Giving may well usurp development to become the humanitarian ethos of our time.
From earthquakes to tsunamis, from AIDS to hunger, our moral horizon is increasingly global. Televised images of catastrophes around the world make it difficult to ignore remote suffering as distinct from one’s immediate concerns. All disasters, in an important sense, are global, and as such, our attention is drawn, justifiably, to the victims of misfortune. Yet the story often fails to include the other side of the equation—those who want to help the victims: poor students sending money for those in need, activists struggling to help the injured, wealthy philanthropists seeking to make a difference. The subtle shades of humanitarian efforts—differentiated by varied imperatives, impulses, and systems of obligation and assistance—remain less visible. Alongside the heroic efforts of professional aid workers and the dramatic suffering of disaster victims are those who provide care inaudibly, without recognition and without status.
For Mauss, the gift involves social contracts and reciprocity; every gift demands a “return.”
Most scholars of economic development, philanthropy, and humanitarianism would agree that development, charity, and humanitarianism are each distinct forms of aid. The efforts of the philanthropist, for instance, contrast with those of professional aid workers who adamantly assert, “We don’t do charity.” Yet all of these are linked together through basic concept of the gift—connecting those who are excluded from resources with those who are willing and able to actively engage. Contemporary practices of helping others are part of a larger universe of giving marked by notions of global citizenship and relations of social obligation that entail rights and entitlements, and sacred conceptions of religious donation, all situated against a backdrop of the global economy of giving.