Sitting 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.