By Khaled Diab
If you're feeling dejected by the troubled times we live in, remember that human generosity lives on, even in the most wretched of places.
Friday 2 September 2016
War. Mass murder. Fanaticism. Bigotry. Racism. Hatred. Environmental devastation. These are depressing times we are living through.
However, scratch beneath the surface of the headlines and beyond the escalating news cycle of violence and you can find human beauty, even in the most wretched of places, at the most wretched of times.
This was driven home to me by what seems to be a startling statistical finding. Iraqis are the most likely people in the world to help a stranger, according to the World Giving Index (WGI).
Let that sink in for a moment. This is a country that was “shocked and awed” by the US and Britain into almost total state collapse, endured years of civil war, is supposedly prey to sectarian and ethnic hatred and is at the mercy of rival militias and warlords, including the infamous and bloodthirsty Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS).
Against such a backdrop and in a world where the relative trickle of refugees into Europe is causing continent-wide panic, you would expect Iraqis to fear strangers, to suspect that a passerby in apparent need is actually part of an ambush or a ploy, to keep what little they have for themselves and their nearest and dearest.
Despite this, a full four-fifths of Iraqis report having helped a stranger in the past month. How is this possible?
Part of the reason may be cultural. Arab societies possess elaborate and nuanced social codes demanding oft-excessive generosity and hospitality to visitors and strangers. This is encapsulated in the ancient Arab proverb: “A guest is greeted like a prince, held like a captive [to your generosity] and departs like a poet [to sing your praises].”
And many is the time that I have been made to feel like the proverbial prince by Arabs I'd never met before. In fact, the most memorable shows of spontaneous generosity from strangers I have encountered in my life were in Egypt.
But culture is only part of the story. Necessity is the mother of generosity. There is a universal human tendency to respond to need and the needy – and a sense of guilt when we do not. In places like Iraq, where the ranks of those in need are enormous, the ranks of those willing to help them also grow, though they can never keep up with the runaway demand.
Conflict- and warzones bring out both the worst in humans and the best. This, to my mind, was symbolically embodied in a single recent incident in Iraq. An ISIS suicide bomber was on his way to take the lives of many innocent worshippers in Balad.
Najih Shaker al-Baldawi intercepted the attacker and hugged the suicide bomber tight, not out of affection for him but out of love for the strangers flocking to a local shrine. By preventing the mass murderer from entering the shrine and by taking much of the initial impact of the blast, al-Baldawi committed perhaps the supreme act of generosity: he gave his life to save dozens of others.
And despite Europe's current (partly unjustified) reputation for selfish individualism, wartime Europe was replete with stories of such heroic, self-sacrificing generosity and solidarity, from the suicidal heroics of World War I trenches to the death-defying resistance to Nazi occupation in World War II and the sheltering of fugitive Jews destined for German death-camps.
Religion also seems to play a role in generosity. When it comes to giving money, Myanmar and Thailand top the WGI. Experts attribute this to the Buddhist practice of Sangha Dana, which encourages people to make donations.
But one must not overestimate the role of religion or assume that secular societies are less giving than pious ones. In the example above, Myanmar was assumed to be the most generous country because a higher percentage of its citizens had given money over the preceding month. But we know nothing of the amounts given and how they relate to income.
So it is entirely possible that in another country where people give away large sums to charity but do so only once or twice a year, citizens would donate a large proportion of their incomes yet appear less generous on the World Giving Index. For example, research has repeatedly found Americans to be the most generous charitable donors in the world as a percentage of income, giving away around 2% of GDP.
However, this does not necessarily make America the most generous country in the world. Like in developing countries with low taxes and huge income disparities, the visible poverty all around forces wealthy people of conscience to give.
In more egalitarian societies, that need is less because of the disguised or invisible forms of collective generosity that do not appear in WGI or statistics on charitable donations. In high-taxation societies with a generous social safety net, “giving” is a legal duty, not an individual choice.
For instance, in the European Union, where such a social model is prevalent, at least nine countries spend over 30% of their gross domestic product on social protection, led by Denmark (34.6%), France (34.2%) and the Netherlands (33.3%).
In addition, although foreign aid is woefully inadequate and wealthier countries are generally reneging on their obligations, a number of countries donate significantly above the benchmark 0.7% of GDP target. These include Sweden (1.4%), the UAE (1.09%), Norway (1.05%), Luxembourg (0.93%) and the Netherlands (0.76%).
This shows how generosity comes in many shapes and sizes, from the individual to the collective. Then there are the intangible, unmeasurable aspects of generosity. A dollar given by someone poor is worth far more than a dollar given by someone wealthy. Help given at great personal risk is worth more than risk-free assistance. Assistance received when you most need it is worth far more than that which is received too late. And a fish given to feed you once is worth far less than giving you the rod or net with which you can feed yourself.
Next time you feel despondent at the selfish taking and destructiveness of the world, look around for the everyday examples of giving which may not capture headlines but do capture a spirit of generosity that may just save humanity from itself.
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This is the extended version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 25 August 2016.