How Myanmar became the world's most 'generous' nation

Boys say their morning prayer in a monastic school in Myanmar. According to the world Giving Index, the country tops the list of most generous nations. Photo by: Dietmar Temps / CC BY-NC-SA

How did a country just emerging from decades of iron-fisted military rule leading to international isolation, ethnic conflict, human rights abuses, underdevelopment and extreme poverty become the world’s most generous nation?

After coming in second last year, Myanmar made it to the top of the 2014 World Giving Index, a global survey published annually by the U.K.-based Charities Aid Foundation that measures not only money but also people’s behavior in terms of charitable activities, with a special focus on how frequently they help strangers, make donations and take time to volunteer.

“Existing wealth is no guarantee of a high level of giving,” Lisa Grinham, CEO of CAF Australia, told Devex, highlighting that just five of the countries in the top 20 belong to the G-20, up to 11 G-20 countries are outside of the top 50 and three G-20 members are not among the world’s 100 most generous nations, according to this list.

Myanmar’s ranking, she explained, is another example of the trend slowly gaining traction in global development circles that charity is more than just donors giving funds to recipients — it’s about a person’s commitment to help other people live better lives.

Below are a few excerpts from our conversation with Grinham about the index, charitable giving and how development stakeholders can put aid “generosity” into high gear.

What are the reasons behind the surge of Myanmar to the top spot in the index?

Myanmar has a high proportion of Theravada Buddhists. Countries where Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion score highly in the World Giving Index for giving money to charity (including Sri Lanka and Thailand) [as it] places a heavy emphasis on a community of ordained monks and nuns, with lay devotees supporting them through charitable giving. Myanmar has an estimated 500,000 monks, which represents the highest proportion of monks to population of any Buddhist country.

What does Myanmar's ranking say or tell about the whole idea of charitable giving vis-à-vis a country's economic wealth?

Existing wealth is no guarantee of a high level of giving. Just five of the countries in the top 20 are members of the G-20, the group representing the world’s largest economies. Eleven G-20 countries are outside the top 50 and three of these are outside the top 100. It is also interesting to note that Turkmenistan is top of the table for volunteering and Uzbekistan is fourth in the [same category]. Why? The old Soviet tradition of announcing national days of public service (Subbotnik) whereby citizens engage in unremunerated labor has persisted in [these countries] as well as Tajikistan. It should also be noted that a broader culture of community services exists. This explains such high scores for a region where other metrics used to assess the health of civil society are generally more negative.

What can other more established and richer countries — particularly those in the G-20 — do to rank higher in the index?

There are a host of political, cultural and economic factors that impact a culture and its generosity. Analysis of global giving over the past five years shows that across the three measures, giving dropped in 2009 — the year after the 2008 financial crisis — recovered in 2010, and then fell sharply in 2011, before rising again in 2012 and 2013. Income inequality got worse in 23 countries this year and the top 1 percent of the world's wealthiest account for 48.2 percent of global assets. If governments establish systems that take care of the vulnerable and believe in “equality,” it becomes the solution. Alternatively if they are economic rationalists and put the onus on people to solve their own problems, no matter what their circumstance, the government itself becomes the problem. At a practical level, governments can offer tax incentives to the corporate sector as well as individuals and encourage workplace giving as the norm. A soon to be released report shows that the proportion of people who make financial contributions to charity is significantly higher in countries offering tax breaks for giving.

So how do you make it easier for people to give?

CAF Australia champions workplace giving as a “game changer” for charitable giving for both employers and employees. Companies match employee donations, which fosters employee engagement and the company can demonstrate that they are a good corporate citizen. For employees, they get to see the collective impact that even the smallest regular donation can mean for a charity. We need to keep in touch with our audience and their changing habits — mobile technology, online fundraising platforms, social media and innovative collaborative fundraising like Giving Circles are all having an impact on generosity.

What can multilateral institutions and NGOs do to improve charitable giving all?

As we can see from the World Giving Index, it is hard to generalize. NGOs need to constantly lobby their own governments to ensure policies promoting equality are in place and to ensure that their governments have an “international voice” on key issues. NGO accountability is also a factor and there needs to be a commitment to a high standard of transparency, accountability and effectiveness. Initiatives like the INGO Accountability Charter and the establishment of the Global Standard CSO Accountability are important steps in the global alignment of civil society organizations.

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.