RANGOON — Burma has been ranked near the top of a list gauging global generosity, with the Southeast Asian country’s deeply karmic mindset a likely motivator for its benevolence.
Behind only the United States and tied with Canada and New Zealand, Burma this month was ranked as the world’s second-most generous nation in a survey of 160 countries conducted by the UK-based Charities Aid Foundation (CAF).
The index was based on charitable tendencies, and measured the frequency of charitable behavior in three categories: the percentage of people who, in a typical month, donated money to charity, volunteered their time and helped a stranger.
Burma excelled particularly in the cash donations category. The survey found that 85 out of 100 people in Burma donated to social or religious organizations on a monthly basis.
“For what purpose they donated and to whom is not specified in the index,” said Naing Oo, a Burmese writer. “People donate with the expectation of having a better next life. People are not motivated to donate for education or health, but to build a pagoda or monastery. They may use millions of kyats. It’s Burmese moral instinct.”
The United States ranked first in the index, lifted into the top spot by Americans’ proclivity for helping strangers. Seventy-seven percent of Americans said they helped a stranger in a typical month.
Donation to religious causes is rooted in Burma’s majority-Buddhist culture, at the expense, Naing Oo said, of charitable giving to social institutions.
“It’s not wrong to donate to a monastery or pagoda, but people want to do it too much because they think they earn merit with donations to religious or spiritually affiliated matters,” Naing Oo told The Irrawaddy.
Burma also did well in the volunteering category, tied for fourth place on the index with the Philippines. A culture of volunteerism in Burma grew in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which hit the Irrawaddy Delta in 2008, killing an estimated 140,000 people.
Aung Kyaw Phyo, a teacher at the Volunteer Internship Program in Rangoon, said he volunteered because he found it to be a meaningfully way to spend his time while also benefitting others.
“It’s Burmese’s moral instinct to help, even to strangers,” Naing Oo said.
However, Kyaw Thu, founder of the Free Funeral Service Society (FFSS), said the same Buddhist mindset that directed funds toward pagodas instead of social causes could limit generosity in Burma.
“Some people discriminate based on religion in the people they help. It shouldn’t be that way,” said Kyaw Thu, whose FFSS provides free funeral services to people who cannot afford to bury their loved ones. “We help anyone based on humanity, not discriminating on nationality, religion, rich or poor.”
Buddhist notions of karma stipulate that one’s actions—and generosity—in this life have a direct bearing on the form in which the individual will be reincarnated in his or her next life.
“We can see grand buildings for monasteries, while schools are in a shabby condition,” said Naing Oo. “Burmese understand merits affiliated with religion. That’s the reason that they don’t want to donate much to schools or libraries, whereas charity in the West is the other way around.”
“Burma was the country with the largest proportion of people donating money to a charity [85%]. This highlights the fact that giving is about more than just wealth,” stated a press release from Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), a reference to the fact that Burma is one of Asia’s most impoverished nations.