The Civil Society Bookshelf

Gifts and Nations: The Obligation to Give, Recieve, and Repay

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 6, Issue 4, September 2004

By Wilton S. Dillon
Reviewed by Bill Landsberg

How often have Americans shaken their heads in frustration over what they perceive to be the world’s lack of gratitude for U.S. foreign aid? Whether it is an African nation’s ungrateful vote in the United Nations, an old European ally’s apparent amnesia concerning the Marshall Plan, or the anger directed at American peacekeepers by Somali and Iraqi street gangs, we look in amazement at what our generosity has brought us.

But is there more to foreign aid than the giving nation’s generosity and the receiving nation’s owed gratitude? Yes, according to Wilton Dillon’s Gifts and Nations, originally published in 1968 and issued in a new edition in 2003. Drawing on the work of French sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1872-1950), Dillon proposes important parallels between the gift exchange rituals of ancient societies and the organized technical assistance programs of modern industrial nations. He believes that these parallels should guide the architects of foreign aid to a new understanding of the recipient cultures’ attitudes and needs, leading to a more productive method of spreading the physical tools and the intellectual know-how of foreign aid to the developing world. Productive and appreciated aid programs are very much in the donors’ interests, for third world poverty now affects our common environmental, health, economic, and political interests.

Dillon, a Senior Scholar Emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution, begins by describing the academic and cultural journeys that brought him to this subject. He spent much of the 1950s studying cross-cultural communications and public policy formation, and came to recognize that “the communication of ideas about western technology, science, political organization, social values, religious beliefs, and esthetics became a problem of understanding the cultural setting in which these ideas were received.” He surmised that related issues were playing themselves out at that time in the Marshall Plan, the highly regarded program of U.S. economic technical assistance to 16 European countries designed to help them restore their productivity after World War II.

Dillon happened upon a unique vantage point from which to observe this international cultural exchange. While studying in France, one of the Marshall Plan’s recipient countries, he was engaged as an English language tutor to a French engineer and owner of a small factory, who was preparing to leave for the United States as chief of a productivity mission organized by the Marshall Plan to study American industrial practices. This professional relationship, later to become a friendship, lasted years and provided firsthand evidence of the French reaction to receiving needed aid from another country and another culture.

While consulting with French social scientists, Dillon was drawn again to the work of Marcel Mauss. Early in the 20th century, Mauss studied exchange institutions of ancient, preliterate cultures, including the Potlatch of the Kwakiutl Indians of the American Northwest and the Kula Ring of Melanesians of the South Pacific. Mauss discovered a common pattern. He concluded that the success of these exchange rituals was due in large part to the participants’ ability to fulfill three obligations: the obligation to give, the obligation to receive, and the obligation to repay. This pattern extended to both tangible and intangible gifts.

In Gifts and Nations, Dillon applies Mauss’s generalizations to the giving and receiving process marking the relations between Americans and the French during the Marshall Plan and the years that followed. Dillon proposes that knowledge and intellectual goods–the sort of gifts that the Marshall Plan offered his French employer–are comparable to the tangible gifts present in Mauss’s preliterate societies. With respect to modern foreign aid between nations, further, Dillon maintains that strains and compensatory mechanisms seem to operate when persons of the donor-teacher nations and persons of the receiver-pupil nations lack an institutionalized means of discharging obligations toward one another–when, in other words, the three obligations of a successful gift exchange cannot be fulfilled. All this brings Dillon to his overarching thesis: the main source of trouble with American foreign aid has been our inability to define ways in which the recipient nations could repay the gifts they have received.

In the body of the book, Dillon examines Mauss’s theory in detail. First, donors, whether individuals or nations, have an obligation to give. This obligation may be based on a variety of motives, such as economic self-interest, religious obligations, the search for prestige, or the promotion of friendship and unity. Mauss examined the Indian practice of Potlatch, in which the host demonstrated generosity and wealth by serving food and distributing gifts, often in great amounts. Hierarchy was established and maintained by means of gifts and thus the host upheld his status position in society.

Second, Mauss maintained, there is an obligation to receive the gift that is no less constraining than the donor’s obligation to give. Surely the recipients in ancient societies often needed the offered gifts as well as desired the peaceful relations that accompanied them. The Melanesian Kula Ring was a trading voyage linking the Massim area of the Pacific in a vast complex institution of ritual exchange. The activity promoted ancillary trade and peaceful relations. More fundamentally, it also engendered a feeling of autonomy and independence when a Kula participant both gave and received. It created a feeling of interdependence, too, as the participants recognized that they were a part of a larger universe.

Here the author has no difficulty expanding Mauss’s generalizations to nations. He proposes that receiving nations are obliged, by the need for economic improvement and knowledge and the desire for friendly relations, to accept gifts. But how do recipients of gifts maintain their dignity while awaiting the opportunity to liquidate their feelings of indebtedness and obligation? Dillon’s French employer, whom he refers to as B, provided a case study of the ambivalence caused by this dilemma. B certainly desired the gifts of American know-how. However, he worked to maintain self-respect and to reduce the return obligation by deprecating the value of the gifts and the motives of the United States in making them. Further, he made numerous references to the historical contributions of France to the United States: France was the first nation to recognize American independence, provided capital and scientific and technological knowledge during early American economic development, and gave the young nation its symbol of its new place in the world, the Statue of Liberty.

With respect to the third obligation, the obligation to repay, Mauss quoted Melville Herskovits, the American anthropologist who made important contributions to the development of the modern concept of culture: “Gifts demand counter-gifts. No matter how freely a gift may be tendered, or how unsought it may be, the very fact of it having been given or presented carries an obligation of some kind of return that can be ignored only on penalty of social disapprobation and the loss of prestige. Psychologically, this holds for all cultures.” Mauss added, speaking of the Potlatch, “the gift not yet repaid debases the man who accepted it … charity wounds him who receives it.”

It is Dillon’s corollary that the donor nation frustrates the discharge of this felt obligation by refusing or failing to provide a means to accept return gifts, and thereby incurs the hostility of people in the receiver nation. The receiver nation may even seek a psychological alternative to the frustrated counter-gifts. The United States, for example, may have expected that gifts to France would bring gratitude, affection, anticommunist votes, and the permission to build military installations; but, France considered these to be unsatisfactory and sought other ways to restore their perceived loss of dignity: (1) In 1956, when  Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, the French sent troops, along with Britain and Israel, to attack Egypt and occupy positions along the canal, all without consulting the United States and against its wishes. (2) The French restored Charles de Gaulle to power as a strong leader promising France’s return to grandeur. (3) France developed and exploded atomic devices against the wishes of the United States, which had refused France’s request for nuclear secrets.

According to Dillon, a recipient nation needs to show reciprocity (1) to control the hostility growing out of the feeling of unfulfilled obligations, (2) to maintain a sense of self-esteem, autonomy, initiative, and morale, and (3) to maintain group cohesion. If this need is frustrated or otherwise unmet, a set of compensating mechanisms develops in the vacuum, which are often counterproductive and even hostile.

Dillon offers an interesting example of how a gift may be transformed by the recipient and returned to the original donor as an improved gift, thus satisfying the obligation to repay. Dillon’s French employer and his team of business leaders traveled to the United States to be tutored by Americans on improving industrial productivity. However, the French were uncomfortable and unfamiliar with their American tutors’ inductive, empirically focused approach. As heirs to the Cartesian style of thought, with its emphasis on deductive analysis of concepts rather than facts, the French visitors worked out their own understanding and codification of the American idea of productivity, and thereby, in their minds, added to the value of the concept. “The gift, if improved or transformed through its care and nurture by the recipient, becomes a commodity with potential value of going back to the donor as a return gift.” These French students had added to the value of the American concept of productivity; with this return gift, they could balance the scales by becoming donors and teachers of the American industrialists.

There remains one weakness in Dillon’s reliance on Mauss’s work, which Dillon acknowledges. Mauss maintained that strains and compensatory mechanisms develop when donors and recipients lack an institutionalized means of discharging obligations toward each other. However, he offered no conceptual framework for describing or analyzing this phenomenon, and neither does Dillon. While readers may be left with a strong intuitive belief in the logic of this conclusion, we have little else.

In closing, Dillon suggests two questions for public policy discussion. Does leadership, whether practiced by individuals or by nations, consist of understanding the means by which individuals or nations come to feel indebted and then discovering and inviting gifts in return? And should human organizations be designed to take into account the principal of “functional reciprocity,” facilitating Mauss’s three obligations?

In this new edition, Wilton Dillon adds an afterword: a historical review of the French gift to the young United States of the Statue of Liberty. For Dillon, the Statue of Liberty remains the archetype of a gift offered, a gift received, and a gift “repaid” through two world wars and the Marshall Plan.

Dillon’s message is that healthy alliances are built on the capacity of a donor to change roles and become a recipient and then to give again. That is a valuable lesson for frustrated Americans in a needy and complicated world.


* Bill Landsberg is an attorney and the Executive Director of Pikes Peak Foundation for Mental Health, in Colorado Springs, Colorado.