The CAF World Giving Index 2015 has found that a larger proportion of Burmese people give money to charity every month than any other country on earth – by far.
On November 10th, the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) published the sixth edition of the worlds only global index of charitable activity which ranks nations based on the proportion of people who, according to Gallup’s World Poll, had given money to a charity, volunteered or helped a stranger in the past month. Remarkably, this year Myanmar is the clear outright winner.
By taking into account volunteering and informal acts of kindness to strangers, the World Giving Index can build a picture of generosity that is less skewed by wealth than a study that merely looks at financial giving. Many developing and transitional economies have vibrant and long standing cultures of giving that would not be picked up by limiting the definition of charitable giving to the donation of money to a nonprofit organisation.
Right about now you are probably thinking; “Ah okay, I get it. You are going to tell me that we are undervaluing the generosity of some countries by focusing on donations of money and then say that Burma is a shining example of this, right? Well, I do think that we undervalue informal giving as it provides the fertile ground on which civil society can grow, but with regards to Myanmar, you are totally wrong.
In terms of the proportion of people giving money to charity, Burma is peerless. 92% of Burmese people said that they had given money to charity in the month prior to being surveyed – a clear 5 percentage points ahead of Thailand in second place for that measure. The USA, which takes second place overall having been joint first last year, scores well across all categories of the index but for comparison, only 63% of Americans reported donating money to charity in the month before being surveyed.
For a country with a human development index ranking (150th) to achieve such staggeringly high levels of participation in giving money challenges the perception that the 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 – more on that later.
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 people giving money to charity.
Four of the five countries with the highest proportion of Theravada Buddhists – Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Cambodia – are covered by the World Giving Index 2015 (no data is available for Laos). All four countries are in the top 26 nations in terms of giving money to charity out of 145 nations covered in this year’s index. Myanmar and Thailand are ranked first and second respectively for donating money.
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 Myanmar as it is in any other country. As in any country religious giving ranges from congregational giving that merely maintains infrastructure and religious leaders to religiously motivated charity that has wider benefits outside of its donor community. There is no reason to presume that this is not the case in Myanmar.
In this historic period for Myanmar, as Aung San Suu Kyi’s National league for Democracy appears to have gained the required seats to choose a president, it is only right that we should recognise the potential that the country’s culture of generosity could have for driving long awaited sustainable growth. However, it is hoped that this generosity can be allowed to flower into a much more open and associative civil society and that the legal shackles placed on civil society organisations will be loosened. Perhaps then, Myanmar’s incredible culture of generosity can be extended to all communities in the country, including the Rohingya people whose suffering represents a stain on the national reputation.
Some people may hold Myanmar 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. 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 2015 World Giving Index – Iraq is in first place on this measure. 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 a NLD government can improve on this measure.
As always, I welcome other interoperations of these findings and encourage you to share your views.