The Impact of Local Charity on Development: A Sri Lankan Case Study

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Among the many trends in global development, the need to incubate “indigenous philanthropy” is one that is brought up often.

Wit the ramifications of financial crises in the U.S. and Europe still unfolding, structural changes in global markets have led major foreign aid donors to scale down their support so that they can focus on domestic affairs.  At the same time, wealth in emerging markets is expanding rapidly, and international development professionals are pushing for more business-based approaches to poverty alleviation. Local corporations and the newly wealthy are being called upon to take a lead in philanthropic giving just as former titans of aid pull back.

Yet, as much as we can all agree that local ownership of social issues and solutions is a good thing, how ready are domestic Asian communities to assume leadership in philanthropy? Are the social and financial infrastructures to support local philanthropy in place? Can domestic philanthropy exceed foreign aid, international giving, and other forms of capital flow to social good projects?

Any attempts to answer these questions at this time are at best speculative, given how unpredictable philanthropic giving can be. Philanthropy is primarily done out of good will – not by legislative mandate (expenditure requirements and CSR laws notwithstanding). This makes it a capricious form of capital. Moreover, the state of wealth and charitable giving differs drastically from one Asian country to the next, so philanthropic propensity is also likely to vary by country.

But, with thoughtful research, we can begin to understand the likelihood of domestic philanthropy blooming into a development role and where to best apply our resources to help it grow. Dr. Tom Widger of the University of Sussex and his team of researchers wanted to understand the potential of indigenous giving on global development, so they decided to take a closer look at local giving in Sri Lanka, which ranked 10th in last year’s World Giving Index. In particular, the team focused their research efforts in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital.

The findings of the research were turned into a set of three policy briefs: “The potential of charity for development”; “Corporate responsibility, philanthropy, and development”; and “Charity and social protection.” Dr. Widger told Asian Philanthropy Forum that his team plans to return to Sri Lanka for additional research but first, let’s take a look at some of the major — and often sobering – initial findings:

  1. Indigenous giving in its current form may not play the system-changing role we hoped for.

It is often said that many Asian countries have a “culture of giving.” This is usually read as a positive indication that with the right catalysts in place, strategic philanthropy—the kind that aspires to systemic social change—can blossom locally. But Dr. Widger and his team found the reverse might also be true: a culture of giving that reinforces existing social hierarchies can end up “inimical to development interventions.”

The team found that charitable giving in Sri Lanka is usually oriented towards social protection rather than social change. Moreover, giving is typically embedded in wider religious, social, and political matrices. The value systems in these socio-religious and political matrices may start out altruistic and in service of the public good, but in practice, they can be used to promote self-interests or discriminate against the poor in subtle ways.

For instance, the team examined how religious affiliations affected giving. Religion plays an important role in Sri Lankan culture, but conflicts between Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim groups have put strains on the country and at times erupted into violence:

There are frequently statements that charity is distributed with no cognizance being taken of the religion of the beneficiary, and whilst this is certainly true in some cases, in general donor and donee share the same religion. This at times gives rise to tensions, for instance certain Buddhist groups accusing evangelical churches of using charity as a means of converting people to a specific or religion, or accusations that zaqat etc. give Muslims an unfair advantage in the commercial world.

Additionally, religious and social precepts can also be used to distinguish between the “deserving poor” and those whom donors deem unworthy of assistance. While it is natural that donors would want to invest in people and projects with the potential to succeed, this could also lead to systemic marginalization of entire communities. Put more cynically, it strips away the agency of poor individuals and turns them into objects for the wealthy to exact their judgment.

  1. Philanthronationalism rules. Philanthropcapitalism, not so much.

In one of their briefs, Dr. Widger’s team looks at the “business case” for development and how it applies to Sri Lanka.

In general, there are five approaches corporations can take to development:

1) CSR programs that limit a firm’s carbon footprint and promote a triple bottom line;

2) Inclusive business models that involve impoverished communities in the value chain;

3) Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) strategies that create products and services for underserved markets;

4) Social enterprises that combine business practices with social missions; and

5) Corporate philanthropy (CP), which gives financial and professional resources to groups doing social change work

The team found that at this time, only CSR and CP have a notable presence in Sri Lanka. More so than the other three approaches, CSR and CP have a fixed hierarchy built into them. That is to say, there is a clearer distinction between benefactor and beneficiary when a company gives a grant or offers volunteer services. In contrast, inclusive business, BoP, and social enterprises share a more balanced relationship with the communities they serve. Theoretically, the communities have greater input in determining the direction of a project or program in these latter three approaches.

CSR and CP activities in Sri Lanka also have a political bent to them. Sri Lanka gained sovereignty less than 50 years, and it was engaged in civil war as recent as 2009. As such, the country maintains a heavy military presence, with the military expanding into economic activities as well. Under such conditions, firms may feel compelled to curry favor with the government in order to stay in business. CSR and CP represent means of doing so. The research team observed four common patterns of CSR and CP activities in Sri Lanka:

(1) ‘passive,’ where projects pay lip service to nationalist sentiments but have no explicit nationalist objectives;

(2) ‘assimilative,’ where projects display overtly nationalist commitments in the face of anti-nationalist/anti-patriotic suspicions and so attempt to appease governmental and nationalists’ fears;

(3) ‘reactive,’ where projects are launched with the intention of relieving specific nationalist threats;

(4) ‘collaborative,’ where projects  are conducted in direct partnership with government agencies, including the Army, and seek to engender specific nationalist functions and goals

The politicization of philanthropy and lack of beneficiary input in charitable activities in Sri Lanka suggests that philanthrocapitalism in Sri Lanka has not taken off the way it has in other parts of the world. Instead, philanthronationalism drives corporate giving.

  1. Patron-client relationships find their way into charitable giving.

The patron-client culture in Sri Lanka engenders much of the two points made above. By their very nature, patron client relationships elevate the status of one group of people above another, perpetuating social inequality. However, patron client relationships can also create a social contract that brings benefits to both sides of the relationship. In the Sri Lankan context, the patron-client structure can encourage the wealthy to donate money in order to discharge religious, social, or familial obligations to their so-called clients.  Among corporations, it creates the “awareness that being seen to contribute to national development goals can prove a company’s patriotic or nationalist credentials and indicate support for the ruling party.”  

Yet giving of this nature is too often transactional and not transformative, reflecting the noblesse oblige nature of the gifts. As the research team writes, Sri Lankan “charity works to reinforce and denote differences of wealth and power, the poor existing as a means by which the donors can generate merit and blessings. In a sense the poor always have to be present in order for there to be a rationale for charitable actions.” The impact of local charitable giving in Sri Lanka may be much more complicated than what can be measured by outputs and outcomes alone.

Tying it all together

Dr. Widger and his team’s research certainly complicates our understanding of local giving practices and their potential to play a more strategic development role. It challenges the notion that all charitable giving is the same, especially when the upshot of giving can be institutionalized inequality.

The team’s findings may not be the reassuring outlook we were hoping for, but it is important to confront the reality of charity’s role in society and acknowledge cultural differences. We cannot assume that transformative philanthropy will take hold because it is the good or necessary thing; we have to identify what works and whom we can work with to strengthen gaps in philanthropy’s development. From this research, we can start to see that perhaps culture of giving alone is insufficient for cultivating philanthropy. Philanthropy must grow hand-in-hand with civil society.

What are your thoughts on this research? In upcoming posts, we’ll chat with Dr. Widger and hear from a group working on the ground for a first-hand experience of Sri Lankan philanthropy. 

One response to “The Impact of Local Charity on Development: A Sri Lankan Case Study”

  1. […] In a recent post on Asian Philanthropy Forum, we took a look at research on Sri Lankan philanthropy. This research was led by professors Roderick Stirrat and Filippo Osella from the University of Sussex, and involved teams from the Centre for Poverty Analysis and University of Peradeniya from Sri Lanka. It was funded by the UK’s Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) and Department for International Development (DfID). Dr. Tom Widger, the full time Research Fellow on the program, was kind enough to talk to Asian Philanthropy Forum in greater detail about his findings and insights. […]


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