International Random Acts of Kindness Week is almost over so lets take stock by looking at which countries see the highest rates of people who said that they had helped a stranger in the past month according to the 2014 World Giving Index.
How often do you go out of your way to help people? I don’t mean by donating money to charity or the greater social impact your day-to-day job may have. I mean, how often do you stop to help the people immediately around you – in the street, on public transport, in the shops – when you see a need?
I heard an amazing story from a friend the other day who commutes into from Brighton, on the South coast of England, to work in London – a frustrating journey by all accounts. She mentioned that one man’s way of coping with this daily tedium was to hand out flowers to train passengers – with no agenda but to brighten the day of those around him.
Staying in the UK, we were all awed by the recent story of Alan Barnes, the disabled pensioner mugged outside his home for whom 21-year-old Katie Cutler, a stranger to Alan, set up a fund following the incident. Although the initial target was £500, she raised over £330,000.
As International Random Acts of Kindness Week draws to a close, I thought it was a good opportunity to think about these inspiring acts and the motivations behind them – not just in the UK, but all over the world.
A lot of the work we do at CAF looks to quantify how much people give to charity or engage with civil society on an international basis. We’ve done a huge amount of research into the how, what and why of giving money, and a reasonable bit more on who volunteers and what drives them to do it. The subtler forms of kindness and generosity are much harder to measure.
For our #GivingTuesday campaign, for example, we’ve been flooded with stories of people volunteering, donating and fundraising on the day – and we’ve built up a reasonably robust idea of how much of this activity was happening. But acts of kindness were near impossible to collate, save for a few lone examples from social media. We know, for example, that architectural non-profit Azuko handed out cupcakes to passers-by on the streets of London.
In compiling our World Giving Index – an annual league table of generosity by country – we felt like this type of behaviour needed to be acknowledged. Each country’s ranking is based on three behaviours – the proportion of the country that give money, volunteer and help a stranger. I always liked the balance of these three concepts, as it means the table isn’t skewed in favour of wealthier nations. In fact, this year only five countries ranked within the top 20 are members of the G20. The third of those measures – the proportion of people who have helped a stranger in the past month – is particularly relevant for Random Acts of Kindness Week.
This is the closest we come to gaining a global picture of all of those informal and often spontaneous acts of generosity that help to enable us humans to build cohesive and interdependent societies. So what have we learnt over five years of compiling the index?
We know some countries have acts of kindness built seamlessly into their cultures. The US, for example always scores particularly highly, this year topping the chart with 79% saying they helped a stranger in the last month. New Zealand is another country where people are consistently more likely to act compassionately to those around them. The US was followed by Trinidad and Tobago and Iraq in joint second place, then Jamaica and Liberia in joint fourth.
Here’s the full top ten list:
We also know that the propensity to be kind to strangers can be hugely affected by local events. Iraq rose 88 places in the table this year to joint 2nd position, thought to be the result of escalating violence in the area and a related need and desire to assist those that have been affected. And this is not the first time the scores have changed dramatically for those countries in conflict zones.
Malaysia too saw a huge shift in its ranking this year, up 30 points in helping a stranger and with spikes in both giving money and volunteering. We have interpreted this as a reaction to the country’s proximity to the Philippines and the desire to help following the devastating widespread impact of Typhoon Haiyan.
We’ve also had interesting responses to the use of this question in itself and the problems it throws up. Our office in South Africa, for example, argues that their score for helping a stranger is not reflective of the true generosity taking place across the country. Communities are so tight-knit that many South Africans simply wouldn’t think many of the favours they do for neighbours and others who live nearby fall under this category.
We’ve also caused a stir in Singapore in the past. Although not surveyed this year, previously they have come very close to the bottom of the table when it comes to helping strangers, a fact that always seems to spark many comment pieces bemoaning the unfriendliness of the nation and how this needs to be tackled.
Of the fifteen countries experiencing the biggest positive differences between their five year index average and this year’s score – which indicates an ever-improving picture – fourteen were developing or transitioning economies. Perhaps most interesting is that of all three behaviours, helping a stranger saw the biggest boom. It’s interesting to see this growth and I guess it shows that charity often begins with these smaller acts before it grows into more formal concepts, such as charitable organisations and the development of civil society in general.
Overall, across the world a whole extra percent of people helped a stranger last year. That means 2.3 billion people in total, a number which has been growing since 2011. So let’s celebrate Random Acts of Kindness Week by rejoicing in this uplift and its implication that civil societies around the world are indeed developing and making many countries better places to live.
It’s also an opportunity to remember that even though we do have many formal ways to express our generosity in the UK and the developed world, with many highly efficient charities calling for our money, we shouldn’t lose sight of the impulse to help those right in front of our eyes.
By Emily Gorton