I ONCE stayed for a week with a family in northern Ethiopia who were reliant on food aid. One of the striking memories of my time with them was of the day that a beggar came to the door holding out a tiny metal cup. The mother of the house took it and, from their dwindling jar of grain, half-filled it. Generosity has little to do with riches.
So, what are we to make of the news that Britain has fallen out of the top ten in the international league tables of charitable giving and voluntary activity? According to the latest global report by the Charities Aid Foundation, the UK has dropped from eighth to 11th place.
The survey measures three things: the proportion of our income we give in charity; the hours of volunteering we do; and the number of random acts of kindness we do to strangers. The grim truth is that, by all three measures, the world has become less generous everywhere, apart from Africa.
Of course, this is just one survey, with a limited methodology. It surveys 146,000 people in 139 countries. But this is the eighth year that it has been run; so the relative positioning offers some indicator. Some 64 per cent of people in the UK said that they had given money to charity, which is five per cent down on last year; 58 per cent of us had helped a stranger: three per cent fewer; and volunteering fell by five points to 28 per cent.
I cannot help but think that there is some kind of connection, however tenuous, between this and Brexit. I am not saying that it is causal. But both might grow from the same sense of disenchantment with the wider world. Isolationism means drawing into ourselves in many different ways. The vote for Donald Trump’s “America First” ideology in the United States — which has also dropped three places (to fifth) in the table — is rooted in some kind of psychological retrenchment.
But it is equally difficult to disentangle significance at the top of the table. The people most likely to help a stranger (81 per cent) are to be found in Sierra Leone, perhaps a reflection of the fact that the Ebola virus recently overwhelmed the state’s health-care infrastructure. The table for volunteering is topped by Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, which has a participation rate of 55 per cent.
The top spot as the world’s most generous nation is the country that we used to call Burma. Myanmar came first in the global generosity table for the fourth year in a row. That result, the Charities Aid Foundation suggests, is because of the high proportion of Buddhists in the country. That is a bitter irony, coming, as it does, at a time when Buddhist identity politics are said to be behind what the United Nations this week called the “ethnic cleansing” of that country’s Rohingya Muslim minority.
How can we make sense of all this? Only by pessimistically concluding that, in general terms, the world is becoming an unkinder place. There is, as the prophet Jeremiah observed, nothing so devious as the human heart.