Should you give money to beggars when you travel? » Lifestyle Strategies, Travel, Adventures--Todd's Wanderings

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Children begging in KosovoSitting outside on the patio of a small Kosovo cafe, a beer held at the ready to celebrate the end to another perfect day, we were suddenly descended on by six scruffy small children. Pitiful eyes pleaded with us for money as they spread out amongst our group begging. We ignored them in turn and somehow they managed to look even more desperate.

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I know, it sounds horrible and trust me it feels horrible. I have been traveling a long time and the scene is the same in most developing countries I visit. The orphans in Hanoi reciting their memorized English phrases, the legless beggars in Cambodia, the woman with her newborn child hanging limply from her breast as she begs amongst stopped traffic in Sri Lanka.

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We weren’t a group of normal travelers, instead we were all seasoned development workers, used to working in harsh environments with marginalized and desperate people. We all wanted to help others, so why didn’t we give the children money? Why do I pass by the beggar on the street without looking into his eyes, at least acknowledging that he exists?

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Of all the things I’ve learned from traveling, all the ways that I have grown as a person from my experiences around the world, this is the thing I hate most about who I’ve become. I hate how automatic it is to pass by someone who’s begging. It comes from the fear of being taken advantage of, of being hassled and having my “precious” time wasted, of supporting a lifestyle that I know is unhealthy.

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There is a long list of rationalizations I can recite to help assuaged my guilt. The children should be in school, they aren’t acting on their own and are often being used by criminal networks. Even when they are not controlled by criminals there’s always some adult exploiting them for his/her own profit. Money to the children will not really help their situation and will just reinforce bad habits. Adult beggars usually have places they can go for food and support, and are usually found in the tourist areas of developing countries based on a market calculation. Don’t even get me started on the adults who use their children to plead their case, they upset me more than anyone.

But the feeling of guilt never goes away as I ignore the children or walk by the adults. I am glad it’s still there, and I hope I never become callouses enough for it to disappear. There are also times when everyone needs help. Not everyone is trying to rip you off, and some people genuinely need a hand extended in their direction. Thus the traveler’s dilemma becomes not one of to give or not to give, but how to give and to whom.

Everyone needs to decide for themselves how they feel about this. Some give money because it’s easier than dealing with their feelings of guilt. I would recommend staying in the area for some time to see who is truly needy, how the locals react to giving money and how much they offer. I don’t subscribe to the idea of giving pencils and books to kids as a local school would be able to manage the resources better. Try to seek out a local charity and support them, they will have a better idea of what will help most. Food is also a good gauge of people’s intentions. I often find people reject food as they want money, which usually means its going to someone else.

Following the above advice, I do tend to give away change if I have it in my pocket, the person asking is an adult and does not have a child with them. I need to feel humane too I guess, but I do have my lines. I would suggest you find your lines before you travel, it makes the inevitable heartbreak a little bit easier to bear.

Do you give money? What are you feelings about beggars? There’s no right or wrong answer so leave you thoughts below.

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39 Responses to “Should you give money to beggars when you travel?”

  1. schoolNo Gravatar says:

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  2. MarkNo Gravatar says:

    I just came back from India through Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan I went on a Intrepid tour. I saw heaps of child beggars and poverty on the streets everywhere we went. Our tour guide and rules of the tour was not to give any money to the beggars. There was this little girl in Delhi who came up to our window I was the nearest to the window and she looked very tired with dirty clothes and her eyes looked so worn torn and sad I was so tempted to give money, the little girl started to cry, i just looked at her face and feeling so compassionate I said I am so sorry I can’t. I felt so guilty that i couldn’t at least help this innocent child.

    After reading some articles about child begging that the money doesn’t go towards the child and they are exploited by horrible people who forced these kids to beg and the money they beg for goes towards these people and not the child i can now see that it does make sense not to give money to child beggars. But i still find it extremely hard not to give anything at all to these poor children and wish i could still help I wish i had some food with me so i could have given her a bit, she was with a group of kids on the on coming busy traffic.

  3. This is an older post but I still wanted to put my two cents in! I don’t ever give to beggers, for the same rationalizing reasons that you give about doing it yourself. Beggars just upset me because I feel like, 90% of the time, they could have done something to not end up in their situation… And also it makes me feel bad, but I need my money too! I’m not raking in the dough, so I’d like to hold onto what I *do* make.

    ~Heidi

  4. AaronNo Gravatar says:

    I’m with Norbert as I also live in NYC and am see beggars on a daily basis all over the place. Confronted with the constant homelessness visible here, you become hardened to their plight’s as they all have the same sad tale.

    After that exposure, traveling in poorer countries and seeing children begging becomes easier because you’re used to it.

    I am a big fan of the oft repeated guide book advice: instead of giving money or objects to children, make a donation to a local school or community group.
    Aaron´s recent [type] ..Free Stuff in NYC- The Daily Show &amp The Colbert Report

  5. such a hard decision — wrote about this not too long ago on my blog and the Huffington Post and got some good feedback. I generally go with, just say no, but there are some tough times for that policy in my eyes (specifically Laos and Cambodia, where my country ravaged the population illegally)
    Michael Hodson´s recent [type] ..Cold Showers from Hell

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  7. GillianNo Gravatar says:

    This is certainly one of the heart breaking aspects of travel. We decided on a policy of not giving to beggars at all, not b/c I didn’t think they needed it (they clearly do) or b/c I worried what would happen to the money (I believe that if you give you must give freely) but b/c I was worried about the hordes that might follow once they see me giving. I saw it happen to others and didn’t want to be in that situation – it is unwinnable. I did, however, always try to acknowledge the person and say no as terribly difficult as that was. And yes, sometimes there were very aggressive people. For me, this is part of traveling in areas that are worse off than we are. I am privilidged to be there and have to expect that I am a target. But it is very, very hard.
    Gillian´s recent [type] ..Remember That Time…I Thought It Was All Over Before It Had Hardly Begun

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Hi Gillian,

      Yes, I agree that if you give you have to do it freely and not care what happens to the money afterward. Its one of those hard things about travel that many people don’t think about before they leave home and thus get “stuck” not knowing what to do.

      Cheers,
      todd
      Todd Wassel´s recent [type] ..The Happiness Chart psst Its really simple

  8. jennaNo Gravatar says:

    interesting and well written post todd, and i enjoyed reading all the interesting comments.

    i was actually talking to my boyfriend about this the other day, and we agreed that so often you get taken advantage of when you give money to people. in south africa there are also frequent reports of scams involving women begging with babies, crime syndicates and drug-dependency.

    these kinds of instances, like so many people mentioned above in the comments, do make it harder to give. i do often feel guilty though, knowing that i can afford to part with small change, but I think it does depend on the situation.

    in the last few months i met someone who was asking for bus money to go home, so i gave him some change. 3 months later i saw him again and he had the same story. i felt so cheated for being generous, especially since everyone else was so skeptical at the time.

    in india i also had the experience of being harrassed to donate money to an organisation at the holy lake in pushkar. i genuinely didn’t have much money on me, as I was keeping it for lunch, but a man pushed me so much that i cried, and eventually gave the only money that i had, some leftover ZAR that i was keeping for an emergency.

    it upset me that he kept asking for euros, and that he assumed I had loads of cash to give since I was foreign.

    i guess, as everyone mentioned above, that the best way is to actually become involved in making a difference, instead of assuaging guilt by giving money that doesn’t seem to go very far.
    jenna´s recent [type] ..they do

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Hi Jenna, thanks for sharing your experiences. It is so hard to distinguish the good from the bad especially when we don’t know the area well. I’ve learned that at times I have to be rude. I hate being rude but when someone is trying to take advantage of you, you have to push back even if they are using emotional blackmail to gain profit.

      A polite no thank you twice is my limit these days. If someone pushes further than I guess they have less then genuine motives and I push back.

      But I hate doing it.
      Todd Wassel´s recent [type] ..Iwayaji Temple Japan- My Favorite Place in the World

      • jennaNo Gravatar says:

        i know, i hate being rude too!

        but sometimes i do think it is important to protect yourself, especially in an unfamiliar place.
        jenna´s recent [type] ..they do

  9. NorbertNo Gravatar says:

    Nice post Todd – I guess we all have been in that situation of deciding if we want to give some money or food to someone begging for it. I have to admit that I don’t give to beggars in most cases. It has to feel genuine for me to extend my helping hand.

    Living in NYC has literally numbed me to these “acts”. I see beggars everyday (literally) up to 3 or 4 times a day in the subway, sidewalks, parks, etc. They have the same stories and conditions. How can I believe it’s totally genuine? They even enhance their “begging acts” with kids and animals or a performance, because they know we are all so used of hearing the same things that we don’t respond to it anymore.

  10. Excellent write Todd. But because I come from Southeast Asia, we deal with this day in day out. The main stream media runs articles related to beggars, syndicates and the kitchen sink thrown in. There are the genuine cases of poverty while most are syndicated by underground associations. Therefore, for us to give here is a no-no as it will encourage begging but then again, there are those who feel pity and try to help out. One of the highlights in begging these days was shared to me by a local friend – A disabled person crawling on his knees asked for money so my friend gave him some spare coins. The beggar then looked at the mere cents and then looked my friend back with a unhappy face grumbling as crawled away.

    David
    David @ Malaysia Asia´s recent [type] ..MATTA Fair September 2010

  11. devinNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Todd,

    Good article.

    I admit that I am fairly hardened by some of the poor people I have met while traveling, but I am always hit emotionally, every time. I do give money. I tend not give it when I am in a group of beggars or when I am not prepared, I usually put a certain amount of money set aside that I have decided to give away so I can easily pull out a dollar or two. I also avoid giving in a tourist area, but some days I am softer than others because I know I have it good — far better than even those trying to take advantage of my American-ness. And occasionally, I do take someone out for lunch, but sadly this happens less often than I would think.
    devin´s recent [type] ..Tips on Query Letters

  12. Thank you for writing this. I was on the net not long ago searching for some wisdom on this topic having just spent three months in Tunisia, North Africa. I’m in agreement with you 100% on every point. A traveler told me they were once accosted by a local woman who saw them giving things – I don’t remember what – to children. The woman said “you are turning our children into beggars”.

    I like the idea of giving to a local charity. Given you’d have to do a bit of research to make this happen it would have the added benefit of educating you a bit on the local issues.

    Great article – thoughtful, compassionate and pragmatic!

  13. Sensitive post on a horrendously difficult part of travel. I especially related to the line about not liking who you’ve become – I feel the same, especially when I see the horrified faces of travellers who feel differently when I callously walk past a little kid begging me for money. But I think you and most of the respondents have it right – I offer food when I can but generally refuse to give money. My boyfriend always buys gum, but I always wonder if that, too, is another case of adult exploiting child. It breaks my heart to see them on the streets at midnight hawking cigarettes outside of bars.
    .-= Camden Luxford´s recent blog ..Cusco Feriado =-.

  14. I, too, dislike giving kids money for nothing but am willing to buy a token item at a slightly inflated price. Often I have to give the item that I’m going to buy (such as a pack of tissues) in the first place but at least when I hand over some cash it’s a business transaction. This way, I hope I’m not perpetuating the cycle of begging, the kid maybe gets a bit of self esteem and, perhaps, is his or her first step on the way to a successful career in business.
    .-= The Working Traveller´s recent blog ..Powder Finger up the Nose =-.

  15. AbiNo Gravatar says:

    You’re right – it feels horrible and it sounds horrible (which is perhaps why it’s so rarely discussed!) I watched a girl give pencils out in a small town in East Africa – virtually every child in the village came running out and began fighting over them. Eventually all of the pencils were broken, the children were bleeding and we were all close to tears. I hope that the desire to help never goes away but that, as you suggest, the more appropriate thing to do is probably to give to established charities instead.
    .-= Abi´s recent blog ..The Myths of Zanzibar =-.

  16. TanyaNo Gravatar says:

    Wow, this post has a lot of comments – as it is such a touchy subject. I agree: a lot of the kids are trafficked and/or working for a chemically dependent parent. So, I almost never give anything to children begging in the street.

    However, I will say that I do give money to street and/or bus musicians – buskers. I see that as completely different. I would not give the money I actually need to survive – but if I have spare change i see it as a viable cause to support people living an alternative lifestyle.

    On a related note, one thing I often think about is that it is easier to give a homeless person a dollar than to work to change the system such that fewer (or no) people are homeless. Sometimes, we might give to assuage our own guilt.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!
    .-= Tanya´s recent blog ..Cooling off in Rio Vermelho in Goias, Brazil =-.

  17. AshleyNo Gravatar says:

    This is a tough question – personally I don’t give anything to beggars anymore (at home or when traveling). We have a large homeless population in San Francisco, and I used to bring a few extra granola bars or something with me to hand out…but after several occasion where they refused food, and blatantly asked for money, I’ve stopped. I figure my money is better used if I donate it to non-profits than handing it out on the street. Though, like Earl, I still always try to acknowledge them with a smile.
    .-= Ashley´s recent blog ..Travel Memories Monday – Vatican City, Italy =-.

  18. AndrewNo Gravatar says:

    I’m another one that will tend to give food but not money.
    1) Was recently in Prague eating my grocery store put-together sandwich lunch. A guy wouldn’t take the bread and wandered off when I wouldn’t give money.
    2) Was in Bahamas many years ago, a guy made a big play for money. I told him that I would buy him lunch but not give him money. So he walked with me to a local crab shack type place and I paid for his lunch. That was a really cool memory for me, especially as I have a picture of him somewhere.

  19. Jeremy BNo Gravatar says:

    I would have to agree that giving money, in most cases, isn’t good. If a beggar is offering a service or something to sell, then yes feel free to give. The reat test is to offer to buy them some food or even some clothes if you really want to reach out. If they are in need, then you can talk to them and find out what they really need.

    In many cases, you need to go with your gut instincts on what is right with this.

  20. SuzyNo Gravatar says:

    Nice honest post. I usually don’t give money if I’m traveling. I am not someone that trusts easily, and in a foreign country, I go into super watchful mode, clutching my bag for fear someone will steal something. If I am alone and approached, I tend to get uneasy. Maybe it is a female thing or may be I just don’t trust people with the little money I have, but I like your solution to give in some other area like finding a charity, etc. I also like Earl’s “give them a smile” comment. I once tried to handle the most cumbersome of bags down a train station stairway and over to the platform on the outside , up another flight of stairs(there was no elevator). A man quickly rushed to help me. I was so excited that someone wanted to help, just out of the kindness of their heart. I thanked him once I reached the other side and he just stood staring at me with his hand out. He wouldn’t leave until I gave him a few euros. I watched him just wait for people like me to help, yet ask for something in return. I guess I just found this whole scenario a little disheartening when it comes to giving people money while you travel.
    .-= Suzy´s recent blog ..My Case For A Three Month Vacation =-.

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Thanks for the long and honest comment Suzy. Trust is such a difficult thing.I agree with Earl that a smile and recognition that you see people is a great way to support those in need…if not exactly what they are looking for.

      I was basically homeless while walking a 1,200 km pilgrimage in Japan. While many people gave me food and money (as is the custom), after a stressful day of not knowing where I would sleep each night, or if it would be safe, a kind word of encouragement was always the best gift anyone could give me.

  21. EarlNo Gravatar says:

    For years, during my frequent visits to India, I used to give some change to a particular woman in Calcutta who spent her days shaking violently on the ground in near convulsions. It was one of the saddest sights I had ever seen in all of my travels. During my last trip to Calcutta, the same woman was still in the exact same spot (it had been 8 years since my first visit), but one day as I walked by, she simply stopped shaking, stood up, gathered her blanket, said goodbye to the street vendors around her and walked away as any healthy person would.

    I now try to offer neither money nor food, but acknowledgment instead, in the form of a simple touch of their shoulder, a genuine greeting or just a small smile. And this way, the beggar who is working for others or is just trying to pull a scam will receive nothing, but those who truly do need some assistance, will receive acknowledgment, which I’ve discovered is often more beneficial to them than a couple of coins.

    Excellent post by the way on a subject that is not so easy to discuss.
    .-= Earl´s recent blog ..Don’t Be Afraid To Kill Your ‘Babies’ =-.

  22. jamieNo Gravatar says:

    great post Todd.
    I live in NYC, and there are tons of beggers on the streets everyday. Sometimes i’ll give fruit if I have extra in my bag. Other than that, I usually won’t give anything, it’s enabling them to continue their lifestyle.
    I like your blog! Stop by and say hello! http://www.joliejamie.blogspot.com
    Jamie

    • tinaNo Gravatar says:

      I just came from visiting NYC and the black men were giving cd’s they made and asking everyone to take a listen to there new music … well anyone that acts remotely interested they swarm you and pretty much demand money, and say “its out of the kindness of your heart” and then when you go to give a small donation, thats not enough, they hound you until you give a big bill… i hate them, and if i ever come in contact with them again, i will be blunt and very rude and tell them not only do i not want there stupid cd, i am not giving them a penny… i dont have a problem donating to anyone. but when 4 bucks for a cd i didnt care if i chucked in the next garbage i came in contact with, isnt enough and they demand more, thats when i lose all respect for them and hope they drop dead b4 anyone gives them a penny! …

  23. I do wind up feeling guilty, but I also try not to give for all the reasons above. The problem is systemic, and needs a systemic fix – if you give someone money today, they’ll be back tomorrow. I’d rather give to a charity, preferably one helping to educate girls. But I have given food to street kids in Cambodia, and I have given occasionally to a maimed, older person in India.

  24. BrandonNo Gravatar says:

    I generally tend to offer food. As you pointed out it is a good gauge of intent. I will admit that my guilty side gets the best of me from time to time and I will make large offerings upon departure of a place only after taking stock and seeing what is what. It saves me from becoming a commodity, but not necessarily from guilt. It is hard to rationalize, no matter how we try, the disparity of privilege this question addresses. Perhaps the answer is to give something of yourself to the Country or community in question, volunteer, perhaps.
    .-= Brandon´s recent blog ..Nenana Ice Classic Tripod Goes Live! =-.

  25. I don’t typically give money to them, but of course this is with exceptions (for example when they are doing funny things). I don’t give if they are looking healthy. I don’t respect them at all. I hate the criminal network that is behind them. I used to live in a SEA country, and we heard so much about the organization and how some independent beggar actually have nice house from this job. Of course it’s different when we are talking about physically and mentally challenged one (even though some people do fake it).

    A story that I still remember, there’s this woman that had a caretaker lady in the house to take care of the little baby when she and the husband go to work. At one point she forgot to bring something to the office and went back home. At home she realized the baby (and the caretaker) was not there. After got panic and drove around the neighbourhood for a while, she found both of them. The lady is begging on the traffic light, using the baby as a prop to gain people’s sympathy.

    I rather give donations through reliable organizations. Could be money, food, clothing, or else.
    .-= Dina VagabondQuest´s recent blog ..Cockatoo and flying fox paradise =-.

  26. I just found out from Terre des hommes in Kosovo that these kids begging in Pristina are actually trafficked from Albania…so…by giving them money one is encouraging this phenomena… I agree, it’s better to at least support local organizations that address such issues…in short, it’s complicated like you point out very well..sigh

  27. Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks for the stories Dave, Deb and Lilian. It is a heartbreaking part of travel, but like experiencing true poverty, I think it is an important part. It helps us realize what is important in life and how hard many people have it in this world.

    On the other hand, I was at the killing fields in Cambodia and was accosted by 15 kids looking pathetic and begging for money. They didn’t realize my friend spoke Khmer. Once she started speaking they livened up and admitted that it was a school holiday and they were just looking for candy money from the tourists. Sometimes, kids are just being kids.

  28. LilianNo Gravatar says:

    My first stance is to not give at all. But maybe because I am Asian too, I seem to get the problem less often. There was even once when we thought some kids in Bali wanted to beg for money from us, but they bypassed us and headed for the Caucasian in front of us. But in the end, I believe that giving them money in this way does not benefit them. That’s how I explain it to myself
    .-= Lilian´s recent blog ..Attractions in Singapore =-.

  29. Dave and DebNo Gravatar says:

    Very good article. We feel the same way when traveling. It is heartbreaking to see people suffering. I try not to give, I never give money, pens or candy to Kids. I saw a old man begging and singing on the train with his eyes burnt out in India, and I couldn’t help but think that he had it happen the same way that the boy did in Slumdog Millionaire. It is so hard not to give, but you have to wonder, if you do give to a person intentionally hurt by people just to make money, will you be perpetuating the cycle and they will keep hurting people. But then again, there are people that are legitimately handicapped and have no other way to earn money.
    In India, I gave a kid a Samosa at the train station. He started walking away with his food without eating it. and I made him eat a few bites in front of me out of fear that he was bringing it to his “handler” Within a few seconds, a bunch of kids came out of the woodwork asking for food. I just about cried. I felt guilty and realized that I didn’t help the situation at all.

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