Sri Lanka: A Deeper Dive into Philanthropic Research with Tom Widger

Children-Sri-Lanka
Image: Paul Arps (CC)

 

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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APF: Why did you decide to focus on Sri Lanka for your research?

TW: There are really two different themes at play here, so let’s start with ‘why philanthropy?’

In the context of falling financial aid from donor countries and donor organizations, in the face of the financial crises, there’s a big interest in alternative forms of financing and different sources of development support. Most of the big development agencies – World Bank, Asian Development Bank, EU, as well as bilateral agencies – are interested in sourcing or mobilizing alternative finance streams and alternative actors in the development process. Big donors are trying to reduce expenditure, especially in middle income countries, and pass over some of the responsibilities to developing countries. The obvious target is indigenous philanthropy but as yet most research has focused on the likes of Gates and Rockefeller.

The second theme is that within developing countries, there have been centuries of charitable activities that come in different formats and styles of gifting. There is no reason to assume people give and receive the same ways around the world, and if indigenous philanthropy is to be mobilized ‘why people give’ is a crucial question. 

The second theme is that within developing countries, there have been centuries of charitable activities that come in different formats and styles of gifting. There is no reason to assume people give and receive the same ways around the world, and if indigenous philanthropy is to be mobilized ‘why people give’ is a crucial question. Sri Lanka is home to four world religions – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam – which in their own ways compel adherents to give. These religious customs of giving have spurned centuries of activities from before the colonial period into the post-colonial. But international development actors of the past often overlooked these activities. So theme number two is basically about understanding those activities.

Sri Lanka is an interesting country to consider the role of philanthropy in development because of these two themes. First, the country was previously heavily dependent on overseas aid but recently it obtained middle-income status and lots of donors are pulling out. Thus the first question is ‘can indigenous charity and philanthropy take its place?’ Second, the country reports very high levels of charitable giving. The Charity Aid Foundation’s Global Giving Index ranks Sri Lanka in the top 10 most charitable countries in the world. The second question is ‘what drives such high levels of giving?’ Third, we’re interested in what lessons might be drawn from the Sri Lankan context for the rest of Asia.

APF: Would you say your research is at the intersection of foreign interests and the interests of local communities then?

TW: We’re hoping to provide insights that can be useful for traditional development agencies as well as private philanthropic actors and organisations. But the project is also about complicating the assumptions and expectations of global donor organizations and those held by philanthropists in Sri Lanka. Understanding the political and the social contexts of giving in Sri Lanka and understanding ways in which concepts of the gift in different religious traditions are being put to use for ‘development’ is crucial for understanding the actual and potential developmental impact of philanthropy.

Understanding the political and the social contexts of giving in Sri Lanka and understanding ways in which concepts of the gift in different religious traditions are being put to use for ‘development’ is crucial for understanding the actual and potential developmental impact of philanthropy.

We’ve started to see some large gifts being made in Sri Lanka recently, but also, after the tsunami, quite a lot of discussion went on about big-scale, poorly-planned foreign donations distorting cultural practices of giving. Also, Sri Lanka emerged from war only recently. The conflicted-affected areas of the country became a very popular site for gifting from abroad and locally as well. The post-disaster and post-conflict climate gives Sri Lanka a unique dimension, where you find a wide range of private individuals and organisations hoping to affect change through philanthropy but as yet perhaps a lack of real attention to how best to accomplish that

APF: In the policy briefs, you caution against overestimating the development potential of indigenous giving. What did you mean by that?

There is a very simplistic understanding among major aid organizations – at least the Euro-American ones –that gifting is pretty much the same in different countries around the world. This usually comes out of a Christian understanding of charity. If you think about the background to international development activities, it’s tied up with colonialism and the spread of Christianity. Then you have the capitalist context: In neoliberal societies, the responsibility of development is put onto individuals to share their passion and time for good purposes. So a lot of these donor organizations see local giving through this lens and perhaps thinking yes, it’s excellent—local people give and they take charge of their own development.

But if you go to a country like Sri Lanka, gifting is extremely popular and people do give to a lot of causes, but it’s to very specific causes. To take the example of Buddhist daane (charity), a practice that accounts for a large percentage of Buddhist giving activities, by tradition it   involves the giving of food to monks, and in the modern period to children’s homes and elders’ homes, for the purposes of receiving merit. People simply don’t give money to local charities and development organizations in any significant number. So while in the UK you might find that giving cash to local or overseas charities is something that people do on  a regular basis, in Sri Lanka it rarely happens.

I don’t think this comes from any willful exclusion of the poor or the disadvantaged; it comes from a different understanding of what charity and development entail. To put it quite simply, in the West, gifting is about personal satisfaction — a realization of one’s desire to see the reduction of suffering, where recipients can be entirely anonymous. Whereas in Sri Lanka, gifting is very much about supporting one’s own family or community – it’s the gift that’s personal. This reflects different kinds of ideas about development and the reasons why people give.

If we put things in term of development-speak, it turns from an interest in social change to a basic interest in social protection—providing for the immediate consequence of poverty rather than trying to address the underlying causes of poverty.

APF: In your research, you talk about how Sri Lankan giving is more reflective of philanthronationalism than philanthropcapitalism. What’s that about?

Philanthrocapitalism has become a buzz-word summarizing private sector involvement in development processes that has arisen due to state roll-back in neoliberal societies. In Sri Lanka the label simply doesn’t work.

TW: Philanthrocapitalism has become a buzz-word summarizing private sector involvement in development processes that has arisen due to state roll-back in neoliberal societies. In Sri Lanka the label simply doesn’t work. Despite several decades of free market reform the state remains central to economic and social life and in a post-war context of nationalization and economic militarization this is only strengthening. Yet we also find extensive private sector involvement in development, but I argue that it takes the form of ‘philanthronationalism.’ Simply defined, ‘philanthronationalism’ involves the application of business thinking and methods to the realization of political concerns and expediencies, which are essential for private companies to master if they hope to remain in business. Most, perhaps all, of Sri Lanka’s corporates tailor their philanthropic and CSR programmes to appease political and nationalist concerns, combining wider development efforts with sometimes highly charged ethnic and religious symbols tied to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.

APF: You also wrote about patron-client relationships in philanthropy, and hearing that can make some people uncomfortable because, in ways, patron-client dynamics reinforce a social hierarchy. Do you think it is something that is just incompatible with philanthropy, or is it something that can grow alongside philanthropy?

TW: There is a very old debate in anthropology about the unequal nature of the gift, in which to accept charity is to enter into a relationship of debt and obligation to the giver. There are many ways around this debate but one thing that stood out from my work was a different way of thinking about that hierarchy. Often we hear “patron-client” and immediately think that’s a bad thing. Interestingly, the research that I did showed that for clients, a direct relationship to a patron could be a good thing. Having somebody in the community who can be called on for support and has got to give it to you is actually an extremely good thing. Otherwise, when you’re in a tough situation, what can you do?

For patrons, it has good sides and bad sides. As a patron, you can build up a base of clients that are keen to do things for you. But also, the constant demands to give to your base are also incredibly problematic. What’s interesting is that you actually find patrons in business or in politics becoming impoverished because they have got these very old ties, in the same families, stretching back to decades. This constant giving is a big toll.

It’s difficult to apply straightforward definitions of philanthropy and charity to Sri Lanka if you’re a donor organization trying to encourage these activities.  It is also difficult to assume that patronage is a bad thing or something that can be effectively ‘tackled’ or taken out of the society.

So the patron-client relationship does create inequality, but it also creates important chances for people, and it does flow in two directions. It’s difficult to apply straightforward definitions of philanthropy and charity to Sri Lanka if you’re a donor organization trying to encourage these activities.  It is also difficult to assume that patronage is a bad thing or something that can be effectively ‘tackled’ or taken out of the society.

With that said, there’s also very little awareness of or interest in ‘rights-based’ models of development. In Sri Lanka you find very definite ideas of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, and gifts always come with strings attached. There is overwhelming evidence that unconditional as opposed to conditional cash transfers most effectively help people come out of poverty, but in Sri Lanka many philanthropists argue that the poor can’t be trusted and must be set limits.

APF: What aspects of the local giving culture can you see development professionals engaging with?

I think we have to engage with all aspects of indigenous giving. We have to see philanthropy and development as culturally situated activities. In Sri Lanka, it implies certain kind of activities and things. It’s about really trying to understand those things and turning them into resources to build on.

TW: I think we have to engage with all aspects of indigenous giving. We have to see philanthropy and development as culturally situated activities. In Sri Lanka, it implies certain kind of activities and things. It’s about really trying to understand those things and turning them into resources to build on.

In phase two of our research, we’re going to try to turn our research findings into practical opportunities. We’re approaching this from the perspective of trying to partner with organizations in Colombo to create sustainable philanthropic practice. By that I mean, getting beyond the concept of immediate gift—giving in a way that would have a sustainable impact.

APF: How do you want people to use your research? Can your research be applied elsewhere?

TW: I think the Sri Lankan context is quite specific because you find a conflation of different social context that you don’t find in other areas. On the one hand, you find lots of activity, but a low interest in development. The key thing you find coming out of our work is this assumption in development circles that philanthropy is a straightforward answer to the reduction of financial flows from developed countries to developing countries.

I think philanthropy in South Asia is better understood in terms of the communities in which people come from. The reasons they give, what they give, and who they give to are shaped by cultural practices and the scriptural statements of different faiths.

And what do we want people to use these briefs for? They are good case studies to problematize idea of philanthropy and the way in which culture and philanthropy define the gift. If development organizations or Western organizations want to find ways to partner up with local groups and companies, what are the benefits and dangers? What can be done to better understand what’s going on?

APF: Are you hopeful for the future of philanthropy in Sri Lanka?

TW: In a sense, I am. I think what you’re seeing is a change from older to newer styles of gifting. There is a lot of potential there, but there is also a lot of political interference restricting what people can and cannot do. It’s playing out in terms of post-conflict activities. Among individuals, though, there is a lot of passion and interest.

For more on the research, as well as information about the workshops the team recently conducted with local organizations in Sri Lanka, visit www.charityphilanthropydevelopment.org.

An on-the-ground perspective of Sri Lankan philanthropy is up next!

One response to “Sri Lanka: A Deeper Dive into Philanthropic Research with Tom Widger”

  1. […] 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 […]

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