Last Updated on May 2, 2022 by Audrey Scott
Giving is a good thing when traveling, 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 families and community? Does it really support child welfare and well-being? Or can giving to children who beg cause unintended harm?
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.
So is it a good thing for travelers to give to children who beg? Or to buy things from children? Is it really helping?
Here’s why we believe this, followed by a few ideas how you can engage with kids and give responsibly to support children welfare and families where you travel.
Update June 2018: This article has been updated and republish to incorporate a wider discussion on child welfare in the tourism industry – including newly released Child Welfare Guidelines and Traveller Code of Conduct by G Adventures and ChildSafe Movement with additional suggestions.
Table of Contents
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 and conversations with local people, organizations specializing in children's welfare, 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 and follow these 7 Tips for Travelers 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. [Editors update: To further explain, our definition of “sympathy tourism.” Sympathy is defined by “feeling pity for someone” and put into action it is when organizations and people engage in earning money with the technique of trying to get pity from travelers. We first heard this phrase used in Uganda after a discussion about being approached by numerous people supposedly representing NGOs and orphanages.]
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.
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 GI-ASCO, a small home for runaway kids, in the town of Jinja. The founder of the home, Gerald Wandera, 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. In fact, a well-established begging mafia used to exist in Prague, Czech Republic when we lived there.
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.
7) Contributes to other unforeseen dangers or unintended harm
When we were in Ethiopia we saw kids dancing in the middle of the road. “Cute!” was our first thought. The problem was that they were doing this to get money. They were consistently putting themselves at added risk on already dangerous roads.
The same principle was at work in Uganda where we witnessed travelers throwing pens and pencils out of an open overland truck window. One wrong move by the driver or one of the kids and you have another unnecessary casualty on your hands.
Another example of when a traveler's intention to “do good” can turn to harm is volunteering at orphanages. We discuss this in more detail in our article on volunteering and voluntourism, but research and studies have shown that this leads to a demand for more orphans, often including children who are not actual orphans (i.e., an estimated 80% of children in orphanages have at least one living parent).
In some places this has contributed to families being broken up as poor or disadvantage parents will give up their children to these “recruiting” orphanages because they feel their children will have better education and other support. However, studies show that children do best when kept with their families so the focus should be on trying to keep families together by supporting the parents.
In addition, with short-term volunteers at orphanages this leads to a cycle of a child becoming attached to or developing a relationship with a volunteer and then that person leaving. This repetitive abandonment can be a serious psychological risk for children, not to mention that not all volunteers have the appropriate skills and training to work with young children. For more on the potential risks stemming from volunteering at orphanages, check out this infographic by the Better Volunteering, Better Care Network.
Note: If you do see activities or interactions with children during your travels that don't seem right or that could possibly be doing harm to local children, be sure to report this using ChildSafe's resource guide with phone numbers, websites and child welfare support organizations in countries around the world.
The Do’s: 7 Ways to Give and Engage Responsibly
The desire to give and to give back to the places we visit is a good thing. It's something that ought to be encouraged, but we need to find the appropriate outlets or channels to give effectively.
What does “giving effectively” really mean? It means giving in a way that supports a set of behaviors and expectations that may someday obviate the need to give. Call it the Teach a Man to Fish precept and puts support in money in more effective areas of change.
So it's not only that you give, but how. Here are a few ideas for effective and responsible giving, also helping to make your travels more sustainable.
1) Give directly to an organization
Find an organization that you can trust, one whose work is paired with long-term values such as furthering education, supporting parents, providing opportunity and promoting self-reliance. You might be able to find such organizations through a recommendation from your tour operator if you are on an organized tour.
If you are traveling independently ask around where you are traveling or do some research in advance to find out about organizations operating in the area. Then give money or supplies to these organizations directly. This might include donating from home (e.g., online) or perhaps finding a way to visit the organization as part of your trip and donating directly.
Likewise, do not shy away from asking tough questions to find out how an organization uses its money and resources. The sad thing is that some people (locals and foreigners alike) have begun creating organizations to earn money from sympathetic travelers. Throughout Uganda, “sympathy” orphanages whose business model seems to run on referrals from local itinerants and opportunists seemed a popular choice. A few questions about the organization usually served to dispel any notion of legitimacy.
Finally, do not underestimate the collective knowledge of your social networks and be sure to reach out on social media channels (e.g., Twitter, Facebook) to gather information and recommendations.
2) Seek out and frequent social enterprises
A social enterprise is an organization that is run like a business, but whose profits go to community projects that address a social or sometimes environmental need. Social enterprises will often train and hire disadvantaged single mothers or street kids, providing them employment and skills they wouldn't otherwise be able to obtain.
This could mean that as you enjoy lunch or a coffee at a social enterprise restaurant, your money is supporting that organization's projects with positive social impact. Same goes for when you buy handicrafts from a social enterprise. When the right organizations are involved, it can really be a win-win situation for everyone.
During our recent trip to East Africa we found the Nyamirambo Women's Centre in Kigali, Rwanda providing walking tours and selling crafts as a way to fund the organization's women's training programs. In Moshi, Tanzania we also visited a new project by Planeterra and Give a Heart to Africa (GHTA) whereby the proceeds from a local crafts shop and spa go to supporting a local women's education and development program. For more ideas on how to support women's projects when you travel, check out this article about what sort of travel and purchasing decisions you make can invest in local women and mothers.
We also recommend checking out the Grassroots Volunteering worldwide database of social enterprises before setting off on your next trip. Update: We also saw that ChildSafe has a good list of social enterprises for Southeast Asia on this page.
3) Find out what organizations actually need instead of giving what you think they need.
These may not be the same thing. Many people are apparently under the impression that kids need pens at school. Maybe so, maybe not depending on the school. If you buy goods and supplies, try to buy them locally instead of buying them at home. Not only will this strategy further contribute to the local economy via your purchases, but your bags will weigh less.
4) Engage with kids as kids
Play games (juggling or magic tricks work great), kick a ball around, practice English, ask questions, or just be present.
It may not always easy, but creatively turning the uncomfortable into fun is an art we can all benefit by learning. It also humanizes the interaction and your travel experience. Another important thing to remember is to let the child choose to engage or make contact with you first so that they initiate the engagement. Don't ever impose yourself on a child.
When looking at tour itineraries, avoid visits with children during school hours so as to not distract their educational or learning process. And steer clear of trips that incorporate orphanage visits.
5) Invest in a meal
If you really feel you must help a child who appears to be hungry, consider buying him a meal or giving him some food that he can consume on the spot, so that there’s no opportunity to trade it for something else.
6) Learn a few words in the local language that respectfully communicate no or no money and say them firmly
I found that worked effectively in Ethiopia. Once children realized I wasn’t going to give them anything, they began engaging me as a human being again.
7) Best practices for photographing children when traveling
Ask for permission from the child to take his or her photo and respect his wishes if he refuses. If the child is particularly young, then ask the mother or father for permission. Even better, take a photo of the family together. If you imagine money might be expected in exchange for the photograph, ask permission and clearly say “no money.”
If you take a photo, be certain to show the child her image in the viewfinder. In most cases, this is what everyone is interested in. Enjoy the giggles that ensue.
Remember that the child you are photographing is a human being, rather than a prop or an accessory in your image. Your bottom line ought to be: ensure that the photograph of the child demonstrates human dignity. As a rule, it’s better to photograph a child along with her parents or with a group of other children rather than on her own.
As an additional measure to protect the identity and location of the child from potential traffickers or others who may not have the best intentions in mind, do not publish the photo or share on social media with location metadata embedded or alongside specific information where you took the photo.
More best practices on photographs of children and social media here.
How the Tourism Industry Can Better Educate Travelers on Child Welfare, Begging and Effective Giving
We can’t assume that everyone traveling has the knowledge and experience required to understand the local context and the right thing to do. The tourism industry and all its players should aim to provide travelers with locally-relevant, practical advice on how to engage responsibly with children (and adults, for that matter) to ensure child welfare.
To enable all stakeholders to better assess the potential risks and apply global practices to address them, G Adventures and the Planeterra Foundation teamed up with Friends-International’s ChildSafe Movement to issue a series of practical child welfare guidelines applicable across the travel industry. The result is a set of measures and principles vetted by international organizations such as UNICEF, UNWTO, ECPAT International, The Code, Save the Children, and the Global Alliance for Children.
The intent: to make this information clearly and freely available without paywalls or membership requirements so that the best practices embedded in them may spread more easily throughout the travel industry and the travel-going public.
The goal: “to ensure the industry and it’s clients never create unintended harm to children, their families and their communities through any visit or interaction.” – Adrienne Lee, Director of Development at Planeterra Foundation
1) Tour operators
For applicable destinations, tour operators should incorporate a section in relevant tour notes regarding responsible engagement with local children. This includes appropriate, non-harmful behaviors when photographing children and sharing images of them on social media. This information should also be reinforced in any tour briefing with passengers on the tour.
For example, G Adventures, in an effort to become ChildSafe-certified, has removed potentially harmful images and videos of children from its website and marketing collateral. It has also discontinued and removed from its itineraries visits to local schools, orphanages or other similar organizations – in an awareness that these well-meaning visits often disrupt activities focused on improving the education and welfare of local children.
If you are reviewing itineraries for a tour you want to take and notice activities like school or orphanage visits, it's worth questioning the tour operator about their child welfare practices and determining whether these activities do more harm than good. While we have visited schools in the past as part of our various trips, we now are more aware of the potential negative consequences of disrupting classroom time and potentially creating unhealthy dependencies on foreign visitors.
Adrienne Lee also offers this advice as to the top three things tour operators can do now to protecting child welfare in their tours and services:
“1) Integrate the child welfare guidelines throughout their operations – removing practices such as visiting orphanages and non-educational classroom visits.
2) Integrate the child welfare guidelines into their human resource practices – ensure that there are no forms of child labour, and staff are trained and educated on how to respond to critical issues
3) Integrate the child welfare guidelines into marketing and sales practices – do not use images without parental or guardian consent, and do not use children as promotional and selling features of tours.”
2) Hotels and accommodation providers
Provide guidelines on DO's and DON'Ts in the local community as part of the information packet in each room and in the lobby area. Kudos to Simien Lodge in Ethiopia for including an explanation as to why they recommend their guests not give pens and money to kids they meet on nearby hiking trails. Lodge management then provided an alternative where travelers could donate money to help outfit local schools with much needed furniture and supplies.
3) Local tourism offices
In addition to having written information displayed in the office about the local situation and best practices for responsible engagement, staff should be trained to talk about this issue and answer travelers’ questions.
4) Restaurants and cafes
Restaurants or cafes that are popular with tourists could prominently display a laminated page or poster with the do’s and don’ts of engaging with local kids. Ideally, your public service poster could also include a list of local, respected organizations where travelers can contribute supplies, time and money.
Conclusion: Travel Giving and Altruism
If your goal is to truly help others while you travel, think twice about what you are doing and how you are doing it. Don't confuse a good feeling of giving with doing what's best for the recipients of your gift and their community. For you may just be doing what’s best for you while doing a disservice to the very people you are seeking to help.
As travelers become more aware locally and globally, we can better align our giving decisions with our values and our hopes for making an impact and contribution. We can maximize the good we do and minimize the potential harm, especially as we raise our awareness of local context and socioeconomic issues.
What are your thoughts on this issue of child welfare and engaging responsibly with children in travel? Do you have any suggestions of other ways to give responsibly and effectively when traveling?