Gifts economies, in which human beings are worth more than the market, are fundamental to most traditional and indigenous peoples. Here is a case where a just alternative already exists, and has for thousands of years.
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 respect, cooperation, and ethics thriving.
One of these gift systems is alive and well in Mali, West Africa. Called dama, it is a vibrant economy and culture propagated primarily through a strong, though informal, women’s social network. Gift-giving is not based on exchange or equivalence between giver and receiver. She who receives a gift will probably pass it on to someone else. Another person entirely, somewhere down the line, will give back to the original giver. Dama involves return, but from within a broadly defined community to which the gift has moved on. Gift-giving holds the expectation that just as you care for and provide for others, someone else altogether will care and provide for you or your family.
The circulation of gifts acts as the warp and weft of community, weaving together multiple layers of loyalty and history. A gift is a string that creates and strengthens friendships, family, regional community, religious grouping, and other social networks. At its best, gifting reflects a worldview that society, indeed the world, is a web of relationships – not just between individuals, but among elements of an inseparable whole. Irreducible to give and take, gifting continually reinforces interconnectedness and the collective.
A second purpose of gifting is to sustain and celebrate the values of humanity - what is known in Mali as maaya, ‘human-ness’ or ‘being human.’ Djingarey Maïga, director of Women and Human Rights, says, “It’s the link with your neighbors, your parents, your relatives. If you can’t keep that link, you are not a human being.” 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. Gifting is a time-honored means of keeping away hunger, prolonged illness, and early death. Malians’ understanding of community is that it is only as strong as its parts, only as healthy as its members, so that 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.
Lastly, since one can’t simultaneously pass on and hoard (what many of us call save), giving also keeps inequality relatively flattened. While in the U.S. there is social reinforcement to accumulate as much as possible, with wealth and the wealthy often 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. Popular educator Coumba Toure told us, “The only way you get to be rich is by disassociating yourself from other people. There’s no way to live in community, have family in the way that we understand family, and still be rich. There are so many children that you have to pay for schooling for, so many people that you have to buy medicines for. People really start worrying about what kind of person you’ve become.”
Beyond Africa, gifting thrives throughout the global North and South – usually below the radar, unnoticed, non-quantified, and unarticulated. Gifts are given frequently, spontaneously, and without thought of reciprocity. The gift advocate Angela Miles told us, “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.”
Residents of the most acquisitive nation on earth, the U.S., give infinite forms of services and goods to family, 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 push strangers’ cars, give their batteries a jump in a parking lot, and shovel snow from elderly neighbors’ walks. We donate our very blood to someone whose name we’ll never know, and leave our organs to be transplanted into an unknown individual. In 2005, people in the U.S. gave more than $260 billion to non-profits and charities,ii and 61.2 million volunteered, with each person giving a median of 52 hours per year.iii
Here are a few examples of organized U.S.-based giving:
Freecycle is a Web-based gift network where individuals can post or request free items from others in their community. Freecycle facilitates sharing and re-use, both by promoting the idea and then by facilitating the actual act. And it claims to keep 55 tons of stuff out of the landfill each day. More than 3,000 groups with more than 1.3 members have self-organized in more than 50 countries, with especially large concentrations in U.S., Canada, U.K., Germany, and Australia.
Our friend Valentine Doyle is a member of the Hartford Freecycle, and we asked her about interesting items she’s given or gotten there. Here’s what she wrote us: “The received stuff is mostly pretty boring -- tomato stakes and that kind of thing, plus lots of salmon cat food that somebody else's cat was allergic to. The one thing I received that's odd enough to be on this list is a big bag of llama poop. And there's lots more where that came from.
“The given, though, reflects mostly odd things I've found. Here are a few: some Chinese dresses somebody gave me forty years ago when I was thinner, an exercise machine some previous occupant left in the basement of my house, a giant 70s-style macramé hanging I found in the street, and a Pooh costume.”
Valentine then wrote that she had to go because she and her four-year-old neighbor Felipe had a date to bake an Amish friendship cake. Her description is another indicator of how widespread gifting is in our society: “Have you met this thing? You get a bag of batter, you stir it every day for ten days and feed it in the middle. Then on day ten you divide it into three or four more bags to give away and bake the remainder into a cake.”
A face-to-face version of Freecycle is the Really Really Free Market, which is also a modern-day equivalent of the Free Box that hippies used to locate in community spaces. These non-commercial markets take place once a week or once a month, in a park or a roving location. To them people can bring things they no longer want and take things they now want. Everything is free: old mix tapes, furniture, paintings – whatever. No cash is ever accepted, and bartering rarely is.
Beyond goods, Really Really Free Markets give services like haircutting, plus food and entertainment. Developing community, keeping items out of the waste stream, and having fun are all part of it. One market’s websites describes the operation as similar to a garage sale “but better.... no price tags!”
The Really Really Free Markets’ philosophy is: "Because there is enough for everyone. Because sharing is more fulfilling than owning. Because corporations would rather the landfills overflow than anyone get anything for free. Because scarcity is a myth constructed to keep us at the mercy of the economy. Because a sunny day outside is better than anything money could buy."
Really Really Free Markets exist throughout the U.S. in such far-flung places as Greenville, NC; Grand Rapids, MI.; and Reno, NV. We suspect you can find them in most any large urban area with a concentration of anarchists.
The same trash-or-treasure system exists in low-income neighborhoods the world over, just not in any articulated or organized way. People just line their undesired goods up on the sidewalk for a passer-by to whom they may be highly desired.
Gift of Kindness, a group actively promoting gifting and compassion in all spheres of life. Among other ideas, GiftofKindess.com promotes ‘kindness cards’ that one leaves at the scene after committing a random act of kindness – like paying a toll for the driver behind you.
Consider this form of giving: the Red Swing Project anonymously hangs swings in public spaces in cities throughout the U.S., India, Thailand, South Korea, and Brazil. The point? Simply to provide an opportunity for joy in the midst of complicated city living, inviting passersby to - in their words - “let go and be a child for a moment.”iv Gestures in the same spirit are all around you.
The challenge today is to keep gifting flourishing despite the expansion of markets, advertising, and cash economies. Gifting is a canary in the proverbial coal mine, an indicator of how well cultural traditions can hold up under conditions of globalization. Though obviously forms of giving will always exist, what is certain is that gift and other non-market economies will remain strong and viable only if organized movements vigorously promote them.
Once we started exploring, we found the examples were virtually endless. In baby clothing exchanges in such places as Queens, NY, parents leave too-small clothing for younger ones and pick up the next size for free. Gifters have created leave-a-book-take-a-book – or just one or the other - systems in various subways, like the free box in Logan Square, Chicago.