The State of Worldwide Giving

You do not need to be rich to be generous.

Every year, Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) publishes its World Giving Index. The index aims to quantify the scope and nature of generosity around the world, and is based on three equally weighted aspects:

  1. Helping strangers

These giving behaviours are self-reported: Gallup calls or visits thousands of people in 144 countries and asks them about their actions in the past month. The published data is only sliced by gender and rough age buckets. The scale of generosity (e.g., how much individuals donate) is not captured. The index does not take into account the country’s context, such as religion and culture, political regime, or wealth. In other words, there are limits to what we can learn from Gallup’s data; and yet the World Giving Index is the best reflection of global generosity we have¹.

Why am I telling you all that? Most importantly, to put you on guard. I will praise some countries and rebuke others based on their positions in the index. While there is truth in this data, it is one-sided and likely inaccurate. Just keep that in mind before tweeting that Japan sucks². I also hope that the limitations to what we know will inspire someone to take a deeper look and come up with a better way to estimate worldwide generosity³.

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From CAF World Giving Index 2018. CAF.

Note that CAF just released World Giving Index 2019. However, due to Gallup making substantial changes to the questionnaire, they decided not to publish the generosity data for 2018, instead focusing on the worldwide giving over the past decade.

#1 Indonesia is the world’s most generous country

In 2018, after a four-year reign of the index, Myanmar was replaced by Indonesia as the world’s most generous country. 46% of Indonesians help strangers, 78% donate money, and 53% volunteer. Indonesia’s GDP per capita is $3,830/year, making it poorer than 117 countries. 5.7% of its population is extremely poor, and 9.8% is poor (though some argue that the official poverty line is much too low). And yet 78% of Indonesians donate.

Here’s the full top-10 list (with Indonesia, Kenya, and Myanmar clearly punching above their GDP-per-capita weight):

  1. Indonesia 🇮🇩

#2 Yemen is the world’s least generous country

And it definitely can’t be blamed for that just now. Yemen has been ravaged by civil war and famine. I am surprised 2% of Yemenis still manage to donate, and 36% help strangers in other ways.

Several other countries at the bottom of the giving list are in similarly precarious situations. Palestine has been entangled in a military conflict with Israel for the past fifty years, Afghanistan is a failed state, and Tunisia is still struggling after the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.

#3 Greece should be ashamed of itself

And Lithuania and Latvia, too (full disclosure: I am Lithuanian, and I am deeply ashamed).

Greece is #143 on the generosity list. 36% of Greeks help strangers, 7% donate money, and 7% volunteer. The only country that does worse is the war-torn Yemen. I understand, Greeks have been through a lot these past few years. Unemployment, austerity, civil unrest… And yet their situation is hardly comparable to Palestine’s (2 places higher), Afghanistan’s (7 places higher), or Rwanda’s (40 places higher).

Here’s the full bottom-10 list:

  1. Yemen 🇾🇪

#4 Japan should be ashamed of itself, too

Yes, Greece is at the bottom of the giving list, but as I said, it has had its share of troubles. Its economy tanked in 2009, and its GPD per capita in 2017 was $18,900/year, half of what it had been back in 2008.

Now here’s an idea: what if we divided each country’s donation score by its normalised GDP per capita? We’d get a very flawed, back-of-the-envelope measure of income-adjusted generosity. After all, while Afghanistan can’t donate much (55% of its population is poor), Australia is 100 times richer and could be expected to chip in.

Measured this way, the dubious honour of being the world’s ultimate scrooge is hereby bestowed upon… Greece. Yes, no matter how you look at it, it seems that Greeks are the least generous people on Earth. But Japan is following close behind, with GDP per capita of $38,300/year, yet only 18% of its population donating money.

Here are the top-10 countries whose populations donate much less than could be expected given their income:

  1. Greece 🇬🇷

#5 Myanmar is a rockstar

With GDP per capita of $1,250/year and extreme poverty at 6.4%, 88% of Myanmarese nevertheless donate.

And here are the top-10 countries whose populations donate much more than could be expected given their income:

  1. Myanmar 🇲🇲

The two lists above clearly correlate with country incomes. Is that because the metric is too simple? Probably yes. As I said before, existing data is limited, and thus any conclusions I draw are at best approximate. GDP per capita is not always the best measure of individual wealth either. Nor did I take into account economic or gender inequality, both of which affect the proportion of the population that has opportunities to donate.

And yet the fact is that most Myanmarese are poor, and most donate; while most Japanese are rich, and very few donate.

#6 Men are more generous than women

… or are they? As I said, measuring generosity is really really hard. On the face of it, men indeed appear to be more generous: they help strangers more often, donate a tiny bit more often, and volunteer more often.

And yet if you look at the countries where gender differences in generosity are most pronounced, you might notice something curious:

  • Afghanistan 🇦🇫: men are significantly more likely to help a stranger than women (26 percentage point difference)

The two sets of countries, those where men are more likely to engage in generous activities, and those where women are more likely to do so, also fall squarely on the opposite ends of the Gender Development Index. So maybe women are not less generous than men — maybe they simply have fewer opportunities to act upon their generosity.

#7 Individuals are the greatest source of donations worldwide

This is not something the World Giving Index could tell you, but it is an important fact to help you put the learnings above into context.

In the US, 70% of all charitable giving, amounting to a staggering $410B in 2017, came from individuals. Similarly, in Europe, 53% of donations come from individuals (with data extremely spotty, only 18 European countries taken into account, and findings now six years old, the real impact of individual giving should be significantly higher than the estimated €46B/year).

In other words, individual behaviours matter. Encouraging more people to give as millions join the middle class every year is one way we can have a real effect on addressing the world’s toughest problems.

¹ A few years ago CAF published a more detailed report on international generosity. Gross Domestic Philanthropy studied relationships between GDP, taxation, and charitable giving. US, New Zealand, and Canada were found to be most generous in terms of charitable giving by individuals as a percentage of GDP. However, with only 24 countries considered, the report is not a fair reflection of worldwide giving.

Lack of information on philanthropic activities is a huge problem. Giving in Europe, a commendable attempt to survey and evaluate generosity in the old continent, ended up being largely unusable due to missing, untrustworthy, or incomparable country-level data.

Quantifying foreign aid is easier, at least when it comes to rich countries: OECD members publish their official development assistance (ODA) figures every year. With around 1% of GNI spent on aid, United Arab Emirates, Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway, and Turkey are the most generous OECD members in terms of ODA.

² As you’ll see later in the post, Japan is on the list of the least generous countries. And yet Japan spent $14.2B on ODA in 2018, making it the 4th largest donor country in the world. So no, Japan definitely does not suck. However, very few Japanese engage in philanthropic activities, and that, in my opinion, is worth talking about.

³ The annual Giving USA report is a wonderful example of what’s possible. The report’s estimates are based on tax, economic indicator, and demographic data. Most estimates are produced using econometric models, but manual adjustments are made to account for anomalous events (e.g., natural disasters) and very large gifts. The outcome is an extremely thorough and insightful overview of charitable giving in the US.

Bookworm (but I sometimes go on real adventures) · Obsessive thinker · Inconsistent writer · “You live and learn. At any rate, you live.” — Douglas Adams

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