To anyone who has travelled the world the sight of young children running up to tourists and travellers, palms outstretched in expectation of a small trinket or a few coins is a familiar one, but should travellers be giving anything to child beggars at all?
If you have spent any amount of time in any developing countries the poverty can sometimes be a little jarring, especially if you aren’t used to it. The privilege paradigm can be hard to get your head around, and that is even more true when it involves children.
I get it, the image of a cute child, dressed practically in rags and smeared in dirt, the almost obligatory snot bubble and the beginnings of tears in their large eyes as they look up at you imploringly tugs at the heart strings. You would have to be the worst kind of heartless sociopath to not let that effect you on some level.
Why wouldn’t you want to help? A few coins that are nothing to you would at least buy these kids a meal or two right? Surely that’s a good thing?
Doing More Harm Than Good.
The big problem is that giving anything from a bit of cash to a pen to child beggars contributes to a cycle of poverty that is not in any way beneficial to the individual child, their family or the society as a whole.
The international charity Childsafe argue that travellers who give money – or anything – to begging children simply teaches them to see travelers as walking ATMs and disinsentivises them from going to school and getting an education.
Even worse than that, this can create an environment where families then use these children to make money. Instead of sending them to school, adults can simply use their children to sell trinkets to tourists, using their natural sympathies for profit.
This is where you get the situations of orphanage tourism in places like Cambodia, where children are used essentially as props to drag money out of tourists.
Many childrens charities and organisations, from UNICEF to the Child Safe Movement have been actively campaigning against orphanages that exploit tourists for money for a long time. Research by UNICEF suggests that up to 75% of children kept in these institutions in Cambodia and Nepal alone are not even orphans. Many are sold or ‘hired’ from impoverished parents or trafficked illegally, kept in impoverished conditions and kept malnourished to pull on the travellers heartstrings even more and ensure that the money keeps rolling in.
This may seem like an extreme consequence of just giving a little bit of money to a child beggar, but by giving just that little bit of money, or a pen, or whatever, this is the exact type of situation that you are ultimately supporting. Not intentionally maybe, but definitely supporting.
Entire begging mafias have sprung up all over the world, creating a perverse cottage industry that funnels your cash through often abused and neglected children. Do you really want that on your conscience?
Helping a child in need may seem like a natural thing to do, but you have to think of the unintended consequences too. You have to look at the bigger picture.
There Are Things You Can Do To Help.
Instead of giving money to a child beggar directly, however hard it may be to say no and walk on, you can instead give directly to a genuine organisation that has been set up specifically to help alleviate child poverty, increase education and standards of living and works with the local community instead of exploiting it. There are a lot of really amazing and genuine places out there, you just have to do your research when looking for them.
There are a lot of pitfalls when looking for genuine organisations, and you really have to be prepared to ask the tough questions when it comes to issues such as volunteering and where the profits actually go, but there are plenty of local NGOs and organisations out there, their answers to your questions should speak volumes about how legitimate they are.
Donate directly to charities or organisations that specifically help children in the communities you are visiting.
You can also support local social enterprises and businesses whose profits go directly back into community initiatives and programmes that specifically help the area you are visiting, providing education for children and employment for adults as well as other benefits. At the very least, even if the shop or restaurant you frequent isn’t run as a social enterprise, shopping and eating locally as opposed to using international chains is a responsible thing to do anyway.
The biggest thing you can do though is simply not give to child beggars. The unseen consequences are not worth the short term balm to your ego or your guilt.
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The Dark Truth About Orphanage Volunteering.
Very valid points, it does also beg the question which are the right organisations togive to to ensure the money is spent in the correct direction.
That’s half the point Mandy, a lot of research is needed before you give any money to any organisation.
Excellent article!! I feel this way about panhandling as well and has gotten me motivated to ACT in much more conscious (though less convenient) ways. I like the point you make about how when an exchange like this is made it perpetuates the cycle. It seems to also instantly alleviate those of us who are privileged from our sense of guilt and burden of responsibility.. which is something we perhaps should be spending more time reflecting on. Thank you for this share!
Thank you, I know exactly what you mean, it is that attempted alleviation of guilt that leads to so many problems, when the altruism could be channeled into real efforts that actually do help.
This is so eye opening, I have to admit I have given small change and trinkets to beggars, children and adults, in the past. I wish I hadn’t now.
It’s all about what you do in the future when you know about the issues involved rather than what you have done in the past.
Some excellent points, but what about the short term? Who helps these kids then? Some live in absolute poverty.
Yes they do, but the short term will never help them in the long term and rarely helps them in the short term either.
I would not want to give anything if it hurts children or those in need
I know what you mean.
Wow this was a very thought provoking post. I never even thought about this as an issue before.
Thanks Caroline, a lot of people don’t. Hopefully I can raise some awareness and change that.
This was one of the hardest things I faced when I got to India. Saying no breaks your heart and to deal with that it can sometimes turn you cold. I’d become so accustomed to saying no and walking on when faced with begging that at one point I walked past a man with no legs who asked me for one of the bananas I was carrying. I didn’t really register what I had done until I was a few streets away. One of those bananas would have meant so little to me, but may have been the only chance he’d have to eat that day. It’s been more than two years and I still think about that. Give wisely yes, but don’t let yourself become cold.
I understand exactly where you are coming from, it is an extremely fine line.