Where the U.S. and the Middle East Think Alike

Feb 25 2014, 1:04pm CST | by

As I was perusing this year’s “BNP Paribas Individual Philanthropy Index,” which measures commitment to giving in the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, I was struck by how often the U.S. and the Middle East move in tandem.

One of the Index survey questions was about the urgency of the need for philanthropy in the world. Philanthropists from two seemingly disparate regions, the U.S. and the Middle East, are outliers. Many more, 64% in the U.S. and 61% in the Middle East, consider the situation in the world in urgent need of philanthropy than do respondents from Europe (49%) and Asia (48%).

Barbara Ibrahim, founding director of the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement, at the American University in Cairo, explains why respondents from the Middle East feel so strongly about the level of urgency: “Philanthropy is a basic value in Arab and Muslim culture. It is reinforced by the religious edict that all believers must give a portion of their wealth, however small, to those less fortunate. In that sense, giving is almost ‘written in the DNA’ of people in this part of the world.”

She also comments on the similarities between the U.S. and the Middle East: “The United States is still a deeply religious country, with high proportions of adults attending church and giving through religious institutions. I think this is a major common feature between the U.S. and the Middle East. A secondary consideration is that both regions have low or absent taxes, which makes it incumbent on citizens to fund many kinds of social services the governments are not providing.”

The heightened perception of urgency by Americans may be because they generally see philanthropy as an important factor much more than people in other countries. Philanthropy has been part of the fabric of American life for 200 years. In addition, in America, many organizations that in other countries are funded by the state, such as premier research institutions, as well as some medical research, are funded by private philanthropy. The philanthropic sector plays a much bigger role in the economy in the U.S. than in other countries.

Both regions also stand out by selecting social change as one of the top three issues for philanthropy in the world. Ibrahim observes that “in both parts of the world there is a heightened sense of the gap between rich and poor, and a feeling that private citizens should do more to close the gap. Europeans are more likely to expect their governments to address these problems. In addition, in both the U.S. and the Middle East, there is intense dissatisfaction with the current state of governance and desire for reform—or in some cases, revolution.”

Respondents from the U.S. and the Middle East also believe that the need for philanthropy is more urgent in their own country than in the world overall. Interestingly, both European and Asian respondents see the need for philanthropy in their countries as less urgent than in the world as a whole.

Americans’ local bent is not due solely to the income disparity and the pullback of government funding within the U.S. One of the reasons that Americans see more urgency inside the U.S. is because some are still much less focused on world affairs than citizens of other countries, according to Melissa Berman, CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. They are more likely to feel uncertain about providing philanthropy outside the U.S., feeling that problems outside the U.S. can’t be solved by Americans, she says.

While Americans’ awareness of international issues has heightened since the 9/11 attacks, a central question is whether U.S. philanthropists feel empowered to be helpful internationally. The challenges include knowing how to help while not being on the ground, and navigating cultural sensibilities.

Source: Forbes Business


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