Western travellers look upon faces of poverty

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      We've just finished dinner in Delhi, a feast of curries washed down by a few Kingfisher beers, all for a fraction of what we'd pay in Canada. Walking back to our hotel, we're stuffed, happy, and tipsy. A forlorn-looking woman sitting on the sidewalk catches my eye as she cradles her baby. “One rupee?”  she asks. I drop a note into her cup. Within seconds, children swarm us out of nowhere. “One rupee! One rupee!”  they demand, tugging my purse. Bewildered, I shake my head no, and literally brush them off.

      We walk on, giddiness gone. An old man with no legs, his stump balanced on a makeshift skateboard, rolls himself into our path. “One rupee. Please. One rupee,”  he pleads, touching his hand to his mouth. To continue walking, I must literally step over him. By the time we reach our hotel, I feel guilty about my overly full stomach, angry at the beggars, and appalled at my own hard heart.

      You can read about global poverty, and watch on the news how governments and NGOs are trying to address it. But when you travel the cities of the world, it becomes shockingly real. People begging in the streets force you to confront unimaginable destitution on an individual level. Unfortunately, the best way to deal with it is far from clear. By giving to beggars, are travellers helping to solve the problem or making it worse?

      Kevin McCort, senior vice-president of operations for CARE Canada, confirms that it's a complex issue. “It's very hard to tell people that they shouldn't respond,”  he tells the Georgia Straight on the line from his Ottawa office. “Comparatively, we have so much more than they do. How can you say no?”  McCort says he prefers to give to local agencies rather than to individuals but admits that “there's always context. You'll see a desperate situation and your money will get them through the day.” 

      However, McCort points out that giving money to individuals can have consequences that travellers don't see or anticipate. “What you think might be charitable might cause problems in the community,”  he explains. Handouts can lead to a “cutthroat spirit”  among locals. For example, in his 25 years of travel in developing countries, he's seen fights break out over tourist handouts, and turf wars over begging corners.

      Tourists sometimes give money to beggars simply to make them go away. But McCort says this “leave-me-alone”  cash can often backfire. Giving money creates a relationship with the person, and they'll wait for you outside the same hotel or restaurant the next day, asking for more. “That's when people feel like they've been taken advantage of,”  he says, noting that this kind of exchange sours the charitable impulse.

      Some travellers choose to give out pens, stickers, or other trinkets to children, instead of money. This behaviour creates its own problems. When visiting Luang Prabang, Laos, I noticed three little girls peering through a temple window, asking the tourists inside for money. One well-meaning woman slipped them pens instead. When I returned to the temple the next day, the girls had also come back, and were now happily chanting “One pen! One pen!” 

      Jeff Greenwald, executive director of Ethical Traveler, a San Francisco–based organization that promotes responsible travel, says this kind of begging has become like “trick-or-treating” . Reached by phone in Oakland, Greenwald tells the Straight that kids sometimes treat begging like a sport, which is easier and more fun than going to school or helping around the home. And although visitors who distribute pens might think they're contributing school supplies, “if a kid is out begging for pens, he's just as likely to turn around and sell them.” 

      Greenwald says giving things directly to kids encourages a begging mentality. A professional travel writer since 1980, Greenwald has lived in Kathmandu on and off for about 15 years. “I've seen kids who are beggars grow up to be adult beggars,”  he says. He recounts how tourists in Nepal buy clothing for the children who beg in rags, but he's never seen these children actually wear the new clothes. Instead, they sell them and return to the streets in tatters, in order to keep their sympathetic appearance.

      Greenwald's advice: “Never give money or gifts directly to children.”  But that doesn't mean you can't help out needy kids. “If you want to give out pens, bring a box and give them to a school,”  he advises. Or, if you've developed a friendship with a child, give something to the parents and have them present it to the child. That way, you show the child you respect the parents, and you don't undermine their authority. He adds that travellers should never give children candy unless they're willing to return and provide dental care.

      Many consequences of well-meaning handouts are extremely complex. The person you see begging on the street may be embroiled in a host of human-rights and human-trafficking issues.

      For example, CARE Canada's Kevin McCort explains that some beggars use babies to make them appear more sympathetic, just as some panhandlers in North America use animals. “It makes them look more in need,”  McCort explains. “But that's a terrible abuse of the rights of that child.” 

      Then there are begging rings. “What's important for tourists to understand is that not all the beggars on the street are acting individually, that some are part of a network that are sometimes being forced to do that,”  says Melissa Stewart. Stewart is the regional information and communications officer for the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region (UNIAP). Reached by phone at her Bangkok office, Stewart tells the Straight that children are brought from impoverished Cambodia to work for begging gangs in Thailand's relatively rich capital. These children may or may not see any of the money they collect.

      Panadda Changmanee, Thailand's national project coordinator for UNIAP, tells the Straight by phone that voluntary migration is also linked to child beggars. A soon-to-be published UNIAP study on Cambodian child beggars in Bangkok found that the majority had not been trafficked, but had rather been forced to beg by their own parents looking for a better life.

      “A lot of [Cambodian] parents who bring their own children to beg in Thailand are looking for an alternative for income-generating,”  Changmanee said. “People come for a job and find that begging is good business. In one day, they can earn quite a lot of money.” 

      Changmanee said these parents might earn 20 baht a day (60 cents Canadian) carrying goods from Poi Pet across the Thai-Cambodian border to the market. If they put their kids to work begging on the street in Bangkok, they can make between 300 and 1,000 baht a day ($8.50 to $29). “It depends on the condition of the child,”  Changmanee adds. “If they are handicapped, they make more. A mother with a baby might earn more.” 

      Coming from a very poor country, it's a tempting proposition. “They [Cambodian parents] would earn five or 10 baht to carry many kilos on their head. That's hard work. Comparing this business [begging], they just sit there. That's why it's a very attractive business for the adults.” 

      Tourists who see these children on the street and give them money unwittingly reinforce the situation. “There is no supply if there is no demand,”  Changmanee says. “If you give money, there will be beggars.”  She suggests giving food or water instead of money.

      UNIAP doesn't have an official opinion on whether or not tourists should give money to individual beggars. According to Stewart, “We don't take a stand on what people should or should not do, because it's such an incredibly personal decision, you can never be sure. But there are alternatives.” 

      CARE Canada's McCort suggests giving money to a local charity or program, so it will reach those who will most benefit. “You just don't know as a casual observer whether you're giving to somebody who really needs it, or if there's someone who needs it more,”  he says. Not only can charities ensure the recipients have legitimate needs, they can assess people by their degree of need in ways that a tourist passing through never could. These charities also put programs into place with an eye to long-term solutions. “A beggar has no future,”  McCort points out. “Local charities try to find them a solution that's more dignified than begging.” 

      But what about when you're confronted with a heartbreaking situation and you feel you just have to give to that particular person? “If you're going to give money to help them get through the day, then also help with the long term,”  McCort advises. “Look for some deeper engagement, get involved in the solution.” 

      Travelling makes global poverty personal. The challenge is to remember the reality of it all when you're comfortably removed back home.