Tapping into a tradition of giving

Traditional and faith-based forms of giving have been around for centuries and continue to play a major role in determining people’s giving patterns. There is much excitement about the pace at which formal philanthropy is taking hold in many developing countries, but some believe that understanding - and perhaps harnessing - indigenous traditions could make philanthropic initiatives more sustainable in the long run.

“Every country and culture has its own traditions of giving and social solidarity between family, friends and neighbours, whether it is the tradition of burial societies in Africa or hometown associations in Mexico,” writes Jenny Hodgson, executive director of the Global Fund for Community Foundations.

What is also clear is that giving happens across all strata of society and transmission is not simply along vertical lines - from rich to poor - but horizontal too, with poor people also giving to each other. Giving can take many forms - including cash, labour, skills transfer, assets and time.

Certainly, diverse forms of giving have many roots and the situation today is “a point of muddled convergence where external factors and local, African traditions and contexts meet”, argues Hodgson.

While the global community foundation movement traces its origins back to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1914, finally arriving in South Africa in the mid-1990s and in Kenya in 1997 with the establishment of the Kenya Community Development Foundation, the reality is that community foundations are also rooted in ancient African traditions encapsulated in concepts like ubuntu (meaning “I am what I am because of who we all are”), harambee (Kenyan form of community fund raising meaning “all pulling together”); ilima (Southern African practice of sharing with those who have not), or isusu in West Africa, where a community raises resources for a specific goal. Other traditional practices include mrimo (or mutual aid) in Tanzania, and bataka in Uganda (help in funerals).

Several years ago a research project called the Poor Philanthropist by the University of Cape Town, South Africa, looked at the many ways that poor people support each other. The study questioned why so much poverty persists when billions of dollars of aid is pumped into poor communities every year, leading to the charge that “poor people are somehow hijacking their own development.

“However, far from being ‘an obstacle to their own development’, our research into the organic helping systems found in poor African communities has demonstrated the depth and complexity of the resilience with which communities have coped, survived and even advanced under adverse circumstances.”

The report argues that “the local ethos of caring and sharing is largely invisible to outsiders” which leads to them being ignored or undermined in development efforts. Unless donors understand the ways that poor people help each other development won’t be sustainable, the report argues.

Senegal-based Trust Africa promotes philanthropy on the continent and advocates similar notions: “Cultivating indigenous philanthropic resources can play a catalytic role in enabling Africans to reclaim ownership of their own agendas, bring forward African voices and help offset the power imbalances that accompany external aid,” says the organization. The continent has a strong culture of family and community-based giving and support systems. “Efforts to reenergize these traditions, and extend their reach, could give civil society organizations greater leverage with funders overseas as well as wary governments here at home.”

“What is also clear is that giving happens across all strata of society and transmission is not simply along vertical lines - from rich to poor - but horizontal too, with poor people also giving to each other”

Religious giving is often the main source of philanthropy in many countries.  Because religious bodies often channel philanthropic giving through a range of institutions, it is not always easy to track, however. Furthermore, while philanthropy is often motivated by religious belief, the proceeds do not always go to the religious institutions themselves. Many of the 2.8 billion Christians and 1.6 billion Muslims around the world give regularly for religious reasons.

In Muslim societies philanthropic giving is an integral part of life. In Indonesia, for example, a study found that most giving is for religious reasons.

The Muslim tradition of zakat is a form of obligatory giving; sadaqa is voluntary giving and, according to the Koran, is about giving discretely “to those in need rather than for the purpose of public acknowledgement”. A third type of giving, waqf, is a form of giving that has value beyond the given object itself, or the life of the person who gave it, for example a piece of land or a school.

Organizations like Aga Khan Foundation which promotes development in the poorest parts of Asia and East Africa, describes itself as a “modern vehicle for traditional philanthropy” and has a presence in 30 countries.

In Egypt, the impetus to setting up the Waqfeyat al Maadi Community Foundation in 2007, was “reviving and modernizing waqf”, described as a 1,400-year-old practice dating back to “ancient pharaonic Egypt when Monks endowed land to fund their temples”.  The initiative has aimed to shift giving patterns from a charity model, which Marwa al-Daly, the founder of the initiative, found most Egyptians subscribed to, to one that promotes community-driven sustainability.

In India, over 80 percent of the population reportedly give every year, mostly to religious causes - either known as daan in Hindu communities, seva in Sikh communities or zakat (Muslim). And Buddhist organizations like the Bahujan Hitay in India give assistance to the 150 million Dalits (“the untouchables”) who live in poverty. “Both the traditional Buddhists in Asia and the `new Buddhists’ in the West are beginning to find new and radical expressions to the altruistic dimension in their tradition,” wrote Peter Joseph, director of the Karuna Trust UK.

Judeo-Christian traditions are also underpinned by giving to the poor. Large-scale organizations like Christian Aid have an overt social agenda, whose mission is to “expose the scandal of poverty” and challenge “the systems, structures and processes that work against the interests of those who have been made poor or marginalized”. Many Christian groups are moving away from traditional models of aid and relief towards more community-driven approaches that tackle the root causes of poverty and push for societal change.