Opinion: How belief systems propel philanthropic innovations in Asia

A volunteer collects alms boxes with QR codes at a mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo by: Willy Kurniawan / Reuters

Around the world, humanity is drawing on beliefs — religious, social, or cultural values — to guide us through what has been called “the new normal.” This is particularly relevant in Asia, where at least 60% of the people in, for instance, Indonesia, the Philippines, and India state that religion is as or more important in their countries now compared with 20 years ago. After all, Asia is the birthplace of several dominant world religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Shinto, and Taoism.

As our beliefs ground us in a more meaningful reality during these fast-changing times, they can also spur us to respond to the coronavirus pandemic creatively. Over the course of the crisis, we have seen individuals and actors across the social, private, and public sectors coming together to give generously and innovatively.

In Asia, this momentum is propelled by further economic and sociocultural developments that touch upon the philanthropic space. We are not only witnessing one of the highest growth rates of high net worth individuals in the world — with Asia’s billionaire population expected to make up one-third of the world’s total by 2023 — but also the largest transfer of wealth between first- and second-generation wealth-holders in Asia in history.

The emerging generation of wealth-holders brings to the table a unique blend of cultural giving values and ingenuity as they seek to more effectively support community welfare.

As the world battles the pandemic, we highlight a few key philanthropic innovations, built on Asia’s beliefs and traditions, that have the potential to mobilize resources and inform how we collectively rebuild our weakened world systems.

Focus on: Faith and Development

This series illuminates the role faith actors and their communities play in strengthening global development outcomes.

Firstly, faith-based giving practices and mainstream investments make strong allies.

Faith and religion have always been central to Asia’s social fabric. Historically, Buddhist temples in Thailand and Japan functioned as philanthropic epicenters that initiated fundraising campaigns for social welfare initiatives. In India, ancient Sanskrit texts stipulated forms and norms of charity and philanthropy, detailing the who, what, when, why, and how of “daana,” or giving, and “seva,” or service, laying the ground for the current philanthropic ecosystem.

Hinduism and Islam, with more than 1 billion adherents each, continue to shape giving patterns and, with that, influence innovative philanthropic investment vehicles. In Indonesia, Islamic giving customs are key drivers of individual giving and institutionalized philanthropic practices.

While Islamic giving practices have typically been ad hoc and private, this is changing in a dynamic and growing economic marketplace. The Islamic Development Bank estimates that the potential for zakat, an obligatory annual almsgiving or religious tax, in Indonesia alone is $16 billion.

This growth has inspired greater sophistication in traditional lending practices by incorporating financial mechanisms that are in accordance with Shariah law. This has great relevance and value to the philanthropic space, as zakat — primarily aimed at community development — has the capacity to bridge funding gaps and achieve various targets across the Sustainable Development Goals.

The scale, efficiency, and impact of personal religious giving continue to grow as it finds innovative synergies with the private sector and impact-driven investment vehicles. Indonesia-based PT Principal Asset Management, or Principal, has been instrumental in developing investment vehicles that pool Islamic finance and social capital.

Faith-based or faith-inspired financial instruments have the power to not only accelerate our response to present-day social challenges, but also take meaningful and inclusive innovations to a new height.

Forged under the United Nations Development Programme’s Innovative Finance Lab, Principal, together with the National Zakat Agency and PT Ammana Fintek Syariah — a Shariah-compliant peer-to-peer lending platform — in August launched a partnership with UNDP to catalyze Islamic philanthropy funds and Islamic financial technology toward COVID-19 relief efforts.

Secondly, community reciprocity forms the heartbeat of institutionalized national giving.

In China and Korea, Confucian ideals of community volunteerism and mutual aid have been instrumental in providing education and taking care of the elderly. In the Philippines, community organizations continue to provide basic social services to those in need.

To this day, community responsibility and mutual aid are central building blocks of social policies across Asia. The Malay phrase “gotong royong,” used colloquially in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, encapsulates this spirit of pluralism and equitable collaboration — a strong belief that everybody in a community has something they need but also something they can give, irrespective of income, socioeconomic status, or physical well-being.

This principle of reciprocity has informed the design of Singapore’s modern-day national giving ecosystem. Headed by CEO Melissa Kwee, the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre is working toward establishing a giving culture across generations, wealth groups, and sectors in an effort to fulfill its mandate of building a “city of good.”

Central to this vision is a philosophy of “other-centeredness,” in which giving is not just understood as donations or volunteerism but a mindset shift from individual- or profit-first to community-first. For Kwee, this means building innovatively on the principles of gotong royong to implement a sustainable modern giving culture, shifting the narrative from economics or political self-determination, as the Singapore story is often told, to one of people and community.

This has translated into a responsive and inclusive philanthropic ecosystem in Singapore. To streamline and coordinate pandemic relief efforts from multiple donors, the Community Foundation of Singapore set up the Sayang Sayang Fund. Notably, a substantial amount of the funding was given by Singaporean citizens who each donated their “solidarity payment” of 600 Singapore dollars ($440), a governmental payout originally intended to ease the economic effects of the pandemic.

So if not now, then when?

With their increasing quantum of funding and community-centered approach, faith-based or faith-inspired financial instruments have the power to not only accelerate our response to present-day social challenges, but also take meaningful and inclusive innovations to a new height.

In this amalgamation of cultural traditions, social impact goals, and innovative financial instruments at hand, next-gen philanthropists can become agents of change who champion causes that are important within their communities, collectively uplifting society and fostering civic ties that are rooted in solidarity and trust.

Devex, with support from our partner GHR Foundation, is exploring the intersection between faith and development. Visit the Focus on: Faith and Development page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of GHR Foundation.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Denderah Rickmers

    Denderah Rickmers is a senior knowledge associate with the Knowledge Centre at AVPN.
  • Amanda Kee

    Amanda Kee is the content marketing assistant manager at AVPN.