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Interview of Dr. Ruth Shapiro on her book on Philanthropy in Asia

Dr. Ruth A. Shapiro is the Founder and Chief Executive of the Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society (CAPS). She is the primary author of “Pragmatic Philanthropy: Asian Charity Explained”, published by Palgrave MacMillan in January 2018.

Despite the differences, is there an « Asian way » of doing good? If there is, why so and what are the implications?

Asia is a vast region and is in no way monolithic. Despite this, there are some trends or commonalities we can see across the region when it comes to private social investment. When talking about Asia, it is critical to understand the importance of relationships. The word in most Asian languages conveys much more than just whether or not one knows another person. It also includes the personal obligations, hierarchy and networks that each relationship entails.

Relationships figure into the social sector in a variety of ways. First, due to the lack of systems which allow for due diligence, the easiest way to vet a charitable donation is to ask a friend or oftentimes respond to a friend’s request. Second, donations are often for more than one reason – certainly there is a desire to do good but there are many ways to do good, why not pick an issue or a charity which also allows the donor to deepen relationships with those he/she cares about as well? This would include friends and family but also business partners and government.

What is the main difference with Western countries?

Asian social investors tend to give aligned with government. Throughout the region, either explicitly or implicitly, there is a social contract in place. Philanthropy, CSR and other types of social investment tend to focus on the same priority goals as those of the government. As part of this, government organizations often are involved with projects and programs from the beginning. This reality has a significant up-side: when government is sitting at the table from the beginning, it is easier for it to pick up innovations that work and make them policy thus allowing for systemic change to be adopted readily.

What are the characteristics and strategies of successful Asian SDOs?

Successful Asia based SDOs tend to share several characteristics: 1) they work in areas which are broadly accepted to be important and valued such as education, health and poverty alleviation. 2) they are more likely to have connections with the elite, both private and government, which allow them to get the funding and permissions they need to progress; 3) they make an effort to be more transparent and accountable, with good websites and helpful information on impact and measurement.

You show that new laws and regulations encourage but also restrict philanthropy: how does this double movement work?

Throughout Asia, there is more pushback against foreign funding which is often viewed as being critical of government. India, China, Pakistan, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam have all put in place regulations and additional barriers for foreign funding coming into the country.

At the same time, some governments are incentivizing local philanthropy which as pointed out previously, is more likely to be aligned with government. Policies which require CSR spend, increase tax subsidies, identify and reward giving days and programs are proliferating in Asia.

You point out that these legal fluctuations create a « trust deficit »: could you elaborate on this trust deficit?

There is a profound lack of trust toward the non-profit sector in Asia and in most cases, from the non-profit sector toward government and companies. This can be attributed to:

• Murky and fluctuating regulatory environment;
• Significant and highly public scandals, most especially those that include fraud and the misuse of donated funds;
• Lack of transparency and disclosure by philanthropists and NGOs, coupled with the inability to explain and measure results;
• Unclear distinction between advocacy and social delivery;
• Historic tendency of the “best and brightest” going into the private sector and government careers and not into civil society.

Is philanthropy part of a democratic society in the Asian viewpoint?

In the West, philanthropy and civil society are integral parts of a pluralist society. In Asia, philanthropy is often viewed in more humanitarian terms.

What can donors, SDOs, policy makers and the public at large do to enable the social sector to thrive and contribute to improving the lives of people throughout the region?

Today’s problems are complex and the solutions require collaboration across all parts of a society – government, companies and civic organizations. We need to better understand how to work together effectively and bring the various strengths and resources inherent within each sector to bear on solutions. This is not only true in Asia but globally.

Interview and translation by Anne Monier

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