, was a little white rabbit. Since that moment, I try to create ways that reciprocity can be built into charity.  Reciprocity is a two-way street; charity is typically one way.

One of the most brilliant stories about reciprocity built into charity is about Floyd Hammer and Kathy Hamilton, founders of Outreach, Inc., who witnessed children die of starvation in Africa. Floyd bought a couple of truckloads of maize (white corn), but told the villagers that he would barter with them the things he needed to help build an AIDs hospice such as sand, aggregate, and charcoal. The next day, the mammas in the village came with beautiful grass baskets and the bartering began. Since then, Outreach has purchased over 65,000 baskets!

The only people who like charity are those who have the capacity to give. So what if we started building reciprocity into our charity? Not because we want something in return, but because we value human dignity and believe that no one really wants a hand-out.

Here are a few questions:

      • How can we help  the person receiving the charity find a way to give back?
      • Is there something in our current charity model that could be tweaked bit to provide opportunities for trade of work or items for goods?
      • How can we help that person(s) who is at the receiving end of charity create self-worth and dignity in return for the help they’ve been given.
      • I’m not suggesting we attach strings to charity, but how can we provide opportunities for people who  seemingly have nothing to give back?

We won’t always be able to build reciprocity into charity. I’ve watched straggling lines of starving people crawl into the largest refugee camp in the world and they have to be given aid or else they die.

But what if we found ways in our systems of charity to create opportunities for human dignity to thrive?

If we were successful, one day we’d no longer need charity and we would find our streets being two-way instead of one-way.

The photo in the blog is one I took in the Dedaab, Kenya refugee camp- the world’s largest. After refugees are on their feet, ways are created that they can give back.

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