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Published: Thursday, 9/9/2010

The gift of giving

Americans are a very charitable people. How charitable? According to a new survey by a group that facilitates international giving, the United States tied with Switzerland as the fifth most-giving nation in the world. That's something to be proud of.

The British-based Charities Aid Foundation ranked 153 nations on three criteria: the percentage of people who donate money, the percentage who volunteer their time, and the percentage who had helped a stranger in the previous month.

British Commonwealth countries topped the list, with Australia, New Zealand, and Canada placing first, second, and third, respectively. Ireland came in fourth, a remarkable showing considering the severity of its economic problems.

People from Malta were most likely to give money, at 83 percent, while Turkmenistan finished first in volunteering time, at 61 percent of the population. Liberians were the best Samaritans, with 76 percent willing to give a hand to a stranger.

Wealth is not an absolute determinant of charitable giving. Sierra Leone, one of the world's poorest countries based on per-capita gross domestic product, tied for 11th on the giving list. And desperately poor Haiti and Afghanistan, tied for 39th, were well ahead of much wealthier nations such as Saudi Arabia, Sweden, and France. Conversely, India and China, two of the fastest-growing economies in the world, were near the bottom of the composite ranking.

That's because happiness, not GDP, is a more reliable gauge in determining who will give and who will not. According to the report, this suggests giving is an emotional rather than rational act.

Rational or not, Americans are remarkably generous with their time (39 percent), money (60 percent) and willingness to help strangers (65 percent). That was demonstrated most recently this week, when Jerry Lewis' annual telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association raised nearly $59 million, despite the persistently high jobless rate, record numbers of home foreclosures, and fear of a double-dip recession.

Not leading the list encourages humility and gives Americans something to shoot for. Those are good things too.

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