Beware of Greeks bearing Gifts

Gift exchanges may at times hold more than face value

By Jan Arden

The excellence of a gift lies in its appropriateness rather than in its value.
— Charles Dudley Warner

The practice of offering gifts goes back probably to the dawn of fiefdoms and clannish chieftains and, since then, has undoubtedly, between country rulers or dignitaries, served to cement strategic or neighbourly relationships, promote cultural or commercial exchanges or display a “savoir-faire” shedding advantageous light on one country’s agricultural, scientific or technological prowess.

When Obama visited Pope Francis this year he brought with him a box containing nine varieties of seeds from the White House gardens hoping they would be planted in the gardens of the papal palace, the Castel Gandolfo. Pic – WordPress

On the agro front, panda diplomacy is a recognised part of Chinese geo-policy while other states may offer speciality breeds of horses or dogs, Labradors being an all-time favourite, ornamental (e.g., the Ashoka tree) or fruiting trees.  Leaders across tribes and regions have then exchanged land, money, cattle, handicraft, brides, and precious stones to foster peace and good relationships. Today, shells have been replaced by iPods and expensive watches, but the motivation remains the same.

However, the gift exchanges may at times hold more than face value and the famous Latin adage, popularly translated as “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”, in reference to the deceitful wooden horse left by Greeks in order to win the Trojan war, holds open a door to those sometime more complex calculations and motivations. Glass baubles and bits of mirrors or pearls were reputedly thrown out as gifts to amaze natives and indigenous tribesmen in the early days of Spanish or Portuguese colonisation of the Americas. It was of course to be the start of the real reverse gift, the largest planetary transfer of resources and riches to European nations, to the extent that a couple of centuries later, Nobel peace prize-winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu could quip: “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”

Gifts may also be tricky at other more mundane levels. In recent times, for instance, the gift of precious diamonds from President Jean-Bedel Bokassa, ruling over an impoverished African state to French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing was found so laughably unbecoming in many French quarters that the constant harping of the “diamonds scandal” contributed in no small measure to his defeat by Francois Mitterrand in the presidential elections of 1981. Other gifts as testimonies of precious state friendships, can be inappropriate (a camel offered to French President François Hollande in Mali), of poor taste (an iPod filled with his own speeches from President Obama to Queen Elizabeth), or downright funny (the photographs of François Hollande dressed up in a traditional fur coat and hat offered to him by his Kazakhstan counterpart sparked mockery and made merry go rounds in Paris). Be that as it may, the exchange of gifts between state dignitaries and their representatives is a delicate matter which necessarily engages some planning from protocol departments and foreign affairs to make sure such exchanges are neither trite, nor disproportionate from either side.

Gifts may also take many forms, some not entirely healthy or helpful in democratic spaces. For instance, accepting a private plane from the Saudi monarch for a ride to New York, or a splendid gold watch from a Gulf State Emir, as alleged recently, may have proved far more embarrassing for PM Imran Khan over the medium-term than the benefits of the gifts, notably by limiting his foreign policy options, at a time when the country’s economy was already trapped in a mammoth circular debt. To Sun-Tzu is attributed the maxim “Hold your friends close, and your enemies closer still”.  Debt diplomacy as many African countries are realising is of the deceptively attractive Greek horse gift model that skillfully weaves that strategic closeness while placing an unbearable financial burden, with heavy collaterals, saddled on their unsuspecting or corrupt country leaderships.

Traditions vary considerably between countries and cultures: some countries are not traditionally gift-giving countries unless at the modest level (hand-made shawls and other handicraft), others recognise it as unavoidable for reciprocal courtesy, goodwill and respect for other countries’ customs, while, in the Middle-East particularly, it is an integral part of state emissary receptions and exchanges that are reciprocal only in name. In 2015, Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi allegedly had to confiscate 50 expensive Italian, Rolex and other brand watches, from members of his delegation, who had received them as gifts from their Saudi hosts and started fighting over them in Riyadh!

Luxury yacht trips, free first-class travel, all-expense paid gold or platinum cards, paid sojourns in a top-brand resort, expensive art paintings, special hunting trips to remote destinations, are only some of the numerous forms creative stately gifts can take. So how do countries generally handle what is obviously a nuanced set of related questions: (a) to what extent are gifts and protocolar exchanges personal rather than official, (b) what are the guidelines of Foreign Affairs regarding gift acceptance and declaration from officials to the authorities, and (c) what is their fate and is there a central register of all gifts beyond a base-line value maintained?

Australia has perhaps the clearest set of simply expressed guidelines regarding Official Gift Received: basically, a limit of AU$ 750 at any one time beyond which it has to be declared within 28 days and surrendered to the Federal PM Office. These are then disposed of through donation to a museum or national gallery, loaned out for use in Government Offices, donated to an appropriate NGO or otherwise. The Dept of Justice, USA, similarly has a detailed set of restrictive policy guidelines for accepting gifts from a variety of private and foreign government sources with limits set at some 400 US$.

In the UK, the gift acceptance limit was 140 GBP in 2010 and detailed information of gifts received, including travel and hospitality, with their monetary values, is obtainable from the PMO, covering jewellery, sports items, ties, travel and liquor amongst other items. In 2015, the Pope decided on a clean-out sale of the thousands of accumulated gifts he receives every day from all parts of the world, with proceeds going to charity.

The UN organisation similarly has an official Ethics Policy for its international civil servants: “Accepting gifts, honours and favours in connection with official duties may give rise to a real or apparent conflict of interest, as it may be seen to create an obligation. Accepting gifts, honours or other tokens of appreciation can impact our independence and impartiality. However, if refusal of an unanticipated gift would cause embarrassment, we may accept it on behalf of the Organization and immediately report and entrust it to the Secretary-General.”

All seem to agree that gifts received in official capacity above a baseline value are not personal in nature but are departmental or state property. In view of the obvious corruption risks of gifts offered to public officials from private sector, local or overseas, it was therefore a very commendable effort of ICAC to have published (year unspecified) a detailed set of very clear guidelines, offences and procedures regarding gift acceptance. It is not known how far this also applies and is monitored for ministerial or ambassadorial delegations attending foreign meetings nor whether there is a central repository and audited register for all such gifts above a baseline value. We can only assume that such is the case, unless otherwise indicated by the authorities.

* Published in print edition on 16 November 2021

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