A larger proportion of Burmese citizens donate money to charity every month than any other country in the world. Surprised?
In December Charities Aid Foundation published the 2013 World Giving Index which revealed that the Unites States is the most generous country in the world in terms of overall engagement in donating money to charity, volunteering and helping a stranger. This may have come as a surprise to some people, but given the strong culture of giving in the USA the news was unlikely to have been shocking to anyone.
However, there are some results in the 2013 World Giving Index which you may find genuinely startling and merit some analysis on this blog. The first of these that I want to explore is the intriguing case of Burma (Myanmar) which tops the global table for donating money to charity this year with 85% of people indicating that they had given money to a charitable cause in the past month.
For a country with a low human development index score to achieve such staggeringly high levels of participation in giving money is challenges the perception that propensity to donate money is necessarily tied to wealth. Moreover, its high placing despite a recent history of violence and oppression seems to contravene the idea that civil society can only thrive when government helps to nurture an enabling environment.
So what explains such high levels of engagement in charitable giving in Burma?
Theravada is one of the oldest schools of Buddhism and traces its origins back to Buddha’s 2500 year old teachings. In Theravada, peace and freedom are pursued internally rather than externally through a life of meditation by a community of ordained monks and nuns called the Sangha. Their lifestyle is supported by lay devotees through charitable giving: Sangha Dana. In Burma 5% of the population live monastic lives which are entirely funded by donations from the remaining 88% of the population who are lay devotees of Theravada Buddhism. It seems highly likely that this religious tradition explains why Burma tops the World Giving Index for donating money.
Indeed, countries in which a high proportion of the population follow the Theravada school of Buddhism feature prominently in this year’s World Giving Index, particularly in terms of the percentage of the population engaged in giving money to charitable causes. Four of the five countries with the highest proportion of Theravada Buddhists – Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Cambodia – are covered by the 2013 World Giving Index (no data is available for Laos). All four countries are in the top 30 nations in terms of giving money to charity putting them in the first quartile for that measure. Burma and Thailand are ranked first and fourth respectively for donating with Burma ranking second overall for combined World Giving Index score (average incidence of donating money, volunteering and helping a stranger).
Some people may question whether religious convention that permeates culture as strongly as Sangha Dana in Burma should be seen as charitable giving at all. It could be argued that donations are essentially a voluntary taxation in return for the myriad services and amenities provided by monks and nuns. However, attempting to make such a distinction would be as impossible in Burma as it is in any other country.
Other people may hold Burma up as an example of how mass engagement in giving can triumph in spite of adverse conditions. This narrative clearly has some merit and we would do well to remind ourselves of the existing human resources in civil society in the developing world and the potential for ordinary people to help each other – a key theme in the Future World Giving project. This view is supported strongly by the high proportion of people indicating that they had helped a stranger in some of the world’s most troubled nations in the 2013 World Giving Index. However, for civil society to make real social gains governments must be tolerant of and responsive to the advocacy of not-for-profit organisations. Only time will tell as to whether the Burmese government can improve of this measure.
The example of Burma helps to challenge any preconceptions we might have about charitable giving. and is therefore a useful reminder of the different models that civil society takes around the world. As always, I welcome other interpretations of these findings and encourage you to share your views.