I spent the better part of three weeks in Europe as a participant in the Marshall Memorial Fellowship in Fall 2012. During my travels I was bombarded with hundreds of issues, among them, an issue that no society wants to face and was a frequent topic of conversation in my MMF Cohort’s discourse: economic crisis, and more specifically, austerity.
Unfortunately, many European countries are facing these tough circumstances as their governments work towards solutions to overcome the financial crisis. Of the many plans offered, austerity is the most common solution employed. For my purposes, austerity may be defined as difficult economic conditions created by government measures to lower a budget deficit, especially by reducing public expenditure. It appears that austerity is a necessary evil that must be a part of the equation to solve each country’s problem.
In America, austerity is becoming a more familiar idea to the average citizen as we find ourselves still in the midst of our own economic crisis. But while Americans see austerity coming in the near future, European countries that are now affected by the crisis are already enacting such measures and cutting back on spending and social programs. For most of these European states, austerity has considerable implications for their citizens. The structure of these social programs is noticeably different from those of the United States, in that most European citizens are willing to pay higher taxes in return for a greater redistribution of resources to those in vulnerable economic circumstances. In the United States, however, despite wanting stronger social programs, most Americans are resistant to the levels of taxation common in Europe. Therefore, citizens who pay these high taxes expect significantly more support from their government in education, health care, poverty, unemployment, and a host of other areas.
So what happens when their government tells its people that it has to make concessions on its social support, but the culture of philanthropy is not strong?
During my travels through Brussels, Paris, Lisbon, Belgrade and Warsaw, I experienced a huge divergence between the United States and the countries in Europe in terms of the existence of philanthropy and non-profit organizations. America is built on a more individualistic idea that government should address the social needs of its people– but only to a certain extent. Where there are large gaps between governmental support and social needs, American citizens, non-profits, and even corporations do their best to close those gaps. Americans have established an impressive civil society in which billions of dollars are spent annually on philanthropy to address social needs. This civil society has created a culture of giving that I have not seen in Europe. Conversely, in European countries, people expect the government to provide the majority of support for citizens’ social needs. This expectation has created a culture that has limited the infrastructure to support the work of non-profits and philanthropy. Citizens and private industries in these countries expect the government, not private organizations, to close any gaps.
Throughout my travels, I have talked to many representatives of non-profit and non-government organizations (NGOs), and they struggle to get significant support from a society and culture that expects the government to correct society’s problems. These NGOs rely heavily on their government for financial support that is diminishing in these tough economic times. This affects the long-term sustainability of these organizations, and in turn, negatively affects the already disadvantaged people and communities that these organizations serve. I am happy to say that the representatives of NGOs with whom I spoke are experienced and working towards solutions to diversify their funding bases. But while these organizations have added strategies to boost corporate and individual giving, this remains an uphill battle. Their citizens and government still do not recognize the benefits of private philanthropic organizations.
A few representatives of these organizations told me that when people and organizations make large donations, they are generally regarded with suspicion by the public, who suspect that such donations originate from a self-interested intention rather than an altruistic one. Some representatives told me that their governments do not offer tax credits or any benefit for giving. In fact, one told me that their government tacks on a 20% tax if you give to an NGO. This is unheard of in America. While I understand that most European societies do not have strong exposure to cultures in which philanthropy plays a large role, I am still trying to grasp why governments would attempt to disincentive donating to charitable organizations.
In response to the economic crisis in Europe, something has to be done to get these economies back in the black. In most cases, unfortunately, this means austerity. So I ask again, in the face of austerity, what organizations are going to solve the problems that government can no longer address? As European governments are forced to provide less and less for their citizens, they must help foster a stronger tradition of philanthropic giving. Europeans often pride themselves on the safety nets their governments provide, but as those safety nets begin to become less secure, Europe will have to look towards American civil society as a model for social and institutional security.
Robert Starks, Assistant Athletic Director for Facilities and Operations at Chicago State University, is a Fall 2012 American Marshall Memorial Fellow.