Third World Begging 35

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This is basically the post that I put up there last week.  I look forward to your comments, suggestions and thoughts on this topic.

Any sort of third world travel means that you are going to have to decide what you want to do about begging. The related issue is street children attempting to sell you gum and other minor items.

From the heart wrenching to the highly annoying, begging is unavoidable when you travel in large portions of the world, and it is best to have thought it through a little before you arrive.

I decided before my round-the-world trip that my particular answer was going to be “just say no” to begging. On the other hand, I do still occasionally buy something from the street kids.

Not sure about how everyone else thinks, but from my point of view, there is a difference between straight begging — at least selling little trinkets shows a little entrepreneurial spirit. Is that a heartless or Western-centric way of looking at things? Perhaps.

My Reasoning for Not Giving:

• It reinforces a culture of helplessness and dependency.

• Often, the kids are just pawns whereby the money ends up in the hands of the criminal gangs that run the operation from behind the scenes.

• Successful begging discourages children from going to school and trying to acquire the means to lift themselves out of poverty.

• There is little way to differentiate when to stop giving. If you give to this person and that person, what rational basis can you make for not giving to the next dozen people that ask?

• The locals I have talked to have been vociferous in their desire to not have me give.

• The substitutes to money that some give are no better than money. Candy just leads to dental and health problems and pens are just sold for money anyway.

I don’t normally make an exception for children selling postcards or trinkets or whatever, but occasionally a truly enterprising kid will manage to get a buck or two out of me. The kids that have memorized all the capitals of the world (at least the tourist producing world) and can say something a few words in dozens of languages particularly have a way to get to me. Because my language skills are so poor, I’m just impressed.

The kids selling stuff at Angkor Wat particularly touched me. (Further reading on giving money to street kids)

And yes, I realize that the same arguments made against giving money to beggars applies to these kids also. They aren’t in school. They are on the streets making a life of this. They also are subject to gang control. But irrational as it may be, I just occasionally give in anyway, or in one case, wish I had.

The Good Fortune of the Geography of Birth:

Basically, the whole issue comes down to Western guilt, I think. Should I feel guilty for having the good fortune of my geography of birth?

I come from an immensely wealthy country. Talk about good luck — I am a white male raised in a middle class household in the United States. The starting line that I set off from on the moment that I entered this world is light years ahead of those that want a dollar or two from me. I had the benefit of a freely provided and usually excellent education until I was eighteen years old. The list goes on and on.

But I’m not sure I should feel guilty about it. And frankly, I don’t. I applied myself to my studies and worked for over a decade to save up the money to do my traveling. I had great luck, but also believe I have participated in making the world a better place in my way.

And as it relates to being in the third world — I am here, spending my hard earned money. I am doing something for the people in the third world — I am injecting money into their economy. Is that a drop in the bucket? Perhaps, but a bigger drop in the bucket than giving someone a small handout. Additionally, I am out here trying to understand these cultures and bring some of that understanding back home through what I write and tell people, which I believe helps bring us all together in a small way.

The Exception: Laos and Cambodia:

The big exception to my feelings on this topic was when I went to Laos and Cambodia. There, I was confronted with bomb and land mine victims that were missing limbs — missing entirely because of the actions of my country. While one can certainly make the claim that the United States has occasionally done its part to keep people in certain parts of the world “down,” there is no clearer example of that than in these two countries.

During the Vietnam War, we dropped about two and a half million tons of explosives on these two countries, in a completely illegal and undeclared war. Thousands of those bombs are still strewn through the countryside and over 20,000 completely innocent people have maimed or killed since the war.

My country did that. Illegally. And even more heinously and immorally, we have done next to nothing to go back and try to alleviate the suffering we have caused. While we spent billions causing this destruction that continues today, we have spent almost nothing to go back and clean up our mess.

There are a couple groups of land mine and bomb victims that have set up areas in and around Angkor Wat to play music and ask for contributions. When I rode past the first group on my bicycle, I stopped because the music was hauntingly beautiful. Then I noticed their prosthetic legs sitting next to the platform they played on. Never was a gift easier to give than on that day.

Here is the link to the United Nations organization that is still in the process of cleaning up unexploded ordinance in this part of the world. They accept contributions. I just wish that my country — that I believe is the greatest nation in the world — would contribute more to this effort than the pittance they do now.

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About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.

35 thoughts on “Third World Begging

  • Ayngelina

    I really struggle with this issue often because when I give them money it’s only to ease my conscience because I know deep down it isn’t helping them.

  • Gillian

    I, too, struggled with it. We had a no giving policy mostly b/c I don’t think that I could give enough to make a difference on that small scale and b/c if I started then i would be mobbed (I saw it happen). I do think, though, that charity has a place and am now looking to see where my $ will make the best impact. It’s tough. We do have Western ideals and are lucky by birth. Nice post!

  • Madhu Nair

    We never give money. Instead we buy biscuits/cookies and give it to them with the package open. We open the package so that they don’t go back to a store and sell it to pocket the change. Or sometimes we pack leftovers from restaurants and give to someone on the street. But we never give change.

    Exceptions are those who provide some random ‘service’ in return for a ruppee or 2. For e.g. the blokes who clean the train carriages in India.

  • Jeff

    Like everyone else I struggle with this. I especially wonder what to do about the severely disabled and the elderly as I can’t really rationalize that they should be trying to do something more productive instead. Any thoughts on these two groups?

    Also, any thoughts on the so-called “entertainers” that board buses looking for money? I never give them money and, truthfully, have yet to be entertained, but I notice that some locals invariably do give money…

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      the guys that hop on the buses in Africa are interesting. I mostly ran into street preachers there, so I didn’t give, but sure did get some writing material out of it!

  • Corinne @ Gourmantic

    It’s not just limited to third world countries. It happens in Sydney as well and there are also the homeless in parts of Europe. I’ve seen some very needy people in my travels. It’s difficult to know where to draw the line. If someone looks like they haven’t eaten for days, it’s difficult to walk away…

  • Travelogged

    It’s really the worst feeling when you see children or the elderly begging, and it seems like there’s a controlling person behind them who will just take their earnings and just force them to go out the next day.

    Here in NYC, it’s mostly adult men (and occasionally adult women) who are begging on the subways. Sometimes I give, more often I don’t. I don’t why some people strike a chord with me and make me give. If I have a granola bar or something like that with me, sometimes I’ll offer it and often they say yes.

  • Sophie

    As Travelogged points out, begging isn’t just a third world phenomenon. I live in the country recently rated as the world’s best to live in (for the umpteenth time), and I pass by beggars every day. Like in the USA, the beggars here are mostly adults – and some make a “salary” that isn’t too terribly bad – the equivalent of about 125 – 175 USD pr day, according to the national newspaper.

    Children sent out to beg is of course another story. I tend to buy them food – maybe a hamburger or similar – not exactly healt food, but I suppose better than sweets.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      pretty easy for me to generally pass on beggers in the States — first, they are rarely kids and second, we actually do have a pretty good support structure here (at least a ton better than the 3rd world countries)

  • Margo

    this is a tough one, for sure. The reasons that giving to beggars is frowned upon in many countries are so sound and make so much sense. Simply put, there are much better places to give money to help the poor and hurting in most countries. My husband travels regularly to India, and makes it a point to leave a generous (but not humongous by India standards) tip at the hotel to be distributed among all the hardworking people at the hotel, many of which operate quietly and honestly behind the scenes. When I went with him, at first I didn’t understand, because one’s first reaction is to respond out of this Western guilt. On the other hand, I think it sometimes comes down to following your gut, as you did in Laos and Cambodia.

  • Priscilla

    Regarding the reasons for not giving…So difficult to know what to do in these situations. There is a dilemma with “volunteer tourism” as well – people come in and build something and leave. The locals can’t take care of it, the corrupt governments destroy it or take it over. It’s good to have a dialogue and give us all pause to think about how to handle these things in advance of booking our tickets.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I want to write a whole separate post about the “pay to volunteer” thing, but I haven’t done it. Have you? If so, I’d love you to guest post.

  • Erica

    Western guilt really hit me when Shaun and I were in Hiroshima. Not only did we get hearty hellos from people but it was hard to see so many maimed and disfigured citizens.

    As for begging children, we’ll just have to see what happens with that on our travels.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Ahhhh, Hiroshima. I think I might have to add them to the Laos/Cambodia list when I go.

  • Nancie

    I usually don’t don’t give money. However, if the child is alone I’ll talk them, and if they have some small trinket to sell I might buy it. This often happens in the outlying temples at Angkor Wat.

    What I often found in Cambodia is that the kids were selling the stuff from the trunk of some rich guy’s car (may even their parent’s). This really put me off. I hate seeing kids exploited by their parents or another adult.

    Quite often I’ll try to find a local charity where I can make a donation.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      you hit the nail on the head — the kids selling little things for a dollar or two hit me in all the right ways, but then again, I know when I step back that they are likely just being controlled by adults that exploit them. So frickin’ sad.

    • Matt | YearAroundTheWorld

      I do the same, give to a local charity in each country. This way I don’t feel as bad about saying no. You can’t give to everyone! 🙂

  • Adam @ Sit Down Disco

    I’m like most people and generally don’t give anything despite it sometimes being difficult. I often pose the hypothetical question to myself of what I would do if someone asked for $100 and it was guaranteed to save their life. Haven’t figured out the answer yet.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      well, if I could save a life for $100, I’d be pulling the bill out immediately. I wish it were that way, but I am enough of a realist to know that there isn’t any easy way like that. Thanks for your ponderings Adam — much appreciated on tough topic.

  • Devin the Travel Writer

    I think the difficulty for me is making blanket rules about giving out money. Personally, I prefer to have a small stack of singles (about 30) and give out when appropriate. While I know that I can find reasoning not to give, like guilt. I also realize that there are more cases where people are simply far worse off than me. Personally, I am extremely fortunate and a part of my travel philosophy is spending money in foreign economies — even when I do not have a ton to spend.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Appreciate your thoughtful reply (and everyone’s). I think everyone’s plan is perfect for them, which is the important thing. Giving out some singles occasionally sounds like a good “solution.”

  • Merav | AllWays Car Rental NZ

    This is a tought issue. Who can look away from a child’s begging eyes? I find it almost impossible to set a rule how to behave in such a case. I don’t think I need to apologise for being lucky to be born in the part of the world where people have a choice. But as I do recognise my luck I believe it is my duty to give a bit of my luck to these people which is why I found my way of giving and helping the less fortunate to get a chance in life.

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      I totally agree that there is no reason to apologize for where any of us were fortunate enough to be born and that figuring out some way to give back is the important thing. I did a half-decade in politics and like to think that in a small way, I helped by trying to improve some policy towards the less fortunate. But then again, when I think about the scope of the problems in the world, I am mortified at how little I help, in reality.

  • Cam

    We struggle with this one also. We try to offer food or drinks instead of money, going on the assumption that nutrition is what they really want. Too often it isn’t, which has left a bad taste in our mouth.

    We want to help, but simply handing out money isn’t the answer. Parents will often “work” their children to collect money for the family, resulting in the child never going to school or finding a real job.

    We gave food to a begger in Mumbai who looked as though she hadn’t eaten for weeks. She opened the box (put together by the restaurant), smelled the food, made a terrible face, then threw the entire box of food on the street, then stormed away. I guess she wasn’t that hungry?

  • T-roy

    I know the feeling on this and wrote about it to while in Cambodia. There was this 1 girl I just couldn’t say no to.

    I know when it comes to pictures i never pay… but have to admit I have before in certain situations. You write a good/fair article but I have read others for it that were just as compelling. I mean the simple fact of a kid selling trinkets or begging on the street and refusing to help them by saying “they shouldn’t be taught this habit and be in school” doesn’t really apply to kids in places where there isn’t a school to go to. I mean, in some of the places it costs money (unlike in the US) and then you have to have food (unlike in the US where kids get feed no matter what). What good is it to be able to read when you and your family are starving. It’s a brutal truth…

    I did that dump visit in Phnom Penh and that was one of the biggest tear-jerkers i have ever done. I mean i just hadn’t seen anything like that and it made me feel appreciated for a lot of things like I had never felt before. I did pretty good over all in Cambodia but for the 1st time after I left a country, i felt bad. That never happened to me in any other country but I did when i left Cambodia. I just couldn’t get out of my mind those kids and mothers at the dump, living in trash mounds literally! Who is to say what is write or wrong and to be honest who cares… but it did have a prolong effect on me personally and it kind of changed my originally position on it after a while.

    I guess case in point for me when I was living in Bangkok, there used to be a teenage kid who sold some tea medicine at the end of the street. At first I would walk pass him all the time and never even notice him, as I’m pretty tunnel vision when moving at times. Then one night I seen him at the McDonald’s near my apartment and then realized he was mentally challenged and had medical birth defects and he also looked and acted like he was about 85% blind. I noticed that all he had was his little box of goods and a small cup of drink. I remember thinking, here I am in his country about to buy 2 value meals and not think twice about it, and here he is, a native in his own country with no chance of a real future because of something not his fault (the medical condition) but we’re just alike and want a meal at the end of the day (it was 2am by-the-way).

    I asked the kid at the counter to put one of the meals in a separate bag and to give it to him. The the kid informed me he was Buddhist and he couldn’t eat beef. Said ok, can we switch it for something he can then? So he did and I walked out and the kid at the counter said with a smile “You a good farang!” which made me feel so damn good in a way. After that any time i went to McDonald’s (which was always late) and I seen that kid on the street or in the restaurant, i would do it again. If he wasn’t inside, i would just walk up, say hello, then drop the bag in his lap until he had his hands on it. I never looked back or made a seen about it but i just felt bad. I mean this kid would stand on the street all day selling what he could and by the end of the night all he had enough money for was a little drink or something and i think he bought that so he could sit in the AC at McDonald’s to sleep, as i bet he didn’t have any other place to go to.

    In the end, i think sometimes it’s not about the situation of the person receiving the money only but also the one giving it. I felt better on days when i helped that kid then others in Thailand when i said “No, sorry I don’t have anything” when i knew full well i had more in my pocket then they would make in a month…

    • Michael Hodson Post author

      Troy, this is one of the most thoughtful comments I have ever read on anyone’s site. So many thanks for you taking the time out to relay this entire story to the rest of it. A tip of the hat to you and my eternal respect for your obvious love of humanity.

  • Jill - Jack and Jill Travel The World

    It’s very eloquently put. I don’t give money to beggars… kids, adults, women. But buying stuff from locals is different (assuming the price is right for me) I appreciate the attempt at enterpreunership however crappy the stuff they’re trying to sell.

  • Daniel N.

    Great post Michael.

    As already said in the comments, I too never give money and prefer giving food/sandwiches.
    In Western countries, the money given to beggars goes to cigarettes and alcohol so I’d rather give them a good sandwich than see my money go to waste.


  • Globetrooper Todd

    For me, giving money to a beggar is a gesture, just like giving a tip to waitstaff. With a beggar, it’s a gesture of me saying, ‘Wow, you look in rough shape, I’ve been in rough shape before, not that rough, but I know what it feels like. Hey, I’m doing okay these days, so here’s a few rupees to help you out, friend.” I’ve never gone to the trouble of buying someone food. Partly because it sounds like too much effort, but mostly because it would make my gesture conditional. When you’re down and out, I think unconditional gestures go just as far as food.

    P.S. The US also blanketed 20% of Vietnam with Agent Orange, which still to this day causes major birth defects and limits life expectancy. I guess you had to be there, but it seems like an odd thing to do in someone else’s country (I know the official line was killing vegetation).

  • Dave Mealey

    In Phnom Penh for my 2nd visit now( feb 2012).After what was done to the country by the U.S and what the U.N allowed to happen,it seems very simplistic to say ” we wont give because it encourages dependency etc” what a load of moralistic B.S – we CAUSED the need for dependency.A once thriving economy and culture was blown to hell by our actions, and we refuse to do anything now to make things right.The U.N pulled out of the country when it was needed and now ensures the KR criminals are given a fair trial??? I give when I feel the need to and when I do I dont feel guilty about it.

  • Sebastian

    I’m travelling SE Asia right now and seeing all the harm and damage the USA have done to the country and especially to the people and how the USA refuse(!) to repair and help their victims (e.g. Agent Orange Aftermath Vietnam) absolutely doesn’t make the USA the greatest nation in the world.

    Sorry, that’s a bit off topic.

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