It’s every so often that I ponder an idea for a blog post that I know will be quite controversial. I have been sitting on this one for a while now but after a recent experience in Nepal, I knew it was time for me to let the words flow from thought to paper and talk about the reasons why I often don’t give to beggars.
Ironically to be altruistic means to be selfless and so the sheer idea of The Altruistic Traveller turning her back to a poor, unfortunate beggar is quite the hypocrisy. You may be thinking, how very un-altruistic of me – and rightfully so. I too have carried these thoughts as I witness harrowing images of suffering and poverty while I travel the globe to the world’s less developed countries.
I once gave to beggars long ago in my naivety, as my heart sunk and I felt nothing but sympathy for the unfortunate circumstances these people find themselves in. But as my travels progressed I found myself more and more in the scenario of privileged meets underprivileged and I started to develop a deeper understanding of the complexities surrounding the idea of simply handing money to the poor.
You don’t have to spend too long doing your research to understand that the charity model is flawed. We have spent decades throwing exuberant amounts of money at the social and economic issues of the world’s poorest regions, and yet many of their fundamental issues have not yet been solved. I’m no expert but “handouts” are plainly and simply unsustainable. As Muhammad Yunus put it – “Charity only perpetuates poverty by taking the initiative away from the poor.”
“Charity only perpetuates poverty by taking the initiative away from the poor.”
This philosophy can also be applied to the act of begging. Begging is one of the simplest ways to get charity and unfortunately, this act has become increasingly exploited by individuals who see more opportunity in begging than in their own personal growth as working individuals. Begging has become so exploited that families will go to extreme measures to earn a buck, including using their children as bait and, even worse, harming others in order to gain more money from generous passers-by.
One of the most disturbing things I had seen on my travels, and one that reaffirmed my choice to question giving to beggars, was back in the Philippines in 2016. A mother sat watching in the background as she sent her daughter, who looked no older than 4 years old, to our table to beg. A mother forced her own child into begging and just sat by and watched. It’s as if at that point in time the mother said to her daughter “You have no control of your own future. You should spend your life begging for money from strangers.” I will never forget that moment.
A mother forced her own child into begging and just sat by and watched. It’s as if at that point in time the mother said to her daughter “You have no control of your own future. You should spend your life begging for money from strangers.” I will never forget that moment.
Unfortunately, the ones who are most feeding this atrocity is us, the tourists. Think about the last time you gave money to a beggar? I have no doubt that this act of generosity came from a place of deep kindness, but the chances are that this money didn’t provide a solution to any of the individual’s long-term problems. Perhaps it did provide temporary food or shelter, or perhaps it fed a drug habit or went into the money-pool of a mafia syndicate.
I’ve been exposed to many scams that involve begging syndicates, or “rackets” as they call them in India. In Siem Reap, Cambodia there are women who carry their newborn babies around the streets asking tourists to buy them milk – this syndicate already knows that tourists won’t give money so they have evolved their practices to ask for milk. The tourists will listen to their heartstrings and buy the milk for the seemingly struggling mother. What the tourists don’t see is that the mother will then sell the milk back to the store and keep the money. In Nepal, a similar syndicate is transpiring. Young children, with perfectly spoken English, will strike up conversations with tourists and eventually ask them to buy rice as they can’t afford to eat for the night. They will then sell the rice back to the store for a fee. That fee can be used for anything else, in some cases contributing to the drug habit of young individuals.
My words are harsh, I know. Even as I write this my heart feels for all those suffering, some who perhaps truly do need the money for food or a worthy cause. But the reality is that there are countless NGOs that are able to help these people. In every place I have ever been I have met numerous organisations that are helping to solve societal issues in a sustainable way. It is very rare that a person will have nowhere to turn to unless there are cases of severe mental health issues, but I have also learned about organisations tackling these imperative concerns.
As long as we think we can solve these individuals’ issues by throwing a dollar note at them we are very, very wrong.
As long as we think we can solve these individuals’ issues by throwing a dollar note at them we are very, very wrong. This mentality is only contributing to the problem and not the cause. If we really want to make an impact on the lives of others we must do so by contributing to sustainable solutions. For example, supporting NGOs or ethical micro-finance organisations, participating in responsible tourism, spending your money at a social enterprise that provides income to marginalised individuals – even something so simple like shopping and eating locally helps to feed income generation into local business. All these acts are also altruistic, and while they may not provide you with an immediate sense of elevation you can rest assured knowing that you are not contributing to an ongoing cycle of poverty.