Information is cheap, meaning is expensive. George Dyson

Why Are Some Countries More Generous?

Even when the economic development of a country is taken into account, some nations seem far more generous in their charitable giving than others. What factors explain these national variations?

For the past five years, the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), an international charity that provides services and advice to donors and charities, has been producing the World Giving Index. Using data from the Gallup World Poll, we are able to establish what proportion of people in 135 countries have donated money to charity, volunteered their time, or helped a stranger in the month before being surveyed. In the course of doing this—and through much of our other policy and advocacy work—we have learned a great deal about why some countries appear to be more generous than others. So why do some nations have more charitable populations?

It’s simple isn’t it? You need to have money to be able to give it away and to have the freedom to volunteer instead of work right? Wrong. Whilst there is a relationship between wealth and the proportion of people giving money to charity, that relationship is relatively weak. Just five of the countries in the top 20 in the 2014 World Giving Index are members of the G20, the group representing the world’s major economies. Eleven G20 countries are outside the Top 50 and three of these are outside the Top 100. Generosity then, is about more than wealth.

Religion

As many would assume, religion has an outsized effect on charitable giving around the world. Where data on the amount of money donated is available we see huge difference between nations. For example, 31% of charitable contributions in the USA go to religious causes compared to 14% in the UK. The most striking example of this effect seems to be that of Myanmar. In a nation where 89% of the population follow the Theravada school of Buddhism, 5% of the population live a monastic lifestyle that is mostly supported through charitable donations. As a result, according to the World Giving Index, 91% of people in Myanmar make regular donations to charitable causes, a clear 13 percentage points above the next-generous country, Malta.

Gender Equality

Tackling gender inequality is a worthy enough cause in and of itself, but for those interesting in nurturing a culture of charitable giving, it seems that also addressing gender inequality might have a mutually reinforcing effect. Analysis of the World Giving Index in 2013 showed that improving gender equality could dramatically improve the proportion of society that regularly make charitable contributions. In countries where women experience the least inequality (nowhere is fully equal), their giving far exceeds that of men. In the top ten countries in terms of gender equality in 2013, 53% of women give money to charity compared to 46% of men. To some extend then, encouraging charitable giving and fighting for gender equality are different fronts of the same battle.

Political History

Political history plays an important role too it seems. Some nations are still suffering from a generational lag in which much of the older population lived out their formative years in regimes that had little or no charitable sector to engage with. If we take the Eastern European states which were once part of the Eastern Bloc, the average World Giving Index score in 2014 was 25% and just 20% for donating money compared to 33% and 29% respectively for the global average. With rates of giving amongst young people rising in many of these nations to close to the global average within a generation of the fall of communism, this is actually becoming a positive story.

If Eastern Europe is left with a charitable hangover from its political history, the effects of a restrictive legal environment are very much still being felt in many other countries. In my time at CAF I have written in detail about the need for governments to ensure the fair, proportionate and independent regulation of charities that is needed in order to build public trust in charitable giving. I have also written about the need to ensure that the independence of the sector is not undermined by restrictions on foreign funding and advocacy activities. Sadly, it does not seem that these calls for action are being heard.

Diversity of Causes

A tidal wave of regressive policies that aim to silence civil society by targeting charities that are critical of government policy is sweeping across the world and has lead Maina Kiai, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association to identify “increased control and undue restrictions” on funding, particularly foreign funding and barriers to freedom of assembly as “the most significant [issues] of his mandate”. In September 2013, US President Barack Obama launched the Stand for Civil Society initiative, which committed to “opposing undue restrictions on civil society and fundamental freedoms”.

Without a vibrant civil society, there are fewer compelling causes to donate to, and we could miss an historic opportunity to fuel the sustainable growth of global charitable giving. With the OECD projecting that the number of middle class people will grow by 165% by 2030, and that much of that growth will occur in developing world, it is crucial that we create an enabling environment in which a culture of giving can flourish. Our Unlocking the Potential of Global Philanthropy report estimates that if the expanding global middle class were to give the same proportion of their income to charity as people currently do in the United Kingdom (0.4 percent) middle class donors would generate more than €300 billion a year by 2030.

Societies in which people are able to support the causes in which they believe are societies in which ideas good ideas thrive and bad ones are challenged. They are societies in which the marginalised have a voice and the powerful are challenged. When people have the resources, but also the freedom to support the causes that they care about, they give generously.

Read more in this debate: Antonis Schwarz, Marieke van Schaik, Alex Swallow.

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