YANGON (Myanmar) – In 2016 Myanmar was ranked the most generous nation in the world, with the highest score ever reported by the World Giving Index (WGI). However, despite overtaking more developed countries such as the United States of America, New Zealand and Canada on the WGI, the land of the golden pagodas remains one of the least developed countries in the world. With 89,8 % of the population defining themselves as Buddhists (2014 census), more research needs to be dedicated to understanding how the religious and cultural practices of giving (dana) interact, influence and constitute not only the country’s social fabric, but also its economics, social welfare and even its politics. What potential implications could peoples’ practices of giving hold for Myanmar’s economic development?
Together with Dr. Hans-Bernd Zöllner the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung organised a workshop aiming to start an open conversation on the religious-cultural context of economic and social transactional interactions in Myanmar. In this workshop, a group of participants from a variety of cultural, religious and academic backgrounds living in Myanmar came together to formulate questions and discuss how dana extends into the many layers of Myanmar society.
Although the notions of giving and generosity may be universal, these English terms by themselves do not suffice to fully capture all aspects of the first virtue of Buddhism. A noble action executed without expecting anything in return, dana can be directed towards members of the Sangha (monks and nuns) or fellow lay people and can have both material or spiritual value. Dana is a wholesome action and is seen as an investment into the next life, ultimately leading to enlightenment (Nirvana). However, everyday interpretations vary within the population, and meanings may shift between generations – making an in-depth approach to the meanings of dana to people in the world’s most generous country all the more necessary.
“Many people struggle to conceptualize how them paying taxes fits into social welfare. So the question would be how a positive picture can be drawn of taxes supporting social welfare.”
David Allen (Director, Spectrum Myanmar)
With the Myanmar government still trying to establish a social welfare and protection system, many services, including care of the old and education, are still organised on a community level, depending on people offering their time, shelter, care or material donations to monasteries. However, due to economic conditions and declining fertility, traditional family structures where the young take care of the old have begun to break down. There is a clear need for the state to provide more social security services to take care of an increasingly growing elderly population. Yet, many people are reluctant to pay taxes, preferring to give a larger part of their income as dana. Hoping it will have a positive impact on the next life, the percentage of income donated is especially high among the poor population. During workshop discussions, some participants suggested the proportion of the amount spent in taxes versus dana be around 1:4, while others suggested it might be as high as 1:15.
“I have never really thought about dana and taxes together. They are completely different things – dana comes from the heart while taxes are a responsibility.”
Khine Myat Htwe Aung (Myanmar Survey Research)
Such a disproportionate spending of income raises the question of what would happen if a modern, “westernized” welfare system was to be established in Myanmar. In such a system taxes represent a mutually complementary relationship between the state and its citizens, providing a basis for the welfare state. A reluctance to pay taxes would imply a very different foundation for the state of Myanmar. An empirical estimate of the proportion of income paid as taxes versus the amount given as dana would be a first step to interpreting people’s economic preferences and relationship to the state. On a more theoretical level it is necessary to investigate people’s understanding of taxes and dana. Can a connection be established between the two?
“I suppose taxes can be seen as a demanded dana. If the government is good, the taxes will be spent on common good.”
Khin Maung Yee (Pastor)
Dana implies a certain level of trust between the donor and the recipient. While the monk is awarded complete trust by Buddhist donors, he lacks accountability – at least according to a Western definition of the term. The Myanmar government, on the other hand, while in theory democratically accountable to its people, struggles with low tax compliance. With the military being one of the main government expenses, ongoing internal conflicts between the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar state army) and ethnic armies, and the military rule only recently having come to an end, there is still a strong mistrust between citizens and the state. Feeding into this is a clear lack of transparency regarding tax management. Hence, while the Sangha may be trusted with people’s time and money, the government as an institution by many is not.
As reflected in the recent donation ceremony organised by the government on January 1st, which attracted 18,000 monks and 5000 nuns, dana has a clear political dimension. Large donations from military families with dubious sources of income and plaques mounted on temples honouring the generous giver may lead some to question the selflessness of doing dana. On the other hand, anyone living in Myanmar has witnessed people offering food and money to the Sangha in the early mornings, giving rice to street dogs, and has seen anonymous donation boxes in large shopping centres filling up. Whether motivated by belief, selflessness, social pressure or prestige, dana clearly represents a source for social involvement and security in the absence of the state.
Many large companies in Myanmar, including Huawei and KBZ Bank, engage in corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities such as education, disaster relief, environmental engagement and community development. Whether or not such social engagements can be interpreted as dana, creating awareness among international companies of the potential of CSR in Myanmar could be an important step to reach vulnerable populations as social relations and traditions are changing.
In a country where a democratic government is still under development, exploring alternative resources within Myanmar’s society might be a necessary addition to establishing a welfare model based on Western historical developments right away. The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung aims to promote research to develop strategies on the core issues of economic, social and educational policies as well as on key issues that advance democracy.
This workshop was a starting point for exchange and reflection on how dana can be studied in a country in transition. Taken more seriously as part of the sphere of economics in Myanmar, dana could prove to be an asset both for local policy-makers and foreign investors.