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Turkmenistan: More Charitable Than I Knew

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov: "Would you like to share this melon with me?"
Turkmenistan is a unique place. I knew that when I was able to travel around there many years ago, and the news I've seen coming out of the country since my last visit (October 1993) always confirms there is no other place like it.

But there's one thing I did not know about Turkmenistan.

According to a report by the British-based Charities Aid Foundation, more than 60 percent of Turkmenistan's population does volunteer work. It was reportedly the first time the foundation had released the World Giving Index, which, besides dealing purely with financial contributions, took into consideration "two other types of charitable behavior alongside giving money -- volunteering time and helping a stranger."

The methodology was explained like this: "The survey asked people whether they had given money to charity in the last month and to rank how happy they are with life on a scale of 1 to 10."

This survey of 153 countries showed "the people of Turkmenistan are the most generous with their time, with 61 percent having given time to charity."

I will freely admit that getting reliable information out of Turkmenistan is tough. I've been writing about Turkmenistan from outside the country for more than 15 years, and it can be frustrating.

I've read about the record grain harvests that the country -- nearly 90 percent of which is desert -- reported, even when all of Turkmenistan's neighbors were all suffering from drought. I've seen the economic figures the government has released showing GDP growth in double digits -- even some 20 percent growth -- and often wondered why the CIS Statistics Agency does not report economic figures for Turkmenistan.

The closest I've seen to reports on volunteering were the allegations that during the time of President Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niyazov, drivers who were pulled over by traffic police and were unable to recite some lines from Niyazov's book "Rukhnama" were forced to pick cotton as a fine. They weren't paid, so maybe that counts.

New construction in the capital, Ashgabat, has forced many people to relocate to the outskirts to make room for new buildings for the ministries and five-star hotels (that still boast only about 20 to 30 percent occupancy). I guess those relocated may have "volunteered" to make way for progress downtown.

And there are those stories of children picking cotton.

I like the idea of the World Giving Index, maybe because it concluded that "the link between happiness and giving is stronger than the link between wealth and giving." I also like that it reported 62 percent of Turkmenistan's people have helped a stranger. I remember that was true. The Turkmen people are very generous and helpful.

But I never imagined that Turkmenistan would appear on any list that would put it just a few places behind Austria, alongside Iceland, and ahead of Germany and Denmark.

Guess I've been out of the country for too long.

-- Bruce Pannier