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.
Giving is a good thing, 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 community?
Here’s why we believe this, followed by a few ideas how you can engage with kids and give responsibly to help and support children and families where you are visiting.
This Article Includes:
- 7 Reasons Why You Shouldn't Give to Kids Who Beg
- 7 Ways to Give and Engage Responsibly
- 4 Ways the Tourism Industry Can Educate Travelers on Giving Back
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, including conversations with local people, organizations, 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 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. 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. A well-established begging mafia used to exist in Prague, Czech Republic when we lived there.
7) Contributes to other unforeseen dangers
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.
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.
So it's not only that you give, but how. Here are a few ideas for effective and responsible giving while traveling.
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, providing opportunity and promoting self-reliance. You might be able to find such organizations through a recommendation from your tour operator. Or 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.
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 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. 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. 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.
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) Ask permission for photographs and show the images
If the child is particularly young, ask the mother or father if it’s OK to take the photo. If it looks like money might be expected, ask permission and clearly say “no money.” Be sure to show the kids their image in the viewfinder. In most cases, that’s what they’re interested in. Then enjoy the giggles that ensue.
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).
1) 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.
2) Tour operators
Include a section in the tour notes for applicable destinations regarding responsible engagement with local children. This information should be reinforced in the introductory tour briefing. For example, G Adventures and Planeterra Foundation are working with ChildSafe to create a training webinar for their guides on child safety and traveler interaction with local children.
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
If you run a restaurant or cafe that's popular with tourists, congratulations! Could you also consider prominently displaying a laminated page or poster with the do’s and don’ts of engaging with local kids — as you see it. 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, especially when we do it effectively.
What are your thoughts on this issue? Do you have any suggestions of other ways to give responsibly and effectively when traveling?