Okay, I know… the title is about as cliché and trite as they come, but it’s 9/11, and I’m going to get patriotic for a minute. The US isn’t perfect, and there are any number of issues that I could get up on my soapbox and gripe about regarding US policy, but I’m just a silver lining kinda guy. So while yes, we might have the most guns, we might incarcerate the most citizens, maybe our politicians are primarily bought and paid for by multinational corporations, we love our death penalty and our education system is spiraling towards oblivion. We are also a world leader when it comes to a facet of life very close to my own heart—donating, volunteering and helping people in need.
We are #1
According to the World Giving Index the United States always ranks right towards the top in terms of charity, which is measured by combining three characteristics: how much money is donated, how much time is volunteered, and what percentage of the population helps a stranger. In 2011, the United States was ranked the most charitable country in the world. Every year, the US ranks number one in terms of total money donated. So while we may have a government that is totally out of control and inhumane, we as independent people are the most generous in the world, and that’s one good reason to be proud to be an American.
Since leaving the US back in early April, I have now traveled through somewhere between 15 and 20 countries, and I’ve met dozens of wonderful friendly people along the way. But there is one characteristic about me, they all seemed a bit puzzled by, and that was my willingness to give to strangers. Whether it be the homeless/sick/starving person begging on the street or the cheerful young lady walking about with a collection box for some charity or just going onto Kickstarter and donating a bit here and there. I always give when the opportunity presents itself. I view giving as something of a luxury, not a tax or burden. I feel lucky when I can help someone else out.
But that’s how I was raised. My mom is similar in this respect. She’ll give a $20 bill to a random homeless person without thinking. I don’t come from a wealthy family; just your typical middle class suburban upbringing. My aunt on my mother’s side passed away a couple years ago from type-2 diabetes, and for Christmas last year I donated to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in my mom’s name. My dad loves fishing, so for him I donated to a non-profit in Fort Myers, FL that brings underprivileged children out into the Gulf of Mexico and teaches them to fish. They loved it. My mom cried. This is just how we roll.
Generosity in Other Countries
Fast-forward to recent times. I was down in Hua Hin, Thailand a month or so ago when a woman came walking up the beach in a uniform or some sort. She was passing out pamphlets about a program to feed local children, and she had a little blue collection box. Before I even knew what she was supporting I was racing to find my wallet with excitement—A chance to help someone, what a treat! My companion looked at me like I was crazy. Not a single other person on the beach even spoke to the woman.
I could rattle off a dozen episodes similar to this since I started traveling, and it’s only recently that I’ve picked up on the pattern. Back in the States if someone has a collection box, and if someone is trying to help others, it is just second nature to give what we can. So to look around and see someone trying to make a difference while everyone else just ignores it—well this is very odd to me.
What’s Up With That?
When something doesn’t make sense, I always try to dig deeper—to make order out of chaos. Some people would say, well the US is rich, so of course you guys can afford to be the most generous. If that’s true then how does Sri Lanka rank as the 8th most generous in the world, and Laos and Sierra Leone tie for 11th? How does Japan, one of the wealthiest countries in the world rank way down at 119th? Singapore, where 1 in 6 households has over a million dollars in cash on hand (not net worth, not property, but liquid cash aka cash money) and the third highest GDP per capita rank 91st?
Looking over the data one can see some patterns. Wealthy western countries give the most time and money. They also have populations that are most likely to help strangers in need. Poor western countries are less likely to do so. Wealthy Asian countries are the least likely to donate, volunteer or help strangers while poor Asian countries have the most generous populations. I’m not trying to be stereotypical; there are generous people in every country. I’m just looking at data and spotting patterns, so let’s not get all politically correct and defensive about this.
But I’m wondering… why are Americans so generous? Why do these differences between eastern and western cultures exist? Has anyone else noticed similar differences while traveling? Submit a comment, and share your thoughts!