Academic journal article Austrian Journal of South - East Asian Studies

Philanthropy in Southeast Asia: Between Charitable Values, Corporate Interests, and Development Aspirations

Academic journal article Austrian Journal of South - East Asian Studies

Philanthropy in Southeast Asia: Between Charitable Values, Corporate Interests, and Development Aspirations

Article excerpt


Southeast Asia's economic growth since the 1970s has been so impressive that foreign aid donors have felt justified in reducing their assistance, declaring that these countries 'have graduated'. Yet poverty remains widespread, socio-economic gaps persist and are widening, and economic progress has failed to lead to sustainable social and environmental paths for the countries to follow. Encouraged by the growing role of philanthropic actors in international development cooperation and as partners in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda (see also Sciortino, this issue) some have argued that in Southeast Asia philanthropy also has a role to play in fostering more inclusive growth. In this view, institutionalized private giving combined or in substitution of public funding can help address developmental gaps or, at the very least, protect the most vulnerable groups. Others, however, contend that such giving practices are irrelevant to development needs and are in fact inherently linked to personal values and self-interest, create new dependencies, and are less accountable and transparent than government spending (Hayling, Sciortino, & Anand, 2014).

This debate on the benefits of philanthropy for development in Southeast Asia acquires particular relevance in view of the unprecedented accumulation of private wealth among elites and the growing public expectation that they contribute to society. As a greater number of more diverse philanthropic organizations are being established, there is interest in learning how these organized private sources are contributing to development and to what degree the early modern philanthropists' differentiation of philanthropy from charity as "improving opportunity rather than relieving immediate suffering" (Development Assistance Committee, 2003, p. 15) is pertinent to local giving practices. The rise in the last two decades of venture philanthropy with an emphasis on technocratic and business solutions to development problems through the likes of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), social entrepreneurship, and social impact investment, also poses questions about the degree of their adoption in Southeast Asia.1 In a region where the demarcation of private giving and business has traditionally been blurred, how do corporate interests intersect with aspirations for social improvement in home-grown philanthrophy?

This article delves into these issues by giving an overview of local philanthropy in Southeast Asia, the global and local stimuli driving it, and the often contrasting notions of charity, development, and business that shape it. In examining the environment of philanthropy, I draw on literature as well as my own personal experience as a development practitioner in the region.2 The emergence of local philanthropic institutions, their characteristics and ways of operating are discussed before highlighting the implications of shifting paradigms of philanthropy and the evolving donor landscape for development causes, and the beneficiaries associated with them. I conclude that gaps have begun to appear in the funding of civil society organizations working on human rights and social justice; this may jeopardize more equitable development and fostering inclusive societies.


Southeast Asian cultures are supportive of giving and showing concern for others in a multitude of forms. In rural Thailand, for instance, water jars are traditionally placed outside people's homes for thirsty passersby, and shelter may be provided (Asia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium [APPC], 2001). The concept of mutual aid is also deeply ingrained in the cultural discourse of Indonesia and the Philippines, where it is called gotong royong and bahaniyan respectively and includes contributions of goods, services, and cash to others in times of need as well as of celebration (Velasco, 1996). Singapore, Brunei, and Malaysia also emphasize the spirit of gotong royong as part of their cultures and national identities (Remember Singapore, 2013). …

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