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
I enjoyed your article Bronwyn. This is something that I have always struggled with, as I would much prefer to be part of a long-term solution to hunger and poverty, but it’s difficult to turn down a hungry face. I love the idea of giving a bicycle or something useful for the family! Thanks for laying out an article to think about.
I’m really glad you enjoyed the article! Living in Mumbai, facing beggars is a reality and it’s hard to always know how to react. Begging rings and beggar masters complicate things, as even when you’re giving to an individual,your support might not be going to that person. Definitely a lot to think about. Thank you for your comment!
loved the article! i feel the same way, i always give food to beggars. i was told in nicaragua by a nun in an orphanage that too often the money you give goes to their fathers to buy alcohol. and i don’t want to buy some bastard who’s pimping their kid a drink. me and my mom recently bought a little boy that we met in guatemala some new shoes. i think that’s really the way to go.
Great article. I completely agree, and disagree some, too.
In a perfect world I agree with the idealism of giving money to NGOs so they may decide what is best, but it implies they have a handle on the problem, when poverty is the single biggest problem in the world, and I do not think they do. Although, I do give to charitable organizations and believe strongly in the work.
I do buy food when I can, but I also carry around a small stack of singles that I will give out during the course of a visit when walking over to a market is not an option. And I just say no, too.
I am sure that beggars do whatever they can to look more pathetic or tug upon my heartstrings. I realize that some will spend the money on something that I disagree with: gambling, tobacco or something else other than food. I am okay with this, because what if I am wrong. I think someone who is begging is in a desperate state. For me to decide how someone else makes it through another day should not be in my control as a justification to a charitable act. And what if the recipient needs a few moments away from a difficult life.
It is such a hard call and do not fault anyone with a differing opinion. In fact, I have no idea what is the right the thing to do. I try to take it case by case.
Right now, most of my tax money is going to buy another gun and to continue to fund more war, which I completely disagree with. If I give a buck directly to someone that might really be in need, I can live with the mistake.
@Tin : My experience has been that giving money is difficult because it can be re-directed in any (positive or negative) direction by the person you gave it to. Beggars generally beg because they don’t have many employment options, because they are not generally educated. In India, there are all sorts of social reasons related to status and caste that complicate and compound the problem. I feel like giving rice, giving a pair of shoes, giving a sewing machine or a bicycle is a great way to contribute. Of course those things can all be re-sold, but nonetheless, it is putting energy into the right place. I’m glad you liked the article, and hope you keep reading!
You’re right that in a perfect world, NGOs would all have an excellent understanding of their target beneficiary group, a concrete way to go about solving the social issue they focus on. There would be no fake NGOs or trusts, and NGOs would truly be able to bring about social change. You’re right that a lot of challenges that exist in developing countries (lack of resources, corruption, etc) also exist in NGOs, which makes many of them unable to actually make the impacts they could.
It’s hard for me to intellectualize the issue and say that we should only give to NGOs and not individuals, because I’m also an individual. Giving through the best nonprofit organisation may be the most effective way, and giving to an individual might be the least, but reacting to someone’s cry for help is the most human response.
Sometimes, the most you can give in a moment is just that: a few moments away from a difficult life, and I think that is worthwhile.
This is a great topic for travelers. When I was in Morocco my guide, a Muslim, gave something to every beggar. He told me it was his duty as a Muslim to give away a percentage of what he had. The lesson I learned was giving is giving. Does it matter what they do with it? We shouldn’t judge or try to control what we can’t control.