Is religion a strong motivator of ‘giving’?

giving donation

For Muslims this is the month Ramadhan, the dawn-to-dusk fasting month, a month which is not merely about fasting but also a reminder to all Muslims of a key obligation of Islam – ‘giving’!

For that matter, ‘giving’ as a religious duty is an integral component of every religion. In some religion ‘giving’ is compulsory and in others it is voluntary.

Furthermore, some religions such as Hinduism and Christianity have no specific guidelines for charity and yet charity in Buddhism, Islam and in Sikhism are guided by explicit codes.

For example, in Buddhism, Dana (‘giving’) is mandated to be performed in three specific ways : (i) ‘giving’ to the needy, e.g. helping the poor, the orphans, etc.; (ii) giving to equals, e.g. giving to friends and/or neighbours; and finally, (iii) giving to venerable people such as parents, monks, etc, as a show of gratitude or respect for their contributions to families and the society. The most important aspect of ‘Dana’ or offering is that one must give without seeking anything in return.

Similarly, in Islam, Quran (Q16:90) is emphatic about haves helping the have-nots through Sadaqa (charity) and Zakat, the latter is compulsory poverty tax, which is over and above Sadaqa. In Islam, ‘giving’ also needs to be discrete and without expectations. In addition, Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him), the Prophet of Islam had gone one step further and treated ‘giving’ not merely as a religious duty but a manifestation of a moral society where he said, “Administering justice (Insaaf) between two people is charity and that believers are like a single person; if his eye is in pain his entire body pains, and if his head is in pain his whole body pains”, implying that Islamic societies are to be built on principle of Insaaf, to foster social arrangements where ‘giving’ becomes a norm and not a duty.

In Sikhism giving is guided by Dasvandh or Dasaundh, which literally means “tenth part” or one-tenth of earnings of individuals which is to be given towards the common resources of the community. Offering free food to the hungry is a common Sikh practice and they give to the needy, without any bias, religious or otherwise. The only other religion that give without bias is Christianity.

So how do people of countries of different religious orientations give? Do people of different religion give differently? How strong is the correlation between religion and charity?

Charities Aid Foundation and Global Giving Index

In order to answer these questions, I turned to Charities Aid Foundation’s (CAF) Global Giving Index (GGI) data.

GGI ranks countries in terms of ‘giving’ habits of their citizens. However, CAF/GGI does not produce data by religious affiliations of countries. Therefore, I re-configurated and re-interpreted CAF’s most recent global giving indices and their country rankings by grouping countries in terms of their demographically dominant religious affiliations/identities and grouped them under four major religions – Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. Then measured ‘giving’ propensities of the citizens of these four countries as proxy for religion/giving nexus. I also factored wealth (GDP) status of countries as an additional variable to see whether variations in wealth make any difference in giving habits of citizens and finally, I used CAF’s definition of ‘giving’ as my analytical framework.

CAF definition of giving

CAF defines ‘giving’ in terms of three main activities: ‘donating money to charities and/or organizations’; ‘volunteering time to an organization’; and ‘helping a stranger’.

CAF informs that ‘giving’ habits of people vary from country to country – in some countries, citizens prefer giving more to individuals than institutions and yet in others preference is for institutions. Again, in some countries more than giving money people prefer to volunteer their time for organizations and help strangers or whoever need help. Giving habits may also vary even within the same country.

Giving money to charity ranges from as low as 4% in Lithuania to 83% in Malta;  volunteering  time to organizations ranges from 2% in Cambodia (a country that until recently was ravaged by murderous civil strife) to 61% in Turkmenistan; and most interestingly, in Liberia while only 8% give money to charities, 76% help strangers (highest in the world in this category of ‘giving’).

So do people give differently with different religious affiliations?

Religious Affiliations of Countries and Giving Habits

Presented below is the ‘giving’ trends of citizens of Buddhist, Muslim, ‘Hindu’ and ‘Christian’ majority nations:

Buddhists give more

Successive GGI surveys have revealed that true to their religious edict the four leading Buddhist majority countries namely Thailand, Sri Lanka, Lao PDR and Myanmar who in GDP terms are not rich belong to the top 25 ‘giving’ nations of the world. These Buddhist countries also rank higher over several wealthy Muslim and European (Christian) nations namely, Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Norway, Luxembourg respectively.

However, given that in some of these Buddhist countries such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka where persecution of minorities is/has been rampant implies that their impressive giving habits are somewhat parochial and do not extend to other faiths and/or ethnicities.

Muslims are uneven givers

Muslim majority nations are less consistent in ‘giving’.

Of the 50 Muslim majority nations, 5 belong to the bottom 25 of givers and among these stingy lots some are wealthy. For example, Bosnia Herzegovina, Jordan and Turkey are relatively wealthy countries but they rank relatively low on giving indices.

Again, while some wealthy Muslim nations do score reasonably high in giving ranking they do not give as much as their wealth permit – for example, in GDP terms Kuwait and United Arab Emirates rank No. 8 and 23 out of 225 countries but they rank 25 and 50 out of 145 in ‘giving’ indices respectively, implying that people in these countries give far less than what they can afford.

Among the wealthy Muslim nations Turkmenistan and Qatar rank high in ‘giving’, 14 and 16 respectively but Qatar’s high ‘giving’ ranking is not commensurate with its super high wealth ranking – it ranks 2 in the world wealth ranking. So is Iran – it ranks 25 in GDP and 12 in ‘giving’.

Saudi Arabia, a super-rich Muslim country that ranks 19 in GDP terms, ranks but 86 in ‘giving’ index, below many least developed countries (LDC) including Sudan.

Sudan, a poor Muslim country is a puzzle. In per capita GDP terms, Sudan ranks 178 out of 225 but in ‘giving’ index it ranks 43 out of 145, above Korea Republic, Belgium and Israel. It is not clear whether it is their religion or their local cultural norms that make Sudanese such a generous lot.

Similarly, Indonesia, another developing Muslim nation which is richer than Sudan and ranks 16 in GDP terms, ranks 7 in ‘giving’ ranking, is above UK (8) and Denmark (10).

It is not clear whether it is the religion or something else that make Indonesians, Iranians and Sudanese such generous lots?

Pakistan and Bangladesh, second and third largest Muslim developing nations in the world rank 39 and 42 in GDP ranking and 85 and 109 in giving index respectively, placing them, especially Bangladesh among the lower givers of the world.

In sum, ‘giving’ behaviours of Muslim majority nations are somewhat mixed and that higher wealth status of some of the Muslim nations has not always translated into higher giving habits. At the same time, high giving habits of some relatively less wealthy Muslim nations such as Indonesia and a poor nation such as Sudan remain a puzzle. Further study would help to unravel better the dynamics of ‘giving’ habits of these two Muslim majority countries. Another aspect of Muslim giving behaviour that may need further investigation is that whether Muslims give only to fellow Muslims and Islamic institutions only or do they also reach out to people of other faiths that need help.

‘Christian’ countries are big givers, but most of them do not regard themselves as ‘Christians’

It is little difficult to link Christianity with that many countries and this is because most ‘Christian’ majority countries where people are born of Christian parents do not identify themselves as Christian nations per se. They see themselves as secular nations where religion is a private affair and thus  plays limited role in influencing their ways of lives.

Citizens of most European, Australasian and North American (mainly, Canada) countries – who are by birth Christians, are secular – are among some of the great givers of the world.

Philippines, one of the very few countries in the world that sees itself as “Christian” is strongly Catholic and Filipinas regularly donate to churches. As a result, Philippines that ranks 37 in GDP ranking, ranks 17 in giving indices, making this Christian majority country one of the greatest givers of the world but their charity goes almost entirely to the Christian institutions.

Hinduism and giving

Until recently, Nepal used to be the only officially recognised Hindu state. Few years ago, Nepal has changed the constitution and has made Nepal a secular state.

India, where world’s most Hindus reside (97% of all Hindus live in India) is by constitution a secular state though lately, BJP government’s sectarian ideology, Hindutva is striving to re-define India’s identity, as ‘Hindu.’

Thus, taking India as the de facto ‘Hindu’ nation in the world the picture we get is that in GDP terms India ranks 5 and in giving index, 82, placing ‘Hindu’ India among the middle-lower givers of the world. Furthermore, like Philippines and the four Buddhist countries, bulk of Hindu charity go to the temples, making Hindu charity somewhat faith specific.

However, within India there are exceptions.  For example, In India Sikhs, who are a minority religious group are exemplary givers and more importantly, Sikhs give generously and without any bias, religious or otherwise. They help all needy, at a time when help is needed most – for example, couple of months ago in Delhi, when Muslims became victims of Hindutva inspired communal violence and many were driven out of their homes, Sikh temples in Delhi opened their doors and offered food to 15000 Muslim victims daily for a considerable period[2] and more recently, when COVID 19 broke out around the world and social distancing forced many to go without food in most parts of the world, Sikh communities all over the world worked overtime to provide food and other essentials to the needy.[3]

So, is religion a motivator of ‘giving?

Yes and no.

With exceptions of Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Philippines, religion by itself does not seem to correlate that strongly with giving. Moreover, some of the high ‘giving’ nations of the world seem to limit their charity within their own faith and some big givers like citizens of ‘Christian’ majority countries do not regard religion, an influencer.

In fact, core values of all religion are same and every religion stresses the virtue of giving but what makes the difference is not religion per se but as sociologists argue people give when they feel good about themselves and feel-good element is attained by organizing societies  to evolve as moral societies – say, based on parameters of Insaaf – that promote social justice and nurture mutual empathy and motivate people to give, without bias.

[1] Author is Professor of Development Practice, University of Queensland, Australia and former senior policy manager of the UN






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