What’s the best way to deal with children and begging in poor countries?

I still feel a pang of guilt whenever I think of the little girl in Guatemala who sold me the mini-Christmas tree last December. Our van was about to depart so I refused to cave in and give her the extra dollar she was asking for. She was in a powerless bargaining position and I later rationalised my actions, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a bad situation all round.

That particular incident haunted me for days because I completely broke one of the golden rules of ethical travelling as written (more or less) in this Lonely Planet (LP) article about protecting vulnerable children:

Think carefully before giving money or food and buying from children. This not only encourages them to stay on the beaches, temples and streets and not attend school, but also places them at high risk. By giving, you are often undoing the work of trained social workers who work hard to get children off the streets, into school and back to families.

On my recent trip to Central America, I was constantly confronted with children begging or trying to sell me useless stuff and each incident was a challenge. Unlike my trips through Asia, which I’m a lot more comfortable in, I was overwhelmed by the new cultural context and felt a bit out of my depth in terms of having appropriate responses. I didn’t even want to buy anything most of the time, but I didn’t feel sure that refraining from buying helped the children either.

Extending beyond children selling stuff — which is practically a form of begging — it made me think more generally about people begging for money. This article on the LP website explicitly says “Don’t give to beggars” and I’m not sure how I feel about their advice:

There are exceptions to this rule, such as monks seeking alms. But, in general, don’t give away money to people on the street. Apart from the fact that you may have to get your wallet/purse out, encouraging begging is not the most efficient use of your money (and goodwill). If you want to help out then do some volunteer work in the destination or donate some money to a local charity for the homeless or loan some money to a poor entrepreneur via Kiva.

For starters, I’m not sure that people like monks should be the exceptions to the rule, especially if the religion is a part of the problem in their society — including Buddhism, which is part of the entrenched patriarchy in many societies and holds women back.

Don’t you think such advice shows an awful lot of faith in systems that may not exist as well as being a pretty abstract understanding of how international development works (or doesn’t work)? Does the developing world really need more middle-class volunteers parachuting into orphanages? Is giving money to a local charity dealing with one issue — like homelessness — going to solve the problem of systemic poverty experienced by single mothers?

Travellers will meet thousands and thousands of people who fall between the cracks.

But perhaps I shouldn’t mix up homeless kids who’ve run away from their families (or been kicked out) to the kind of street urchins I met. Many of the children hanging out on the streets seem to have families of some kind, because I could kind of tell from the way they were dressed or there was otherwise an air about them that suggested they weren’t completely neglected, just desperately poor. They might not be able to go to school anyway, even if their families wanted them to. Worse still are when children are actually with their families.

When I was in Brussels the other weekend, a young boy came round to the tables of the brasserie I was dining at with a cap in his hand and I gave nothing — same as everyone else — and a few seconds later realised that his father had been the shabby man playing the accordion nearby. I felt really sad that father and son were trying to make a few extra bucks that way and I would have put in a few coins if I’d been able to react more quickly.

Visiting India for the first time in my mid-20s (see my blog post here), I was totally shocked by the poverty I saw. It got to the point where it was hard to leave the hotel room because of the way people accosted me and my then boyfriend. An Indian friend of mine advised me not to give any money, because I’d only encourage more people to beg from me — and that’s exactly what happened. But that response didn’t entirely work for me. I ended up overcompensating a little by handsomely tipping service people, even when the service we received was poor. It seemed far easier to give extra money within the confines of socially acceptable transactions. Nowadays I also try and buy fairtrade items if I see anything.

After a little while I made a rule for myself that in India — and indeed in any poor country in future — I would always give money to anyone begging who had an obvious disability. It’s a rule I’ve continued to stick with, and there are plenty of people on the streets without arms or legs etc. If they’re not desperately poor because everyone gives them money, their overall prospects aren’t great anyway since nothing beats being healthy and full-bodied. Maybe I’m supporting begging mafia-like rackets which everyone talks about, and apparently makes millions of dollars each year — but until I know that for sure I’ll err on the side of assuming that people with disabilities need that dollar more than me. Even if I’m being emotionally manipulated.

Rickshaw drivers in Delhi
Rickshaw drivers in Delhi

The second time I went to India in 2008, money was again an issue, though I actually had few problems with begging because hardly anyone approached me. Now I had the air of being an assertive traveller, perhaps. The dilemma this time was around tipping.

Although tipping is different to giving money to people in the street, in the context of developing countries, I can’t help but feel they’re closely intertwined when you’re dealing with the heavily disadvantaged. One day we bargained down a rickshaw driver in Old Delhi to 70 rupees (from his asking price of 100), and the ride was hard going with three of us in the back. He patiently waited for us whenever we got off somewhere to sightsee. In the end I tipped him the difference anyway and gave him the extra 30 rupees ($1). The person I was travelling with was furious with me, and said that it was people like me “who fucked it up for everyone else” by inflating prices. Yeah, she really said those exact words to me — I didn’t agree with her then, and I still don’t agree with her now. I personally hate tipping full stop and would prefer workers had adequate wages and the protection of strong labour laws, but that’s hardly going to be achieved in my lifetime in the vast majority of countries. Tipping for good service, particularly when people are comparatively less well off, seems easily justifiable. We tip restaurant waiters in rich countries all the time without thinking about it for a second.

Lately I’ve been thinking that if travellers are paying too much, they haven’t done their homework — the onus should be on them, not on the country they’re visiting. No one’s forcing them to go and it’s a privilege to even have the chance to travel. I try to have a rough idea of what to pay, and then I’ll pay a little extra — which is what I did in the souk of Marrakech the other month. It sucks to be ripped off but I kind of feel that that’s part of the package when travelling.

Another argument against giving money to ‘beggars’ is that you create a culture of dependency, which to me seems like it is often an easy justification people can make from being in an already privileged position. Even if you don’t cave in and give money, it changes nothing about the upstream — let alone downstream — factors that create the problems in the first place.

From just about every job I’ve ever had in community development, it becomes more and more obvious that the answer to many problems is systems change. Food security, climate change, gender equality, poverty…but what to do if the system isn’t going to change? As an individual traveller, what can you do in the face of entrenched poverty? Is it really going to damage the system if you buy stuff from children who probably won’t ever get to go to school anyway? Why not make their lives a little bit better, at least for a few moments? Or are you really making things infinitely worse by reinforcing the situation?

The world is made up of poor Indigenous people now displaced in colonised countries, including both Guatemala and Mexico. I saw so many young women with babies and children — the curse of being a poor Catholic country with limited access to family planning. It seemed rather hopeless for children, from the little I saw. Not in terms of happiness, but just in terms of the ability to better oneself in the long run. The odds are completely stacked against them.

With all this in mind, there were two distinct episodes on that trip involving children I wanted to recall here — once in Antigua (Guatemala) and once in a small town outside of San Cristobal de las Casas (Mexico).

Fruitshakes in Antigua, Guatemala
Fruitshakes in Antigua, Guatemala

In Antigua, some kids came up to me to sell me something and I politely told them to go away. They then chat with a trio of German girls who were friendly but didn’t give in, so they came back to our table. One of the boys asked for a Coke and I said yes a bit too quickly, so he decided to go further. “Two,” he said, pointing to him and the other boy. I hesitated before saying yes. I think by this stage he’d gotten my number and could see that I was a soft touch, so he pointed to my fruit shake and asked for one. Again, I hesisitated and said sure. Why not? Then it became one each. In the end, those two drinks ended up costing a lot more than what we had spent on our own drinks that hot day. We hung around to make sure they got their drinks and they seemed to be having a jolly time in the cafe, chatting to other tourists. I wondered if this is the rule I should make for myself — buy children refreshments sometimes, and let them hang out in establishments they don’t often get to sit down and enjoy as a paid customer. Or am I just giving them an incentive to keep doing this? In any case, I think it was the school holidays.

Outside a really interesting church in Mexico — which I’ll wrote about in another blog post sometime — I encountered a group of urchins asking for money and they were a bit downcast, unlike the cheeky boys I’d met the week prior. There were four kids in the group, and some of them looked like they were related.

Children in San Juan Chamula, Mexico
Children in San Juan Chamula, Mexico

When they came up to me I immediately broke off half the corn cob I’d just started eating and gave it to the oldest boy. He ate it, hungrily, before handing it onto one of the others. It kind of broke my heart, so I went over to another food stand and bought a cup of cut fruit — long slivers of pineapple and watermelon. I handed it to them and they reluctantly smiled at me.

I probably exploited them a little by taking a quick photo, but it was mostly for my own records more than anything else (although of course now I’m publishing on my public blog…). I walked away then to re-join the tour group, and when I looked back I saw that they each had a piece of fruit in their hands.

Josh pointed out to me that if I had given them the money — 10 pesos — instead of buying them food, they’d be able to do a lot more with it. Which is true because they would have brought it back to their families and not paid the retail prices. But surely children — who have a tough life — are still children, and a treat is still a treat. They got to enjoy the food then and there, and they were all clearly under-nourished as it was. Is giving food the same thing as giving money? Although this does nothing to change the upstream factors, it’s still an act of kindness. The fact that I was eating the corn as well showed that I was sharing, rather than responding to their request for money.

Back in 2006 I spent a month volunteering in Thailand, and came home feeling super inspired to become a ‘child sponsor’ through World Vision. It ended up being an arrangement which lasted quite a few years until the girl I was sponsoring no longer needed me. So that was another thing I once tried, like what’s often advised, but not sure that ultimately was a good solution — especially as I had quite a shallow understanding of the child sponsorship model.

It’s so frustrating seeing all these things and not being able to work out the best way to be a responsible traveller. Maybe I should carry around pens and pencils to hand out, which is what I regularly see advised in travel forums. Someone told me yesterday that he used to give out little packets of crackers to people begging in India. All of which seems simple enough and can’t be seen as being part of the problem. Not damaging the situation further seems to be the best thing you can do as a traveller, rather than trying to solve anything — unless you really are going to solve something.

If you’ve travelled through developing countries, how do you deal with children and adults begging for money? And do you have rules around tipping in poor countries? If you’re from a country with a lot of people begging, what do you do?

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6 thoughts on “What’s the best way to deal with children and begging in poor countries?

  1. A thought provoking article on an issue I struggle with. My rule in Kings Cross, where I partly live, is to buy food for begging homeless but not give money. This seems to work.
    During my last trip I often failed in my response to beggars and with tipping. I did not give money to beggars especially Romney children and I decided I would pay for a service, in which I included busking. However there were the elderly women begging in Georgia, a country with high unemployment and little social security. How are they to live other than help from their families, assuming they have families with an income.
    I was deeply ashamed of my reaction to the man who helped me with my bag on to the train in Bucharest. http://bmpermie.wordpress.com/2013/06/ My reaction and a conversation with a very aware young train guard caused me to rethink. I had to reframe what I considered to be a ‘service’.
    I am not good at tipping as in Australia I only tip for meals in restaurants. Frequently I did not tip due to being disorganised, no change, money in belt and not easy to get at, wrong currency etc. Sometimes I just forgot. No excuse however. In the countries of Central Asia and the Balkans tipping is part of way of life, high unemployment, tourism is seasonal, and I live a privileged life so does it matter if I can conned occasionally.,

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, very interesting to get your perspective. I just read your blog post and first of all I think I will try to get to that part of the world in the next year so will definitely ask you for tips. Thinking about your situation I would have similarly struggled – it’s so hard to know what the right thing to do is, especially when you always have the fear of being robbed at the back of your mind. Pushy bag handlers get me everytime – when I was at Marrakesh airport, a man rushed to help me with wheeling my suitcases to check-in without knowing that I had no local currency or even other currencies to give him. So when he asked for a tip I just had to shrug my shoulders. But I didn’t feel guilty because he didn’t give me a chance to opt-in! I didn’t write it in my post above but the one incident I have always felt really ashamed about was the young man who drove me from the airport in Delhi on my first trip – it was a long drive and he had a really hard life but I didn’t have the presence of mind to tip him that night as I should have. I ended up over doing it with everyone else to make up for it.

  2. Well into my 3rd decade of traveling in developing countries, I still struggle with this as well. Like you, I seem to have gotten the “seasoned traveller” down to a point where I don’t get hassled as much anymore.

    I do have a strong and abiding hate for the “who fucked it up for everyone else” crowd and almost got into fights with some of them. I make a point of tipping people who did a good job and didn’t try to take advantage of me more than usual for a gajin/farang/gringo a fair amount; in many cases 50-100%. After all, 50 cents or a dollar or two don’t hurt me and it is a meal or a shirt, or something else useful.

    My defining moment of this was in Veranasi when I watched a Swedish tourist yelling at a rikshaw driver “we don’t tip in Sweden and our country is much better off! If you wouldn’t ask for tips, India would be much more advanced.” She was extraordinarily proud that apart from the $4000 for airfare and 4 star hotels she “almost didn’t spend any money” on her travels.

    I try and buy as many things as I can from locals (the smaller the shop the better) and donate to charities (Kiva ROCKS!!!), but make a point of not buying from kids. I did have some wonderful conversations and fun with really persistent ones, though. And I bought some of them a drink or some food after they followed me around all through a temple or archeological site. Some really get much more open and talkative once they figure out that you’re not buying anything.

    1. Thanks Lars for your thoughtful response and for sharing your insights – it’s a good tip in terms of making the boundaries clear (ie definitely not buying from them) and then being able to interact with them without that goal in mind. I guess it was a bit like me being upfront about not taking a Sahara tour in Morocco, and then getting a few conversations happening after that. In any case, I probably won’t be buying from children in future – I never do in Asia, and next time I’m in Latin America I have a better idea of what to expect.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful post – I’ve just left Guatemala and as I continue my travels have to keep figuring out how I want to respond with compassion and responsibility to this issue… A friend linked me to this post and I appreciate the way you’ve really wrestled with it. May we never lose our humanity when encountering other human beings in circumstances like this.

    1. Hi, thanks for your comment and for reading my post. It’s a really tough problem, right? I suppose at the end of the day, as a traveller, if you can try to hang on to your sense of humanity and compassion, regardless of what you actually decide to do, that’s the most important thing. I’m not sure there is a clear right or wrong answer at all. Travelling is one of the greatest privileges one can have, and the fact that we’re even able to think about this shows just how well off we are compared to most of the world. Keep travelling and enjoy! :-)

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