Philanthropy in Sri Lanka: An On-the-Ground Perspective

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Following our conversation with Dr. Tom Widger on Sri Lankan philanthropy, our interest in philanthropy’s potential to catalyze positive change in the country was only further piqued. Dr. Widger and his team’s research is revealing on a macro level, with strong implications on how development agencies and nonprofit organizations can best engage with Sri Lankan donors, but we also wanted to get an on-the-ground perspective from someone who works within the domestic nonprofit sector on a regular basis.

We were curious to see if concepts like “philanthronationalism” are starting to become codified in Sri Lankan culture, how salient patron-client relationships still are, and what the outlook for philanthropy is in Sri Lanka.  To help us better understand some of these issues, we turned to Sharadha de Saram, a Sri Lanka-based program consultant for Give2Asia and trustee of The Sunshine Charity. (Full disclosure: many of us at APF have worked for or with Give2Asia in the past.)

Karmic Giving in Sri Lanka

Like Dr. Widger, Sharadha finds that Sri Lanka occupies a seemingly paradoxical space where charity is ubiquitous, but philanthropy is still feeble.

“I do agree with the research,” Sharadha said. “We don’t have a culture of philanthropy like in Western countries, but a culture of volunteering does exist. I think that’s why we came up high on the CAF Giving Index.”

Based on her many years in the Sri Lankan social space, Sharadha distinguishes between what she calls the “karmic giving” of Sri Lankan culture and the kind of social philanthropy that has been gaining traction in the West. In a presentation she gave at the International Women’s Leadership Workshop hosted by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in 2012, Sharadha explained:

In Sri Lanka, people (chiefly Buddhist and Hindus who believe in after-life) give for a better next life…The chief reason for giving is to have a better life in the next birth or for a better life for the children in their next birth, or simply to negate any ill-effects on a person’s current life and bring merit to the lives of the family members.

Sharadha sees the preponderance of karmic giving as both a boon and bane to philanthropy in Sri Lanka. It encourages charitable activities, but lacks concrete impact.

“Karmic giving doesn’t connect you with the recipient,” Sharadha explained. “It is good to give and you can give anyway you want, but most Sri Lankans don’t understand the needs among the poor because they don’t make personal connections. They don’t take the time to visit project sites and see how their giving has made an impact. The act of giving may help them feel good, but they don’t look to see if it improves the life of the person receiving the gift.”

Patron-Client Relationships and Politicization

Although karmic giving does create a clear distinction between donor and receiver, Sharadha holds back from placing it within the patron-client social matrices as Dr. Widger and his team’s research does. She doesn’t consider karmic giving a mechanism—conscious or unconscious—to preserve inequality and reinforce social status.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily like that. Most people actually don’t talk about their giving — even the corporates. Many of the corporates have their own projects, and they’ll raise funds for it, but they aren’t necessarily sharing their work publicly,” she said.

On the subject of philanthropy increasingly becoming politicized, though, Sharadha agreed with Dr. Widger’s findings. “Philanthropy is getting more polarizing,” she noted.

Looking Ahead at Sri Lankan Philanthropy

To set philanthropy on the most impactful course, Sharadha believes the country need greater leadership from people who can share their experiences of applying financial resources and human capital to social good.

“If I were, a millionaire I would organize a conference with a line of high profile speakers,” Sharadha shared. “It’s a subject that people don’t really understand. We need more people to share their experiences to improve the mindset. This is one way we can change the culture of giving, but we need the leadership to outline it. Donors are not yet knowledgeable about best practices and smaller donors haven’t gotten the concept of doing due diligence down.”

The Sri Lanka diaspora can play a large role in moving the philanthropic needle forward too, Sharadha added. This should come as no surprise: According to the World Bank, Sri Lanka received an estimated 6.9 billion USD in remittances in 2013, accounting for roughly 10% of its GDP. Now, Sharadha says, people within the country are increasingly looking to the diaspora community for philanthropic support as well.

Philanthropy in Sri Lanka, like in many other Asian countries, still has a long way to go before it becomes a major development player. But the will to see it mature is there, as evinced by Sharadha’s experience and additional philanthropic research. We await to see what happens as people embrace giving publicly and take greater ownership of local causes.

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