One of the biggest dilemmas in travel is whether to give money to beggars or not.
Whether I meet one on the streets of Baltimore, Bangkok, Brisbane, Budapest or Bulawayo, I am faced with a myriad of thoughts and questions. For me, when accosted by a child or a mother and child or a disabled person, I have to work through what my position is afresh. Other colleagues I travel with have no such qualms. They calmly step over beggars as if they were invisible. On some occasions, I have seen it lead to tension between travellers over how to treat beggars.
I think knowing how you will handle begging, before travelling, is important. There are three groups of beggars I have encountered:
- Abandoned by society and family, these people cannot afford medical bills, have no access to education and live on the streets eeking out a living on the few pennies they earn. Begging is the only way they survive. There is no social security system for these people and there are a myriad of tragic stories. Every cent they receive literally keeps them alive for a little longer,
- Some have made begging a career choice. I met an unemployed actor in London who sat in Chelsea for four hours a day, four days a week. His friends told me that between shows, this was a very profitable enterprise. There is a very famous disabled woman in Bangkok who has refused medial assistance to fix her deformity because she believes that the income from the foreigners far exceeds anything she could earn in any other job. As, a result, she exists with debilitating condition. A few weeks ago, a man in Oklahoma City, a man confronted a 78 year old after he found that she was driving a new car!
- Then there are the people being used to beg by others who take their money. These children or elderly people or foreigners are sent out to beg to bring money in for others. Even more chilling are the (true) stories of children kidnapped and/or maimed and forced to beg, with their “minders” hoping that the kids grave faces will melt the heartstrings of the hardest foreigners. Worse (if it is possible) is that sometimes, these kids are punished for not bringing in enough money.
The difficulty is knowing which one of these three groups, I have mentioned above, I am being faced with, when someone asks me for “spare change“.
I confess, I generally don’t give money to beggars. There are six ways I have chosen to help:
- I identify a reputable charity that I know has operations in the country, I am visiting. eg Red Cross (who I also volunteer with), Save the Children Fund, UNICEF, Oxfam, The Railway Children (very appropriate charity for travellers) are some of my choices. It is possible to designate that a donation goes to a particular country and/or project eg Schools in El Salvador or Disabled children in Cambodia
- I support Kiva which allows me to invest money in projects that will assist families, individuals and groups to develop incomes and profits that will lift them out of poverty
- I have connected with specific individuals or families or groups through the years that I have directly assisted with funds for fees, housing or equipment to complete study. In some cases, we have treated the money as a loan and in others it has been a gift but not in a patronising way. I know these people, I see how they live and I have watched them grow.
- I am a great supporter of the on board airline donation options which allow you to donate loose change to UNICEF etc. I know the money goes to those in need even though I am also aware that the airlines uses the schemes to gain publicity
- Carry for kids is a clearing house for projects that allow you to buy and take in your regular luggage, supplies that a charity may be needing. While I don’t often check luggage in, on the occasions I am doing so on Asia-bound flights, I always have a spare suitcase worth of space!
- I have volunteered for organisations and projects. Also known as voluntourism, watch that the work you do actually contributes to the community and does not damage or cost it.
I take the position that I can contribute a percentage of my travel budget directly to organisations that I trust will make a difference. The starting point is to be aware, that most of us who can afford to travel have way more wealth than half of the planet’s population. In some countries that I travel to, the cost of one night in a hotel is the same as three or four months of average wages. If I cannot give a percentage of what I spend on a trip to a charity that will lift a a family or community out of poverty, then I am being a very selfish person indeed. And the money I give I believe will result in fewer beggars needing to be asking for help.
If you are desperate to give kids something, do not give them chocolates/sweets/candy/lollies. Fresh fruit is better or pencils, pens, notebooks that they can use. Be aware though, they may be made to see or give away these items.