I am in Doha, Qatar, visiting for the first time. While the tiny Arab country is literally a dot on the map, for those from larger countries such as India or the U.S., Qatar punches way beyond its weight in international affairs of the Middle East, and arguably the world.
For starters, Qatar is one of the few countries that has given its media a lot of freedom, if Al Jazeera’s success is any indication. While there have been recent criticisms of recent media crackdowns, there is a general understanding that the small kingdom is quite open, by the standards of the Middle East. The freedom to inform the public of certain developments and also to shape public discourse is part of this freedom. While media is one part of the spectrum of ‘freedoms’ there are others as well – charitable giving being the other. In fact, scholars such as Bruce Sievers have called this freedom to participate in charitable giving as one of the ‘pillars of civil society.’
As I sat down to eat dinner with a prominent professional working in the field of charity in Qatar, I was not sure what to expect, in terms of the practice and even theorizing of philanthropy and charity in the region. From my own research, I have learnt that giving (charity and philanthropy) is largely motivated by religious motives. My friend pointed out that in his survey of over a thousand donors in the country, religious motives have been largely stated as the guiding motive for charitable giving.
This motive also is in tandem with motivations for giving among Americans – who give about a third of their charity to religious causes or institutions, according to Giving USA.
So, what makes Qatari charity distinctive? I would say the similarities between Qatari giving and giving in the West are quite large. At the same time, there are a few unique distinctions.
- Qataris give to strictly regulated channels – such as foundations or government regulated charities.
- The motive to give for ‘tax-incentives’ is very small.
- There are no foundations or charities that lobby for policies that go against the government policies. While in a Western style democracy, this is a common notion – think of Soros’ charities or those of other hundreds of foundations that take adversarial position with the ruling government, this is not a feature in the region.
- The motive to give to religious institutions is widely perceived as the leading motive
- The giving towards humanitarian needs dominates as the leading type of giving that is practiced. This is not surprising given the turmoil that the region is going through.