Beggars: the traveller and expat dilemma

Lately, I’ve been asked by many people who are new to the Maximum city: how do you deal with beggars? Across Asia, the African continent, and Central and South America are kids holding out their hands for coins. Travelers and expats encounter beggars in every corner of the globe. Whether you’ve 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 very poor people on a daily basis is a reality in many developing countries.

In many tourist and backpacker hotspots, there’s a general belief that Caucasian foreign visitors must be rich. For this reason, backpacking 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. A tourist might give an orange to a begging child, and then the child re-sells the same orange back to the vendor for a fraction. A foreigner might give ten rupees to an eight year old, and then that kid he goes back to gambling or buying tobacco with his other eight year old friends. Mothers at traffic intersections rub dirt onto their babies’ cheeks, or strike them across the faces so that they cry to make them look more pathetic.

As someone 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 longterm 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, like a handful of dust into a strong wind.

On the other hand, when you are approached by one 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 while. 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 judgement 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.

3 thoughts on “Beggars: the traveller and expat dilemma

  1. Thanks for sharing your insights Brownie. I have often grappled with the dilemma of ‘how do you respond conscientiously and practically’ when a beggar makes a request. It’s easy to for us with privileges and disposable incomes to brush off a beggar, but I always feel a pang of guilt when I walk away.

    I often wonder if the stories of beggar mafias, drug & other substance addictions is true to the extent in which it is stated. I love your idea of giving prepared food or home items to a known family.

    Have you noticed how the # of beggars has suddenly dwindled? At traffic signals, I am rarely approached by beggars. I wonder if it’s summer or our governments policy of sending beggars to remand homes or shunting then out of the city. The writing on the wall is clear, if you truly want to make a meaningful difference, support an NGO.

  2. Good piece girl.

    Almost all street children and beggars in Bombay have access to support systems through various NGO’s providing them with food, clothing, basic healthcare and even vocational training if they so choose to. There is even an NGO that encourages them to save money and helps them get bank accounts.

    I have seen beggars get people to buy them bread and milk from a grocery store and then resell them to the same store; and have been refused when I have offered fruits/food to them. Once a beggar kid even abused me when I refused to pay up!

    We feel guilty when we see them in passing, but how much of that is induced?

    Personally I feel that by sponsoring a child for as less as $5 a month, we can contribute in our own small ways.

  3. Thank you both for commenting! It’s definitely an issue that those of us living here in aamchi Mumbai face every day, and there really is no obvious answer. Of course, I think a human’s first instinct is to do something to help another human… but when we intellectualise the thing and move away from it, we understand that it’s not helping in any longterm way. At the same time, life is short and very hard for some people, and sometimes making it a tinier bit easier, for a few minutes, seems worthwhile. Who can say?

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