28 NOVEBER 2016
We think rather smugly of ourselves in the UK, and in the west as a whole, as charitable souls. So it can come as something of a shock to learn that the world’s most generous folk are in Myanmar, that Iraqis are those most likely to help a stranger and that volunteering is most common in Turkmenistan.
These are the findings of the latest world giving index, compiled annually by the Charities Aid Foundation (Caf) from survey data drawn up across the globe by Gallup. And while Caf puts a positive spin on it – “UK most generous in Europe” – the harsh truth is that Brits are not getting noticeably more selfless.
In fact, the UK is this year down two places to eighth in Caf’s overall generosity league table, which combines cash giving, volunteering and helping strangers. It’s seventh on donations alone, but doesn’t make the top 10 on either of the other two yardsticks.
It’s easy to make light of such findings: the Gallup data is based on much more wide-ranging surveys, usually of 1,000 people a time, in more than 140 countries. There are no doubt methodological uncertainties in comparing directly a telephone-based survey in the UK with face-to-face interviews in Turkmenistan or Sri Lanka (fourth on volunteering, fifth overall).
But these results do chime with other evidence suggesting that the UK is, at best, holding its own on giving and helping. Economic recovery since the crash of 2008 has certainly not brought any explosion of magnanimity.
According to the most recent version of Caf’s own UK Giving survey, the number of people donating to charity is dropping: whereas in 2014, 44% said they had given in the previous four weeks and 70% in the previous 12 months, the corresponding proportions in 2015 were 42% and 67%.
In its latest Civil Society Almanac, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) notes that charities’ income from individuals – which includes legacies, membership fees and takings at charity shops – rose 7.7% in 2013-14 compared to the previous financial year. But the total was still below the peak of 2010-11.
On volunteering, the Cabinet Office’s Community Life Survey for 2015-16 indicates that 41% of people volunteer “formally”, through groups, clubs or other organisations in the course of a year - down from 42% in 2014-15.
Taking account of “informal” volunteering, defined as providing help to someone who is not a relative, the 2015-16 figure looks better, at 70%, and is indeed up from 69% in 2014-15. But this is hardly an increase to dine out on.
Nick Ockenden, NCVO’s head of research, thinks we should look at the positives. “I would call it a stable picture rather than flatlining,” he says. “It’s certainly not a bad thing.”
He concedes, though, that charities have come to rely much more on individual giving and volunteering since government funding – particularly grants – nosedived when austerity followed the 2008 crash. His team is currently crunching the 2014-15 numbers for the next edition of NCVO’s almanac, anxious to establish if the sector’s overall income rise registered in 2013-14, the first for four years, was continued.
One intriguing aspect of the picture is that the huge growth in opportunities to give, whether online or at bank cashpoints, does not appear to have generated any significant net growth in donations.
“People are still going to chuck a pound in the bucket or buy raffle tickets,” says Ockenden. “Sometimes there’s a tendency to think that technology replaces everything that came before, but it doesn’t – it’s just about giving people, especially young people, other mechanisms to do so.”
While the UK and the rest of Europe tread water in Caf’s global giving index, Africa emerges this year as the continent showing the biggest increase in generosity. Disasters and adversity appear to have spurred good deeds, with Nepal and Libya featuring strongly as well as Iraq.
John Low, Caf chief executive, says such selflessness is humbling and reflects an in-built human desire to give and help others. “Governments should encourage that spirit of generosity and create the environment in which a strong civil society can flourish, allowing people to reach out to those less fortunate than themselves.
“Unconditional gifts of time and money are a life-changing force for good in the world. As people become more prosperous and economies grow stronger, we have an opportunity to build an ever stronger culture of giving right across the world.”