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Dealing with Street Beggars
To give or not to give? And what about child beggars?

Giving money to street beggars - especially child beggars - always presents me with a quandary: Should I give? How much? What will happen as a result?

And once we start, where do we stop? Do we give to one beggar? Five? Ten? The entire village?

In some countries, you can lift both arms and have children hanging off them. In others, begging is discouraged or outright illegal. In many cases, children beg not because they need to but because they know you have something they want. Giving in to the begging just perpetrates this belief, and teaches children to expect gifts from tourists. It also indicates to parents that children may be more valuable as breadwinners on the street than as students in school.

When Burma first opened for tourism in the 1980s, children had rarely seen travelers and I had a hard time finding a single beggar. Within a few years, it was hard to visit a temple without being followed by hordes of clamoring child beggars.

Did the children start out knowing how to beg? Definitely not.

Did travelers and tourists turn them into beggars? They certainly helped.

Giving money to child beggars may do far more harm than good.

Yet riding richly through a poor country, it's hard to turn down a teary face or a bloated belly, especially when you know a little could go so far. We want to help - and in the face of dire poverty, we'd like to think we can.

When giving to child beggars hurts

While you might think that giving to street beggars will help make their lives better, if only for a day or two, think again, especially when it comes to children.

Giving to child beggars can have plenty of negative side effects. Consider these:

  1. The more money you give, the greater the incentive for children to continue begging and stay out of school.
  2. Parents may see turning their children into street beggars as more lucrative than working. This could start a cycle of exploitation with the children at its heart. Why send them to school if they can make more money begging?
  3. Some parents try to keep their children off the streets. By giving them money, you undermine the parents' authority.
  4. It will encourage local children to see Westerners as viable targets.
  5. Your gift will have no long-term benefit.
  6. You'll be paving the way for a new generation of beggars. If this is seen as a lucrative trade, there's no reason not to join it.
  7. You may be contributing to crime.
  8. Street beggars are often linked to gangs, who drop them off in the morning and pick them up in the evening.

Let me tell you a harrowing story. In my days as a foreign correspondent I once wrote an article on child beggars in Bangkok. It turned out that children were being trafficked from Cambodia (possibly after being sold by their parents) by Vietnamese middlemen solely for begging. They were kept in slavelike conditions and one or two were even maimed. Police suspected they had been maimed on purpose to earn more money - an injured child attracts so much more compassion and therefore more money. It is a horrible reality and I now refuse to give money to children as a result - especially when they target tourist areas.

So what to do about giving money to beggars?

The problem seems to be how to be generous without encouraging greed or contributing to the vicious cycle of begging.

Handing out money is definitely not the best way to either help a child or to feed your generous spirit. But if you feel you must hand something over, why not try some of these alternatives - they may not provide instant gratification, but they will help more in the long run. If nothing else they will build a connection and do no harm:

  • teach and exchange a few words of English
  • buy food for the family
  • draw a picture
  • take a polaroid (if you happen to have fallen for one of the new, revived models!) and hand it over
  • give away a postcard of your city and show them where you live
  • sing a song or play the harmonica or other instrument - and ask them to sing along
  • play a game and give the gift of time
  • provide some notepads and pens for the children's school
  • give money to parents, or a local school, charity or church

Rather than giving something, you might consider giving some time by volunteering with children or street beggars in a developing country.

And what not to do...

It's clear by now that I don't think giving money to street beggars, especially children, is a good idea. But that's not all.

Many well-intentioned travelers who want to give something find alternatives to money. Yet these, too, often do more harm than good. For example:

  • giving out candy or gum - they promote tooth decay and dental care is rare and expensive in developing countries
  • don't give away anything mechanical or that needs electricity or batteries - batteries run out and have to be replaced, electricity may not be available, and mechanics may break down, rendering the gift useless
  • avoid anything that pollutes, that is over-wrapped, or that leaves plastics behind
  • some things seem innocuous, like balloons - yet at least one organization reports cases of hepatitis spread through blowing them up

In the spirit of honesty, I admit that I do give to the occasional beggar, especially if the person appearsparticularly vulnerable - usually older or disabled people who may not have anyone to take care of them. But never to children.

Of course, plenty of child beggars beg because they're poor. No alms will change that. What you can do is try to change the circumstances that cause their poverty.

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