When is it ok to give to beggars?
Begging is something that we are often confronted with when traveling through the developing world. Begging can take many guises. It may be someone badgering you at a famous landmark where you are sight-seeing asking for money, or it might come from someone sitting “panhandling” on a street corner. Sometimes you may be approached by a group of dishevelled, and shoeless, children selling trinkets, books or friendship bracelets. Or perhaps may even be asked to buy a tin of baby milk formula by a mum clutching a distressed, or very sleepy, malnourished looking baby. Finally, it could be from a disabled person in a wheelchair, or with a significant injury that can be quite difficult to look at.
All of these scenarios have been taken from real life situations that we have actually experienced whilst travelling around the developing world. Each time we encountered one of these situations our emotions ran high and we felt conflicted and wondered what the right thing to do is.
Because really, what could possibly be wrong about giving someone a few dollars? After all, we all usually have a few spare coins, or a couple of dollars to spare right? And as travellers we have already managed to fly half way around the world to get to their country, spend money seeing the sights, drink their beer and eat their food. So why all the fuss?
Having given this problem a lot of thought, reading the latest research, and talking to people on the ground in the developing world, we have come up with 5 reasons why in the long run it may be kinder not to give to beggars:
- The person begging on the street may not actually be homeless or destitute – they just have to look like they are. Research indicates that on occasion beggars may alter their appearance so they look like they are worse off than what they are. Why would anyone do this? Well, because begging will earn them an income that is more than what they would earn working in an unskilled labouring job. We know that migration of rural populations to cities is on the rise in the developing world, as people leave their rural towns seeking a better future for themselves and their families. Unfortunately, when they arrive in the city, employment is often hard to find especially for unskilled migrants, and they may have to resort to begging to supplement their income. The poorer, or more disheveled they appear may actually improve their chances of receiving more money when begging. Horrifically, there are many cases where people are deliberately disfigured to improve their chances of bringing in more money from begging.
- Begging is often conducted by individuals, or groups, who are organised by gangs or a “boss” who watch when people give to them. The “boss” then swiftly moves in and takes their cut of the money that the beggar has just received. Word on the street is that the beggar might receive 10% or less of what they are given by generous people, and their “boss” takes the rest. If they refuse to hand over the money, or they protest, they may be threatened, beaten or worse, until they comply.
- Begging creates a hand-out attitude and can create more beggars. When beggars receive money from tourists it encourages them to continue begging. By giving to beggars we contribute to holding them in this cycle and they become reliant on aid, rather than development with expectations that when they ask, people will give. This is often seen as an easier option than seeking a way out of begging.
- Research indicates that begging can lead young people into prostitution, trafficking and slavery. Children who beg as youngsters have very limited access to education and are unlikely to be educated beyond a grade 1-2 level (if at all). Having limited education and being caught up in a begging cycle severely impacts on their ability to gain reasonable employment as they get older and keeps them in a cycle of reliance on others. Often that reliance leads them to jobs in areas such as prostitution, sexual slavery, human trafficking, drug trafficking etc. Once they outgrow their cute primary school aged appearance, they no longer have the same ability to “bring in the dollars” but they still need an income. At this point their “boss” will probably know someone who can get them a “job”. It’s just that it won’t be the kind of job you or I would want for our child – or any child for that matter.
- Drug and alcohol use is on the rise amongst beggars. Sometimes, people legitimately have a drug problem, and this is why they beg. Sometimes people develop a drug problem to cope with the fact that they have to beg and the associated negative experiences they may have had whilst begging. Glue sniffing, smoking marijuana and alcohol use are common drugs used by even very young people begging on the streets. Unfortunately when we give to beggars sometimes this money is not used for the basics of survival like food, water and shelter, but is used to by drugs, and results in exacerbating their problems.
So, now that we understand some of the problems that are created by giving to beggars, what is the best solution?
We suggest that you identify an organisation that is working with the homeless or people living and begging on the streets and making a donation to them. By giving to a legitimate organisation you can be reassured that the money that you would have given to the person begging, will be used in a way to provide support and opportunities to change the situation the beggar is currently in.
Organisations that provide options for beggars to access food and housing, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, education or skill development often have the best chances of making a real impact on people in need. Check out local not-for-profits in the area where you are traveling and read reviews from other people before making a decision to give. Try to identify a reputable organisation that has a history of working with people in these situations.
If you feel really compelled to give to the person in front of you, offering to buy them a meal, or a cup of coffee can be a nice way to provide them with food, and may also be a positive way to start a conversation. Sometimes, having a chat with the person will provide them with a reminder that they are valued and seen in a world that is all too often filled with chaos and mayhem.