Photo courtesy of Gregor Younger
Visit Angkor Wat today and you are met with a shrill chorus of "one dollar one dollar one dollar" from hordes of begging children, while in Ethiopia the unrelenting chant is "you you you you". In Cambodia, older children organise groups of smaller ones to jump up and down in front of photo vistas; Nepalese kids pull and punch you until you hand over "protection money". These resourceful strategies are the new front line in what has become one of the most common and frustrating dilemmas faced by modern travellers, that of begging.
Firstly, some hard facts about the child beggars you see everywhere on the streets of your holiday destination. You may be surprised to learn that many are the unfortunate victims of child trafficking and are owned outright by business syndicates (in Europe, it's different: child beggars specialize in pickpocketing and are usually part of criminal organizations, often run by their own families). Sold by their parents or kidnapped from the outlying countryside by brokers, these children are required to pay off their purchase debt and ongoing living expenses by bringing in money every day. If their takings are inadequate they are beaten or left unfed. Pretty children are the most lucrative earners; unattractive children are sometimes maimed to increase their earning capability. A child's greatest earning potential is between the ages of two and seven. After this time their appeal to tourists declines rapidly and they are sold on to lower ranking syndicates. For girls the path is especially hard. By the age of eleven or twelve their begging potential is exhausted and they are sold again to brothels. By the age of eighteen the majority of these girls are HIV positive or already dead.
Not all of the children you see out there belong to syndicates. Many children have discovered that begging can be a lucrative and entertaining pastime, especially when Americans are around. Forgoing school and their homes to hang around the tourists that throng their cities' landmarks, they have learned to ask for coins for their "coin collection", shampoo, sweets, pens, in fact anything they can cajole or wheedle out of the unseasoned traveller. And many tourists believe that by giving children things rather than money, they are somehow subverting the begging cycle or "doing good". Nothing can be further from the truth. Visit the websites of third world aid organizations and you discover that your gifts of sweets and lollies are creating an epidemic of tooth decay in countries where dental hygiene is non-existent. And many of the other favourites on the lists of would be do-gooders are simply sold back to local stores by children who have no intention of using them at school. But the effects of easy benevolence get worse and resonate throughout these children's lives. Because they are unable to compete with the largesse of Western travellers, their parents' authority is undermined, and children often stop attending school or leave home altogether. Without an education, trade or work ethic, they are doomed to a lifetime of poverty and misery. Many cities in the world have prominent signs in public places requesting that you do not give money or gifts to children. A sign in Durbar Square, Kathmandu, states why very clearly: if you give money to our children, you will turn them into beggars. They will not go to school, they will not receive an education, and they will not learn a trade. You will ruin them. In the words of one seasoned traveller, children have no business hanging around foreigners, and as a foreigner, it's your responsibility to make sure it doesn't happen.
Adult beggars are often part of syndicates too. If you are observant in India and Thailand, you can see them being dropped off by minivan in the morning and picked up again late at night. Part of a syndicate or not, the question of whether to give to adults money is a difficult one and requires much more consideration. On one hand, scams are widespread. Like children, adult beggars have learned not to ask directly for money but for "aid". In India a common sting is for a woman with a small baby (generally rented) to ask you to buy her a can of milk formula. The tin is then returned to the store to be resold over and over and the proceeds are split between the storekeeper and woman. However, some of those people you see begging are genuinely sick, mentally ill, elderly or otherwise unfit to earn a living. Thailand, for example, has no system of social security and the Thai king himself has noted that the sick and poor must rely on the good will of others.
How to know when its right to give? One traveller asks himself the following questions: will what I'm doing improve this person's life, or degrade it? Will it promote greed and dependency, or foster some small degree of autonomy? And how will fellow travellers to this place — tomorrow, next month or ten years from now — be affected by my actions? In general, as always when travelling, discretion and good sense should be observed. Follow the behaviour of locals: don't give to aggressive beggars, those that practice self-maiming, follow you or are obviously able bodied. Don't give to women with babies or small children, it is likely that they are rented. Do give to the elderly. Make sure that when you give money it's done discretely, otherwise it may be taken off them after you leave and give only at the end of your visit, otherwise you may be mobbed. Give it in the local currency. Money changers change small denomination coins and notes at exorbitant rates. Give proportionally. In Morocco, an agricultural labourer earns approximately 50 dirhams per day. Giving 1 dirham to a beggar is therefore very generous.
If you looking for ways to make a positive contribution when travelling, here are some alternatives to putting you hand in your pocket and handing out alms. But be warned. These suggestions are not always easy to follow and will require some effort on your part to achieve.
The bottom line is, if you're not prepared to give responsibly, then you shouldn't give at all. As human beings we have a duty of care to each other and as travellers, a responsibility to leave as small an impact as possible on the places we visit – including the people. And unless we can find a way to stop this vicious cycle of begging, it will resonate into the future for many more generations to come.
If you have anything to add to this list or would like to suggest local charities and schools that you can personally attest for, your comments are welcome!
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