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Why Giving Money to Child Street Beggars Can Hurt, Not Help

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It's so tempting, isn't it?

She sits there, her tiny legs curled up beneath her, her face smudged with dirt from days on the street.

In front of her is a styrofoam cup containing scattered pennies.

You reach for your purse without even thinking.

Who wouldn't?

Lending a helping hand

Giving money to street beggars - especially child beggars - can be problematic. Should I give? How much? To how many children?

Behind those sad eyes lies a history that may involve exploitation, crime or even torture.

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

Let me tell you a harrowing tale.

In my days as a foreign correspondent I once wrote an article on child beggars in Bangkok. The 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.

This was no exception.

Throughout the world there are documented cases of children being bought or stolen from their families and forced into begging. Since disabled children bring in so much more, doctors may even be paid to perform amputations. 

By giving child beggars money, we may well become part of this horrible cycle.

Poverty too is a crime

Not all children begging on the street are victims of crime.

Sometimes children beg 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 Myanmar 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 mobbed by clamoring children.

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

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

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.

Street beggars - child beggars in Asia

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.

In addition to possibly perpetrating a crime, giving to children can have plenty of other negative side effects. Consider these:

  • The more money you give, the greater the incentive for children to continue begging and stay out of school.

  • 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?

  • Some parents try hard to keep their children off the streets. By giving children money, you undermine the parents' authority.

  • It will encourage local children to see foreigners as viable targets.

  • Your gift will have no long-term benefit. It may be squandered or spent on such things as drugs instead of food.

  • 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.

  • You may be contributing to crime.

Furthermore, street beggars are often linked to gangs, who drop them off in the morning and pick them up in the evening, taking away all the proceeds and holding the children hostage or imprisoned.

The money you give that little girl most probably won't be spent by her - or on her.

How to give without giving money

So how can you be generous without encouraging greed or contributing to the vicious cycle of begging that perpetuates poverty?

The best alternative to giving children money is to find a reputable NGO or charity and donate to the organization.

The rush of instant gratification may be absent, but you'll actually be helping the children, whereas your coins in the styrofoam cup will not.

If you feel you must hand something over, why not try some of these alternatives - they may not provide instant gratification, but they won't harm children the way money could - and they will help build a connection:

  • teach and exchange a few words of English with the children
  • 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 or a nearby landmark
  • teach a child a simple song
  • 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

And here's 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, some of which may also do more harm than good. For example:

  • giving out candy or gum - theyse 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

And please, stay away from orphanages. There are undoubtedly many ethical establishments, but those that allow you in for a few hours or days are probably not among them. Unless you are professionally qualified in child care and can speak the local language, what can you do that the staff cannot, other than give a child hope you will not be able to fulfil?

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

However large the eyes or smudged the cheeks, I refrain. It isn't easy, but I refuse to contribute.

See how you can help child beggars by using some of these resources

  • Child Safe Tourism in Southeast Asia tries to find alternatives to begging
  • ECPAT International, which helps children who are victims of sexual exploitation
  • an intriguing documentary on beggars in Sweden and the Philippines by Al Jazeera
  • national organizations that help street children exist in nearly every country

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