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Giving Even When It Hurts

Sonia Phalnikar, DW-WORLD.DEJune 21, 2005

Germans may be hard hit by their struggling economy, but they don't cut corners when it comes to charitable giving. They donated in record numbers after the Asian tsunami six months ago.

Collection boxes in Germany were full in the aftermath of the tsunamiImage: AP

When television images of the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia entered living rooms on Dec. 26 2004, Elke S.' (who wished to remain anonymous) first thought was: 'How can I help?'

The 61-year-old from Worms in southern Germany got together with fellow members of the National Union of German Housewives' Associations, a nationwide organization involved in charitable causes, collected 1,800 euros ($2,180) and handed it to an aid group heading to Sri Lanka.

Hilfsgüter für die Flutopfer in Sri Lanka
German Red Cross volunteers stock up on aid supplies for tsunami victimsImage: AP

Elke S. remembers the entire town being mobilized as charity shows and collection boxes turned up at every street corner. "The willingness to do something to help was enormous," she recollected.

Elke S.' response was repeated throughout the country. Thousands of ordinary Germans showed themselves ready to reach for their wallets in response to the aid appeals. Private donations for the tsunami reached 516 million euros by February 2005, surpassing the previous record of 350 million euros during the floods in eastern Germany in 2002.

At home though, many Germans are having hard times making ends meet. A floundering economy, high unemployment, cuts in social benefits and added political uncertainty as the prospect of early federal elections looms has left many Germans feeling the pinch. Surveys show that many Germans are responding by saving on shopping, vacations and eating out.

A steady giving over the years

One area that seems immune to the German tendency to scrimp in hard times is charitable giving. Though experts admit that entirely reliable statistics are hard to come by, there are indications that Germans' financial prudence doesn't extend to being miserly when it comes to a good cause.

Two of Germany’s largest aid groups have just registered record turnovers. One of them, German Agro Action, brought in 33.4 million euros in private donations in 2004 -- the largest sum ever collected in that form in its 43-year history.

Hans-Joachim Preuss, secretary general of the group, said earlier this month at a press conference that the record figure would have been achieved even without the altruistic avalanche in Germany sparked by the tsunami. He said that Germans donated 2.6 million euros to the organization after the floods in Southeast Asia -- amounting to less than 8 percent of the total private donations for the year.

The trend to continue giving even during tough economic times is confirmed by Burkhard Wilke, an expert on charitable donations and head of the German Central Institute for Social Questions (DZI) in Berlin.

"A willingness to donate for charitable causes irrespective of the economic situation is typical for Germans," said Wilke. "It’s a tendency that has remained more or less stable over the past years."

Tsunami the trigger

Stable it may be, but aid experts are clear that the tsunami last year threw the continuity of private aid off track. Though final figures aren't out yet, the DZI forecasts that private donations for 2004 will easily surpass the normal yearly 2.3 - 2.4 billion euro benchmark for private charitable contributions.

Thailand: Fischerdorf Ban Nam Khem
A Thai fisherman walks through the tsunami destroyed village of Ban Nam Khem, Thailand.Image: AP

Fundraisers are cautiously optimistic that the tsunami, which attracted several first-time donors, might lead to an increase in the private donor base in Germany, which currently stands at about 40 percent of the 82-million-strong population.

Wilhelm Heerman, an independent fundraiser who helped survey around 5,200 persons aged 18 to 70 across Germany earlier this year on their charitable habits, said that almost 12 percent said they had donated during the tsunami for the first time. "The tsunami was the gateway for many, their first contact with altruistic giving," said Heermann.

A new study by the Social Science Research Center Berlin on donations in Germany concludes that though economic factors do play a role in who donates -- with housewives and pensioners proving the most generous -- and that higher income groups are willing to dig deeper in their pockets, people from poorer backgrounds also engage in charitable causes in a significant way.

Strong images of the tsunami

Cynics may point out that the some 500,000 registered aid groups and 12,000 foundations in Germany, most of which are registered as non-profitable, offer tax breaks for donations and thus spur people to give.

But experts say that in the case of the tsunami, a combination of factors was responsible for the overwhelming charitable response.

"It was a real big catastrophe involving large numbers of victims and it occurred at a time when most Germans were at home with family during the Christmas holidays and in a mellow and reflective mood," said Wilke, adding that the presence of several hundred German and other European travelers among the victims as well as a routine lull in news around Christmas contributed to the outpouring of empathy.

Halbes Jahr nach Tsunami - Zerstörungen in Banda Aceh
A traditional fishing boat in Indonesian Banda Aceh which was badly hit by the tsunamiImage: dpa - Bildfunk

But, most agree that it was the constant bombardment of images from the affected countries on television that swayed most people. Heerman said that around 30 percent of the people he had surveyed said they had responded to aid appeals during celebrity-crowned benefit galas on TV or on the radio and Internet after seeing the graphic coverage. "It was a catastrophe that was made visible via strong images and very obviously appealed to the emotions," Heerman said.

Need for sense and values

Others, however, think there are deeper reasons for Germans' tendency to give for charity that have to do specifically with the country and the collective pessimism that has gripped it in recent years.

Julius Kuhl, professor of psychology at the University of Osnabrück said that though altruism is a universal phenomenon, in the case of the Germans it provides an outlet for an ever-increasing need for meaning, connection and values in a globalized world, especially as the country loses its reputation as an economic powerhouse and familiar structures such as a generous social welfare system begin to weaken.

Armut in Deutschland Suppenküche
An old woman gets something to eat at a soup kitchen in HanoverImage: dpa

"The opportunity to help also allows access to shared empathy and links to a global aid community that is in effect a value-based community," said Kuhl, adding that the reason for Germans' steadier contribution to charitable causes as compared to other countries could also be found in the country's scarred history.

"When you have difficulties coming to terms with your past and your roots are associated with trauma and pain then you automatically look for things to do that make sense," said Kuhl.

"Helping others in need often makes you feel stronger and more positive about yourself."