Should Travelers Give to Kids Who Beg?

By Audrey Scott

Young Students in Rural School - Nalbata, Bangladesh

By Audrey Scott We paused along the side of the road in what seemed like the middle of nowhere for a view over the hills outside of the Ethiopian town of Lalibela. Moments later, a boy of about four years ran up. He was shepherd to his family’s goats on a nearby hill. His clothes were torn, he poked curiously around us foreigners, using our guide as an interpreter. One of the people in our group began pulling a toy koala bear out of her purse to give to him. “No. Please don’t,” Fekadu, our Ethiopian guide, implored. “There are other kids around. He will tell his family and the others will hear that he got something from a faranji (the local term for “foreigner”). This is how the begging cycle begins. It used to not be this way. I don’t want this for my people, my country.” To his point, within a matter of minutes, the hills were literally crawling with kids, palms upturned, echoing the words pen, money and candy. By this point in our journey, we’d faced this situation countless times. Some of the kids were plain curious, while others clearly expected stuff. If you’ve ever traveled in a developing country, you’re probably familiar with this scene. Maybe you find it uncomfortable. Maybe your heart aches since the kids around you appear to have so very little. Maybe the contrasting privilege that carried you to the country is not lost on you. Giving is a good thing, right? But is it a good idea to give money and pass out things to children who beg? Will it really help those kids? Will it help their community? A recent visit to Ethiopia and more generally to East Africa reaffirmed and crystallized my thinking on the topic. The answer: No. Here’s why we believe this, followed by a few ideas how you can engage with kids and give responsibly to help and support children and families where you are visiting. This Article Includes:

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The Don’ts: 7 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Give to Kids Who Beg

Here are a few reasons why we discourage giving handouts to kids while you are traveling. The big takeaway: our actions may have consequences unseen, ones we cannot even fathom. There are times where direct distribution may be appropriate. Travelers handing out stuff indiscriminately on the streets isn’t one of them. This list is compiled from our own experience, including conversations with local people, organizations, and well-informed travelers from Latin America to Asia to Africa.

1) Contributes to a cycle of begging and continued poverty

Kids learn quickly. If one begging encounter yields success, why wouldn’t others? When children hear that foreign travelers give away money and stuff, why not give it a try? And why wouldn’t parents who are poor take advantage of this and send their kids to beg or sell goods on the street? Watch this short video from ChildSafe that explains the cycle even better. Not to mention, it furthers a culture of sympathy tourism and dependency, for which there is no productive place.

2) Begging success = no school?

If a child makes too much money begging or selling, his parents might not send him to school. File this under the Law of Unintended Consequences. Now what traveler would intentionally try to prevent a kid from going to school? None that we know of. That’s why awareness of this issue is so important.

Travelers should be supporting education for children, not unknowingly hindering it.

3) Reduces tourism to a transaction

The greatest disservice in all of tourism: reducing two people to a transaction. Begging dehumanizes, it objectifies. It turns the traveler into a walking dollar bill and transforms the begging child into a walking collection box, thereby stripping everyone involved of his dignity. It erects barriers behind which there might otherwise be a connection. It takes the human-ness out of travel. It creates a stereotype of all of us, robbing us of our humanity.

4) Food money = drug money?

When a traveler gives money or stuff to kids, does she imagine the gift being used to get high? Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. While traveling in Uganda, we heard about a small home for runaway kids in the town of Jinja. The founder of the home tells of children ending up in Jinja solely to beg from tourists and get enough money to buy their next hit — usually sniffing glue or petrol (gas). If travelers knew the child recipients of their generosity were using it to get high, would they knowingly contribute to this practice?

5) Creates an imbalance in the local community

The thing to note about children living in poverty: quite often the people around them live in similar conditions. Giving to some children creates a situation of imbalance where, by nothing other than luck, some have more than others. This can also contribute to bullying to even the score.

6) Supports begging mafias.

If you don’t know what a begging mafia is, read here. The concept was also brought to light by the film Slumdog Millionaire and the novel A Fine Balance. Begging mafias also exist outside of India and are more prevalent than most of us are aware. The exploitation of children alone is tragic enough. To make matters worse, mafias kidnap, blind or otherwise injure and disable children so that they may earn even more money. The developed world isn’t quite free of it, either. A well-established begging mafia used to exist in Prague, Czech Republic when we lived …read more

About the author

JOHN J GENTRY'S BIO: John J Gentry is a lifelong adventure travel enthusiast and international manager, Philanthropist, and ex-solder. Spent 2011-2015 developing an international team in HsinChu, Taiwan. Early on he spent the better part of the 90’s working with the US Army in Germany, Iraq and Kuwait. For kicks, he studied in Alaska 2008-2010 international history for a greater understanding in his adventure travels. He has had some great experiences, and successes traveling around the world documenting his travels with his family via ExploreTraveler.com

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4 Comments

  1. Hi, completely agree with your points!! In India the begging situation is really bad, and foreign travelers are often targeted! Glad that you have valid reasons to discourage this.

  2. Really great post. It’s difficult for some to see the bigger picture and is something more travellers and holiday makers need to be aware of!

  3. Great post on a very poignant topic. I often feel so guilty not giving these kids some spare change or a small gift, but the truth is that there are much better ways to help out a family in need.

    1. It can be very difficult to handle with very poor kids.

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