Friday, November 21, 2014

Reciprocity in Development

By Laura Denham

They say that there's no such thing as a free lunch; that payment, if not economic, will come as some other form in due course. Buried within and integral to many cultures around the world is the notion of reciprocity; in the Buddhist tradition of 'karma', in what the Andean culture calls 'ayni'. UpClose, our project partner, very explicitly celebrates reciprocity - or 'contributing in a way which enriches both the person who is giving and the person who is receiving equally' - as the cornerstone upon which the organisation runs. Oddly enough, however, my own personal growth had been very much a peripheral vision when I considered volunteering overseas, and even one that I cast off as somewhat selfish or self-interested. Of course, I wanted to understand more about Bolivian culture and Andean traditions - who wouldn't? - but my focus on delivering to the project and trying to help enrich the community and the lives of local people would never be compromised.

As we stand now at 7 weeks (!) in to the project, my views on reciprocity have changed - both for myself and the broader context of development. One of my main projects supporting the work of UpClose is delivering self-esteem workshops to a group of girls aged 7-17 who, for various reasons, are resident in a shelter in Mallasa. I remember particularly vividly, from the early days, standing outside the imposing police-guarded building and struggling to understand how exactly I had ended up there. I am just a person, I have as many insecurities as the next - in what way was I even qualified to talk to anyone about self-esteem? In no way at all, really, but I've learnt week-on-week that the most valuable contribution I can make is just simply talking with the girls, engaging, sharing ideas and opinions. Everyone has a story to tell and it is often more empowering to give someone the time and space to share theirs rather than just telling your own and going on your way. The girls are not only shaping their own lives, but often without realising, they are shaping mine too. Whereas before I might have felt uncomfortable with the idea of myself gaining from giving, I can now appreciate that the act of giving - be it time, money, words, love - need not necessarily be an act divorced from self-interest. This self-interested wish to learn from others in very different situations to yourself is, for me, what ultimately reinforces our similarities as human beings. Being aware of and valuing what I am taking away from the experience is what motivates me to put in all that I can. 

Drawings produced by girls resident within the transit house during project sessions

As I see it, when development is working at its very best, the donor and beneficiary are one and the same - indistinguishable - and what prevails is a mutually-beneficial exchange informed by difference but free from any social, cultural and economic prejudice.

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