A Response to Fowler drawing from Perspectives on Volunteering: Voices from the Global South

Global Philanthropy, Global Generosity

Christopher J. Einolf, DePaul University Chicago (ceinolf@depaul.edu)

First, I’d like to thank Alan Fowler for getting this discussion going. I agree with much of what he said in his essay and encourage him and other writers on African generosity to keep going. I do so by presenting some information drawn from Perspectives on Volunteering: Voices from the Global South (New York: Springer, 2016), a book I co-edited with Jacqueline Butcher. Our book is on volunteering only, not generosity overall, but many of the authors make similar points to Fowler.

Fowler’s argument can be summarized thus: Too often, scholars apply Western intellectual concepts to African society, resulting in an “epistemicide” that subordinates African concepts and underestimates Africans’ generosity. Scholars should instead use African concepts to define and measure African generosity. Fowler’s arguments resemble those made by others elsewhere: that 1) Western concepts and non-Western concepts of generosity are qualitatively different, and 2) Western-designed surveys use inaccurate measures and therefore underestimate non-Western generosity. The evidence in our book tends to support proposition 1 but not proposition 2. This essay looks at the evidence for both propositions.

Proposition 1 – Western and non-Western concepts of generosity are different: This is definitely true. One of the strengths of the chapters in our book is that the authors define volunteering in the terms of many countries: Mozambique, Nepal, Kenya, Peru, Buenos Aires, Mexico, China, and Turkey. Some chapters conceptualize volunteering in according to the traditional Western definition: work helping others through an organization. Others, however, use uniquely local forms of helping others.

For example, Gabriel Verduzco argues that Mexicans use the word “solidarity” to describe helping others, not “volunteering,” and that the difference is not merely in the choice of the word. Something qualitatively different occurs when one thinks of volunteering as a shared activity that binds together a group, rather than a gift from a person with resources to a person without them. As an example, Verduzco describes Familia Educadora en la Fe (Family Educators in the Faith), a well-organized but non-registered group of mothers who teach religious principles to their children in their homes. They do so completely separately from the Catholic church hierarchy, as they disagree with the conservative version of Catholicism taught by the priests and bishops. The fact that this group comes together to help themselves and each other, without sponsorship or registration with formal organizations, is different from volunteering in the “West,” or as we call it, the “global North.”

Similarly, Susanne Appe, Nodia Rubaii, and Kerry Stamp describe community soup kitchens in Peru that embody the indigenous Quechua concept of “ayni,” a term that translates as “Andean reciprocity” or “today for you, tomorrow for me.” The authors trace the historical roots of ayni, which grew out of the complex, non-capitalist economic system established by the pre-Columbian Andean civilizations. The soup kitchens continue to carry out this tradition, taking financial support from the government without being co-opted by it. They also collaborate with student volunteers from the global North in a reciprocally beneficial relationship that avoids the neo-colonial domination that Fowler warns us about.

Like Fowler, Helene Perold and Lauren Graham state that Africans define generosity in terms of “ubuntu,” which they define as “the recognition of oneself through others and the fact that we need each other not only to survive, but to exist at all.” Similarly, Lizzie Hacker, Sandy Picken, Simon Lewis, and Katie Turner describe how helping others is captured in the Swahili word “harambee,” which means “let us all pull together.” However, the meaning and connotations of the word have changed in recent years. When soliciting funds, Kenyans often ask potential donors to “provide a harambee,” taking the practice away from its roots in solidarity and towards a Western-style philanthropy. Worse, local politicians sometimes ask for “harambee” as a type of bribe, refusing to provide government services unless local residents show reciprocity by “donating” to something in the politician’s interest. “Harambee” has thus  taken on a connotation of fundraising without accountability, and many Kenyans now view harambee “as a source of bribery and extortion.”

Proposition 2: The use of Western concepts tends to underestimate non-Western forms of generosity.

Some of our authors agree with this point, but on balance I do not think this is true. Certainly, if we were to distribute a survey in a country of the global South and ask people if they engaged in “philanthropy,” “charitable giving,” or “volunteering,” we would grossly underestimate people’s real participation in giving time or money to others. Fortunately, few researchers do this; instead, we have some good data collected using surveys that use local terms instead of foreign words for generous actions, and which use multiple prompts and examples to encourage accurate comprehension and recall.

Lester Salamon, Wojciech Sokolowski and Megan Haddock test the theory of an undercount of indigenous types of volunteering using high quality data from surveys and time diary studies. They limit their analysis to sources that collect data using words that make sense to indigenous people and include direct, person to person helping and volunteering as social solidarity and activism. They find that the count of volunteer hours is indeed higher when more inclusive measures are used, although volunteer rates in the global South are still lower than volunteer rates in the developed world even when these more accurate measures are used.

The way forward

What should researchers of global generosity do next? I suggest we put away the question of whether people in one country or one region are more “generous” than people in another. I think we can agree that generosity is built into human nature and is necessary for societies to survive, but the way in which societies express generosity varies greatly due to differences in the economy, politics, technology, society, and culture. We can compare countries on one variable – charitable giving to non-profit organizations, for example – without conflating this with a measurement of that country’s level of generosity overall. It would be particularly exciting to make this process work some other way: to operationalize “harambee,” “ayni,” or “Ubuntu” in a way that we can measure in a survey and compare that cross-nationally, instead of always having the comparisons involve concepts and behaviors that originate in the global North.

In addition to global comparative work, there is much to be done at the level of regions and single countries. Some suggested questions to guide us:

What are the historical, social, and economic roots of non-Western forms of generosity?

How do these forms vary across societies?

How were these forms altered by colonial rule and post-colonial governments?

How are these altered by contemporary influences from the global North: scholarly conceptions, Western development aid, Northern volunteers in programs like the Peace Corps, and Northern-funded volunteer stipends?

Our book answers some of these questions in some societies for one form of generosity, volunteering. I look forward to hearing more on these questions from Alan Fowler and other members of the CGG.