Across Asia, the African continent, and Central and South America are children holding out their hands for coins. Travelers and expats encounter beggars in every corner of the globe. Whether you have become so accustomed to beggars that you don't notice them anymore, or you were recently accosted for the first time and felt sick to your stomach, facing poor people on a daily basis is a reality in many developing countries.
In many tourist and backpacker hotspots, there is a general belief that Caucasian foreign visitors must be rich. For this reason, foreign tourists are approached by beggars much more even than wealthy locals, and asked for money or for food. It isn't unusual to be harassed countless times in a day by beggars.
In today's Mumbai, India, begging is organized and aggressive. I've seen tourists give oranges to begging children, and then seen those oranges being re-sold. I've seen foreigners give ten rupees to an eight year old, and then seen him go back to gambling or buying tobacco with his other eight year old friends. I've seen mothers at traffic intersections rub dirt onto their babies' faces, or strike them across the head so that they cry to make them look more pathetic.
As someone who is working in the social sector, I generally don't give to individuals. Giving money or food encourages dependence, it doesn't encourage development, organized charity and long-term projects go further in terms of aid….these are facts that side against giving a few coins in any currency to any beggar in any country. It's true that donating time and money to local NGOs will go further to improve people's lives over the long run than a few coins or handfuls of rice into one person's hand.
On the other hand, when you are approached by a mother and her baby, you may realise that whatever money you are giving to UNICEF or World Vision or even a local grassroots NGO will likely never reach her. Her need is very immediate, very urgent, and you have the choice to do a simple thing for her in that moment.
Will you encourage her begging? Yes. Will you solve her problem? No. But you may allow her and her child to sit down and rest for a little way. You are only giving her a fish instead of teaching her to fish…but that fish is not nothing, and it will feed her for now.
I can't support giving to beggars, and also can't say that it should never be done. The more often one faces this question, the more one realizes that there is no single answer. The answer is, it depends. I would recommend the following best practices for giving, and encourage people to use their best judgment in every situation.
"¢Do not give money. Money can be spent on anything, and many people will not spend it in a responsible way.
"¢ If you wish to give to beggars who approach you on the street, give a meal or some food. Prepared food from a little restaurant, dry rice or pulses, or an open banana don't have much of a resale value and must be used as is.
"¢If you have spent long enough in one place to get to know a family that you would like to support, help them in a tangible way. Pay for school fees, a bicycle or home items. This will help to improve people's lives in a lasting and meaningful way.
"¢ Give of your money and time to local NGOs who know and understand the needs of the people that they serve. Volunteering or making regular donations can be invaluable for both yourself and the NGO whose work you are supporting.
Bronwyn McBride is from Vancouver, Canada. After years of circus school in Montreal and Quebec city, and then a long summer in Varanasi, she now lives in Mumbai. Besides working in communications and fundraising for an educational NGO, going for runs and sampling Mumbai’s fabulous variety of street food, Bronwyn loves to observe and write on all facets of Mumbai’s diversity, beauty and struggle. Her personal blog can be found at www.littlebirdbombay.com