I just got back from a wonderful 5-day trip to Myanmar! Although I am normally a DIY-traveller, for this trip I engaged local tour guides for a more immersive travel and cultural experience - and this gave me an incredible glimpse into the everyday life of local people (somewhat like living in a real-time documentary!).
Before I went, I had read that Myanmar has ranked #1 in CharityAid's World Giving Index for four consecutive years. This may seem odd at first glance, given Myanmar falls firmly within the Lower Middle Income group of frontier economies. Quoting the 2017 report:
"Since Myanmar first topped the rankings in 2014, we have pointed out that the country has certain characteristics which have helped it achieve this status as number one in the World Giving Index. Anywhere from 80% to 90% of people in Myanmar are practising Buddhists with as many as 99% of those following the Theravada branch of the religion. In Theravada Buddhism, followers donate to support those living a monastic lifestyle – a practice known as Sangha Dana. Giving in this way carries significant religious meaning and small, frequent acts of giving are the norm."
During my visit, I was lucky enough to witness this religious giving first hand at a PaO village up in the hills around Inle Lake. PaO is one of the many ethnic tribes living around the lake and in Shan state, and according to local legend, they were descended from a dragon who took the form of a woman in order to copulate with their superhero human founding father. This is represented in their traditional costume, which is all black to give the effect of dark scales, and offset with a vibrant headdress that symbolises dragonfire.
PaO women in traditional costume, observing the local festical. Author's own photo.
As mentioned, the day of my visit coincided with their annual Kathein Pwe, a robe-giving festival. All the men in the village get together to dance around the monastery with the offering tree, whilst women and children observe at the sides. The offering tree contains all the goods that the villagers have collectively acquired for the monastery - everyday household items such as brooms, water kettles and robes, all of which make for strange gifting from a developed world viewpoint.
PaO men parading the offering tree around the local monastery. Author's own photo.
The goods will be used in the monastery for the collective use of both the monks in residence, as well as for villagers during meetings and gatherings there as the monastery also doubled up as the local town hall. Our guide, Hom, also explained some village customs to us, such as the collective monitoring and rotational responsibilities amongst the households. What she described partly explains, in my view, the apparent juxtaposition of Myanmar being the most generous in the world. The combination of a transitioning economy, military dominance in government, and the diverse ethnic tribes which remain in existence, mean that collective action remain a prevalent form of insurance.
Of course, this is not unique to Myanmar, and CharityAid is also accurate in attributing generosity to Buddhism.
In particular, Burmese buddhists put a large focus on merit and karma. They believe that spending for a good or religious cause also counts in the lifelong cumulation of "merit" to improve one's lot in the perpetual cycle of life, with the ultimate goal of reaching Nirvana. This quest to accumulate merit underpins the prolific construction of stupa and temples between the 11th to 13th centuries in the country.
Bagan at sunset. Author's own photo.
In modern times, this belief is still manifest in the everyday; as an example, when I visited the Hpaung Daw U pagoda on the shores of Inle Lake, I couldn't even get close to the buddha images in the centre given there was a crowd of men clustered around the statues, trying to stick gold leaf onto the figurines. This has been a custom for an unknown number of years, to the extent that the images are no longer recognisable. This illustrates the fervent belief that giving something of value would yield positive karma in one's many lives to come.
Buddha images at the Hpaung Daw U Pagoda. By Thomas Schoch - Own work – http://www.retas.de/thomas/travel/burma2009/, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19816043
This is not to say that the generosity of the Burmese is not entirely altruistic, but rather, the above examples underpin a more modern and realistic take on giving - that some element of return may drive greater sustainability and scaleability. This return is not restricted to financial payouts; in the gold leaf offering example, the "payout" is entirely intangible and impossible to monitor. Yet the belief that a gift or act of generosity would kick off a cycle of positive feedback and returns seem to be the strongest drive for continued giving.