Should I Give Money to Child Beggars?

Ask Rolf: Vagabonding traveler Rolf Potts answers your questions about travel and the world

02.20.09 | 9:01 AM ET

Rolf Potts

Dear Rolf,

The movie “Slumdog Millionaire” seems to suggest that the child beggars of India are connected to organized crime rings—and I’ve heard this is sometimes the case in other countries as well. As a traveler, what should I do when a kid asks me for money?

—Randy H., Friendswood, TX

Dear Randy,

Children who beg are always a tough call for travelers, since it’s natural to feel sympathy for them. Still, it’s best not to give money to child beggars, for a number of reasons. For starters, a child asking for money is almost never working independently. Even if the kid isn’t the tool of some organized-crime racket (though in many cases this is indeed the case, especially in the tourist areas of developing countries), he or she is probably doing the dirty work for adults—often family members who don’t always have the child’s best interests at heart.

Sadly, children are exploited as beggars for simple reasons of what could be called “marketing”: We are instinctively concerned about the welfare of children, and we are more likely to give them money out of a reflexive sense of sorrow or guilt. That’s why drug-addled mothers beg with sickly babies in-hand, and tourist zones invariably attract hordes of under-aged panhandlers: Kids simply have more earning potential than adults.

Even if by chance a given kid is begging independently of opportunistic adults, I find it best not to reinforce this behavior at such a young age. Some travelers suggest giving pens or other educational supplies to child beggars, but I find this strategy a tad credulous. Better to give school supplies (or money) to an actual school or aid agency in a developing country than to presume these items will go to good use at random.

Beggars of all ages are a common sight for travelers, and in general it’s best to spend some time in a given community before you start handing out money. Not only will a few days of immersion in the local culture give you a better sense for which beggars are and are not truly needy, it will also give you a sense for the spending power of the local currency. Moreover, a little cultural familiarity will allow you to see how locals react to beggars: when they give money, and how much they choose to give.

Most of the world’s spiritual traditions have time-honored practices for helping the needy, and following these local religious protocols is often the most culturally appropriate way to give money. In less religious societies, such as those in Western Europe, state funds are often available for the homeless and indigent, theoretically eliminating the need for hunger-based beggary.

In the end, don’t be afraid to say no. This isn’t always easy, but child beggars realize that what they’re doing is a numbers game—and the money you give them is less likely to improve the lives of these children than enrich the people who are exploiting them.


Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in “The Best American Travel Writing.”


11 Comments for Should I Give Money to Child Beggars?

Dean Roskell 02.20.09 | 1:12 PM ET

I’ve come across many Child beggers and it’s never a nice thing. I don’t agree with giving them money as I’ve rarely met one that has admitted to ever being on the receiving end of what the money buys. In my experience is that they’re mostly always used as tools by others, lazy parents, gangs, generally not nice folk.

Not giving them money doesn’t mean ignoring them though. These poor children might be tools in order to take money from people, but they’re still children, no matter how adult some of them seem to ask.

It’s nice to sit down and chat with them for a while, even buy them a drink or a snack, play games with them. They’re often very interesting people that have a story to tell if you can get them to open up.

I feel much more comfortable when a child leaves me, empty handed, but with a bit of food and drink in their stomach.

Scribetrotter 02.21.09 | 3:44 AM ET

I completely agree with you, Rolf. Giving money to children is encouraging their exploitation.

As a journalist I once covered a horrifying story in Thailand - trafficked Cambodian children used by organized crime to beg. Some of the children were infirm, and police authorities suspected (although they were never able to prove) that they had been maimed on purpose to make them more ‘attractive’ as beggars. That memory alone keeps me from giving directly to children.

Here are a few more reasons not to give to children:
- The more money you give, the greater the incentive to continue begging.
- Some parents prefer to turn their children to begging than to send them to school - it’s more lucrative, and sets in motion a cycle of exploitation.
- Not all parents encourage their children to beg - some children do so for the money. Giving undermines the authority of those parents who are trying to discourage the practice.
- If the children earn money the notion of the Westerner as a viable target will be reinforced.
- What you give will have no long-term benefit.
- The obvious - you may be contributing to crime. The gang issue is a real one - just hang around some begging locations early in the morning and in the evening - you may see small buses doing the rounds and picking up all the children. Those vans are certainly not their parents!

Mahal 02.21.09 | 1:13 PM ET

Dear All,

It is best to remember that what is seen in movies like ‘Slum dog Millionaire’ is just a single side to a story that is much bigger than you can ever imagine. Having been born and raised in one of the most poorest countries in the world myself i can tell you that natives try to avoid giving money to child beggars but do give them a couple of coins during special occasions like Easter and other holidays. Their lives are more complicated than a tourist can imagine at that very instant when he/she is being asked for money. Therefore, my point is, there is no need to philosophize the whole concept of giving money to child beggars. If at that instant something inside you incites you to give, then do so, otherwise just walk away, do your touristy things and go back home.

Cate 02.22.09 | 4:47 AM ET

These are all good comments and I agree with Rolf and Mahal. I try to follow the locals, if they don’t bother with the beggars there is always a reason.

It is difficult to ignore a child that has a black eye from an earlier beating received but that is the harsh reality. Travel is not always about good food and nice temples. The more you travel through these countries, the harder your attitude becomes towards beggars. If you have feelings of guilt, source out a local charity organisation trying to get these kids off the streets, and donate there.

Steve 02.22.09 | 3:55 PM ET

Whether to give money to beggars is always a difficult call, and both side of the fence can be argued indefinitely.  I’m personally uncomfortable doing this, since I never know where it’s going to go.  But I found a solution to this dilemma:

Instead of giving money, why not give food?  I’ve traveled to over 50 countries, and I can tell you that hungry people are everywhere.  Instead of having a restaurant toss what you haven’t eaten, ask to take away the leftovers, including the bread - and give it to someone in need.  You won’t have to go far.  This won’t solve the begging problem, but it offers nourishment to one person for one day.  We can’t solve the problems of the world, but we can light a candle in the darkness.

James G - Expat Rock Star 02.23.09 | 6:16 AM ET

Sadly enough, children working as professionnal beggars are a common sight on the busy intersections of Jakarta. They operate around Pasar Senen, along Arteri Pondok Indah, at train stations, bus terminals and around Hotel Indonesia. Always in a place where they can quickly escape in case of a raid. Night spots like Jalan Paletehan in Blok M also have their regular panhandlers no older than 7 or 8 years old. 

Next time a little boy comes asking, offer to buy him food. Surprisingly, he will very probably turn down the proposition and keep asking for money. Now look at the greedy elders standing by the side of the road where they are collecting the cash from the kids each time the trafic light goes green. If misery and extreme poverty is a reality in Indonesia, children exploited to work as beggars under the orders of criminals are even more real, forced to hand over the money they get ‘in exchange’ of a pair of sandals or for a rice bowl…

When the kids lift their hands out for a token they don’t even know that they are begging for money. They follow orders from their parents or group leaders. Each juvenile beggar earns between US$ 2 and US$ 10 daily. Supplementing their parents income or being orphans, in both situations they are deprived of education. Therefore, since 2008 several group of activists have set up special schools in some of the worst Jakarta’s crowded slums where they provide with free lessons not only the children but their parents as well. There is as well about 30 social shelters in Jakarta to provide services to these children. Unfortunately, after having been put through a rehabilitation center, a kid will often return to the streets following request from his parents.

There are numerous reports from international NGO suggesting the alarming number of trafficked child beggars in Jakarta and many other Indonesian cities. By giving them money, their numbers will always multiply. According to the Indonesian Department of Social Affairs there were about 10,000 children begging on the streets of Jakarta in 2007. Each year and in particular after the ramadhan, new kids are brought to the city as beggars. A lot of them come from Brebes in Central Java, a place considered by many as a city where families teach the kids the art of begging on the streets. Chances for an expat to go to Brebes are small, which is obviously not the case with Bali where international NGO ICMC has reported that some women from Karang Asem and Buleleng used to lent their children to their neighbors for being taken out as street urchins (gepeng) to beg for money in Denpasar.

Begging is actually prohibited in most of Indonesian cities. Anyone who donates money can now be fined or even face a jail sentence. Local administrations have somehow pretended they believed that enacting a ban was going to solve the huge problem of global poverty in the country! In every day reality, when someone gets caught giving money to a beggar, wether it’s a child or not, the police prefers to offer a deal instead of prosecuting to the full extent of the law. They say something like this: ‘Pay me half of the maximum fine and we’ve got a deal!’...  That’s just how it goes here. NGO’s and charity organizations can keep on reporting the worst situations about those exploited little boys and girls and nothing should really change because the politicians in Indonesia are so smart at avoiding to address the root cause of an issue. Strangely, it never came to their minds that they should consider taking real tough enforcement against those syndicates exploiting the children. Such a waste…

michaela lola abrera 03.01.09 | 9:16 PM ET

Hi,

I grew up in a 3rd world country where seeing children begging is a sad everyday reality. I agree with not giving money, as many are part of “beggar rings” and the money doesn’t go to them (goes to someone who is like a pimp for beggars) or if they are able to keep a small portion, most end up using it to buy “rugby” (a strong yet inexpensive, hazardous and addicting glue) which they sniff to stay alert, awake and stave off hunger.

I believe people have a responsibility to travel ethically and give back, but it doesn’t always have to be with money. People should dare to look outside the box.

I hope this doesn’t seem like blatant self-promotion but I wrote a piece about it before which might be useflul for those still looking to find ways to help:

http://www.bravenewtraveler.com/2008/07/08/10-ways-you-can-help-street-children-without-giving-money/

Anneka 03.02.09 | 12:05 PM ET

Hi Everyone:

I think it is really ok to give whatever you have. Give of yourself. You can play, talk, and just keep them company sometimes. I am sure it has been a long day for these children and they want a break. When I travel they swarm you like bees. Food and healthy snacks are good to give. It is never a bad thing to give gifts related to education. A lot the children are not enrolled in school and are very thankful for the books and pens. It is not a waste. They find it to be a blessing. These things cost plenty.

Kirsten 03.31.09 | 8:07 AM ET

Even if by chance a given kid is begging independently of opportunistic adults, I find it best not to reinforce this behavior at such a young age. Some travelers suggest giving pens or other educational supplies to child beggars, but I find this strategy a tad credulous. Better to give school supplies (or money) to an actual school or aid agency in a developing country than to presume these items will go to good use at random. I agree, I wont give money to children beggars. It is horrible. Kirsten

Jenny 04.08.09 | 3:35 PM ET

Wow - a huge topic. I was brought up pretty short in Siem Reap, Cambodia when the owner of my hotel explained the “begging mafia” that used these truly destitute men missing limbs and women with miserable, hot, crying babies in their arms. I spent one evening watching from a second story cafe window at the beggers on the street below me (the street where I stayed for 2 weeks so I got to know the local faces pretty well) - I watched the women pinch the babies to get them to cry and saw the truck that came to pick these sad, poor people up at the end of a long night. It was beyond depressing - no words to describe this kind of misery. I stopped giving coins after a few days but simply could not walk on by like they were not even there - I did buy water for the babies one day, bought a meal and took it to one of the men another night and gave my cap to him as well as he had no head covering. We do what we can, right? If the opportunity to help presents itself I like to know I could do something - even if it is something very small.

krishna 04.14.09 | 5:47 AM ET

face diplomatically

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.