Does philanthropy grow along with the economy?


Lu Bo


Lu Bo

China’s philanthropy has been growing rapidly in the past decade. Both the passion to donate and the figure of donation have increased tremendously, especially after the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008. With the current growth spurt in China’s economy, it looks like we could optimistically expect an upcoming boom of philanthropy.

However, there were two recent affairs in China’s philanthropy scene that are worth thinking about.

First, according to The 2011 Annual Report on China Philanthropy issued on 29 June, the donation income of Red Cross Society of China (RCSC) in 2011 was 57.39% less than the figure in 2010, and the nationwide donation amount was also lower than the year before. Although there is no official explanation, people are all clear about the reason – trust crisis caused by the Guo Meimei incident. Guo, a girl in her early 20s, flaunted her luxury life online recklessly, while claiming herself as Business General Manager of RCSC. This event caused an uproar on the internet first, then gained attention throughout the country. Not just an uprising of internet users towards the flaunting of wealth, this was actually an inevitable result of long-term low levels of transparency and bad governance of government-owned NGOs (GONGOs) in China. Since the Guo Meimei incident happened in the end of June 2011, we could easily guess that RCSC’s donation income was reduced even further in the second half of the year. What will the effect be this year?

The second issue was the public reaction to the donation call made by the Beijing Municipal Government after the cloudburst happened on 21 July. The disaster killed 78 people and hurt 1.9 million people, and the direct economic damage was uncountable. As in the past, the government appealed for donations from the citizens, and held several fundraising activities. However, the donors were mainly state-owned enterprises; few members of the general public showed up. Although no official statistics were announced, from opinions expressed on Renren (similar to Facebook) and Weibo (similar to Twitter), it seems the public enthusiasm for donation shown after the 2008 earthquake has been taken over by distrust of the operating system of GONGOs and queries about where the donations are going.

We can see from these two recent cases that there is no direct connection between one country’s philanthropy and its economy, and that philanthropy won’t develop synchronously or naturally along with the development of economy. If the government cannot do things right, and if the charities cannot satisfy the donors, it’s hardly a surprise to experience a loss of faith or even to generate resistant emotions.

Echoing that, the results of the World Giving Index 2011, compiled by the UK-based Charities Aid Foundation, give a good demonstration. Over 150,000 people in 153 countries were asked the following three questions:

  • In the past month, have you donated money to a charity?
  • Volunteered your time to an organization?
  • Helped a stranger who needed help?

The result is quiet surprising: Only five of the countries that feature in the World Bank’s top 20 by GDP per capita make it into the top 20 of this index; about half of the top 20 are developing countries, such as Laos, Sir Lanka, Nigeria, Liberia, Turkmenistan and Guyana. Disappointingly, China – the world’s second largest economy and 89th out of 181 countries in terms of GDP per capita – ranked 140th out of 153. The survey clearly shows that wealth and giving do not always go hand in hand.

Actually, philanthropy development is a daunting undertaking that is affected by complicated factors. Therefore, we philanthropy professionals in developing countries should not expect the great leap of philanthropy to happen inevitably along with economic growth; we should do solid jobs and make unremitting efforts.

Lu Bo is the managing director of the World Future Foundation headquartered in Singapore, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow to the Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy at National University of Singapore.

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Tagged in: Accountability China Emerging economies

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