In 2018, the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy released the Global Philanthropy Environment Index, the world’s largest and most comprehensive effort to document the state of global philanthropy and the factors that enhance or inhibit its success.
Now, we are highlighting countries on the blog that did not originally appear in the 2018 Index. Follow along as experts discuss Ethiopia, Iran, Guatemala, Liberia, and Ghana.
Philanthropy exists in all traditions and cultures. To love other members of the community and to freely build your ideal society through organization and collaboration could be considered a fundamental freedom and an inalienable right. Nevertheless, philanthropy is considered a threat to authoritarian regimes like Iran that deny basic rights of association and advocacy for their citizens in favor of political survival.
Iran is a country with a centuries-long cultural heritage and a variety of different religions. Zoroastrianism, Islam, Bahai’sm, Sufism, etc. are examples of belief systems in Iran that each promote different forms of philanthropy that help society. However, Iranian philanthropy has been damaged by the disparity between the political structure of the country and its philanthropic traditions. Iranian society is structured with a big, authoritarian, and religious government that has supremacy over the private and civil sectors and the major natural and human resources of the country.
The Islamic Republic regime believes in the Guardianship of the Islamic jurist, a Shia Islamic theory that allows the faqih (expert in Islamic laws) to claim custodianship over people. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that the Iranian government does not recognize human agency and participation, or the idea of civil society.
My experience of first-hand work in the Iranian nonprofit sector with the Iranian government, in addition to research on philanthropy in Iran, suggests that philanthropy is a phenomenon not institutionalized in the Iranian society for two major reasons: the non-democratic political structure of the country and some of the values in the Iranian culture.
Due to its exclusive and suppressive nature, the Iranian government’s policies do not encourage citizens’ civic participation, nor do they build the infrastructure necessary to facilitate philanthropy’s development in the country. Rather, government practices serve as an instrument to suppress any voluntary engagement for the greater good of the society on different levels.
For instance, from the legal point of view, the Executive Nonprofit Organizations Bylaw is the only existing legislation related to civic associations. This executive bylaw fails to provide a clear and precise framework for nonprofit organizations in terms of their rights to freely register, advocate for causes of their choice, or fundraise and assemble to promote and fulfill their mission.
In 2016, the Iranian government amended the bylaw: it now requires all nonprofit organizations, prior to conducting any activities, to apply for a government license through national, provincial, and county supervisory councils made up of government officials. These supervisory councils monitor and supervise any activities carried out by nonprofit organizations and make decisions about registration applications, suggested areas of activities, board members, and fundraising methods.
They require a great number of documents, do not follow a definitive timeline to make their decision. This leaves civic associations in a vague environment without any autonomy to operate. Moreover, the Iranian law does not offer any clear and persuasive income tax incentives to encourage giving among the public either.
With such strict legislation in effect, the Iranian government has been able to selectively encourage associations with charitable nature that operate exclusively in safe and non-political areas, such as education and health, while criminalizing any association or activities in other areas such as human rights, minority rights and fundamental freedoms.
As a result, the majority of Iranian NGOs are charitable organizations approved by the government. Simply put, these nonprofit organizations are government-sponsored non-governmental organizations (GONGO). These GONGOs make the work of international organizations such as the UN difficult in Iran as well, since they are the only authorized organizations by the Iranian government that international bodies can deliver their support and capacity building services.
Currently, there are no human rights or minority rights organizations operating in Iran. Iran has jailed and convicted many peaceful civic activists with national security charges merely because of their activities in nonprofit organizations. Such measures have created an atmosphere of fear about engagement in civic associations among the public and collaboration more difficult for Iranian associations with international nonprofit organizations. Both people and nonprofits are more isolated and passive.
The Iranian government also obstructs the growth and development of inclusive philanthropy. During the past few years, the government initiated and encouraged a new form of philanthropy called nazr-e-farhangi (cultural vow), inspired by Islamic nazr (charitable vow). Cultural nazr is promoted by Tehran’s municipality, an organization with deep financial and ideological ties to the Iranian regime. It encourages donations of time and knowledge among the educated and expert class of the society.
Such practices may seem to promote intellectual and professional contributions by the people, but do not engage people of other faiths. Nazr is an Islamic tradition, and a government sponsorship of the practice questions autonomy and inclusivity of the practice.
Besides these issues, the public’s trust towards charitable organizations is damaged as well. Lack of transparency and accountability to the public and cases of fraud scandals in big charitable foundations such as Waqf Bureau tarnished the reputation and credibility of philanthropic entities and decreased public donations.
Despite its appreciation of kindness and service to all, Iranian culture has developed attributes that dissuade people from trusting each other or finding their good tied to the interests of the other members of the society. In response to political instabilities and short-term changes throughout their country’s history, Iranians found themselves more individualistic, reluctant to work together in groups, and have a minimum level of trust with others outside their families.
Added to this, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, material values such as wealth and power have outgrown moral values such as trust, help, and reciprocity. These values contradict the spirit of philanthropy and voluntary actions.
However, many of Iranian people maintain their philanthropic traditions informally, even though it’s limited to the circles of their families or small acts of kindness in support of those neglected by the government or NGOs. For instance, people form family funds within their extended families to provide loans for each other in cases of health or financial emergency, or educational support of their children.
Iranians also initiated widespread donations of clothes and books to the homeless people and street children by identifying random walls in different cities of the country as a “Wall of Kindness.” People leave their spare clothes and books for those in need of the same materials as well.
Iranian society does not provide a favorable environment and infrastructure for philanthropy. Iranian people, due to political and historical backgrounds, are alienated with philanthropy as voluntary action for public good. Continuation of this situation poses further challenges and obstacles for the Iranian society in democratization of the country, as philanthropy provides the chance for the public to sculpture their desired society through expression of their opinions, ideals and participation of their resources.
All the major actors in the Iranian society, including the government, human and civic rights activists, nonprofit leaders, and academia should emphasize the importance of philanthropy in shaping a robust civil society and the urgent need to build the capacity and infrastructure for philanthropy to work. They should do whatever in their power to raise public’s awareness about how they can cooperate in the governance of their society.
A nation with free will and the capacity to practice philanthropy can confidently move towards a democracy within which all members of the society enjoy their rights and have their needs met.