During your travels in Asia you’ll undoubtedly be approached by beggars on more than one occasion. How does it make you feel? Do you give money or food?
A little boy approaches me whilst I sit on the train on the way to Hampi in India. He makes me jump as he touches my arm with his dirty hand. Startled, I turn away from looking out of the window at the lush green countryside, and look at him deep in the eyes. His big brown eyes stare back at me from his smooth brown face, full lips pouting and a dribble of snot dripping from his nose.
He must be about four years old, but his eyes indicate that he’s much, much older. His presence is that of an old man, hardened to the world, and already bitter, angry, resentful and hopeless. My heart goes over in my chest and certain familiar feelings wash over me, as they do every time I am approached by a beggar in Asia.
The first feeling that I recognise is guilt. It is undeniable. That feeling that I am somehow to blame for this unfairness. I feel guilty for being a white, middle class English girl who’s had a privileged upbringing, a good education and a loving family.
I feel guilty for being a sightseer in a country with so much unfairness. The only difference between myself and this child is that I have been lucky enough to have been born in England, with a British passport that allows me easy access to travel in most countries in the world, having earned money in a country where a month’s wages are worth a year’s in many third world countries.
I feel guilty and selfish for all the times I’ve been grumpy when I’ve slept in an uncomfortable bed whilst travelling and not had the luxury of a hot shower, or a hot meal. What discomfort has this child endured at such a young age?
The second feeling that arises, I recognise as shame. Not only my shame, but the shame of my country, the shame of the Western world and the shame of the entire global structure.
I am ashamed of a world in which people are given such unequal opportunities. The thought crosses my mind that I will write an article online on how I feel about ‘being approached by beggars’ whilst in India, and I resist the temptation to whack out my laptop and write the article on the train. ‘Oh look at me turning my experience of poverty into an art from’. My inner voice mocks. I feel ashamed that I thought this, and I feel ashamed that this is what us westerners do. We talk a lot and write a lot and then do very little.
The third feeling enters via an annoying little voice saying, ‘well it’s not my fault’.
Somewhere, I want to completely shun responsibility to this situation. I wasn’t even alive when Britain colonised India. I have not had the power or been responsible for any of the political decisions that have led to such poverty and inequality in our world. It’s somebody else’s responsibility to sort this out.
I am only a visitor in this country. The government / rich people / celebrities / spiritual gurus should do something to help. Why aren’t they doing anything?
Anger is the fourth feeling. I feel heat in my chest as I continue to look at the little boy who has evoked such strong and conflicting emotions in my body. Why doesn’t somebody do something?
Of course I realise that the problems of the world are everybody’s responsibility.
With this recognition comes a fifth feeling of helplessness. I can’t save them all. Even if I give this child in front of me, 20 rupees, 100 rupees, some food, there are thousands of children just like him who I will not encounter during my travels.
I have also read and heard that giving money to beggars, especially begging children, only perpetuates the problem. You are never going to save anyone this way. Yet it feels wrong to do nothing at all.
We are told time and time again that we shouldn’t give to children who are begging in Asia.
The parents know. The cuter the kid, the more money that they can make begging to tourists, and so they will keep them out of school and send them onto the streets to make money for the family. Worse still, in larger cities, organised crime gangs have been known to maim children and send them begging so that they garner more money from sympathetic (guilt-ridden) tourists who falsely believe that they are helping them. Of course, all of the money goes to the crime gangs and the children continue to work the streets to make money for someone else, until they are too old and no longer cute enough to make enough.
Yet, I still feel that if I just give a little something to this child then maybe I can alleviate his problems for a little while? I don’t really want to give him money. I want to give him a bath, sit him on my knee, read to him, tell him stories, hug him, help him. He grabs my arm again.
Maybe I could give him 20 rupees and he could keep the money for himself?
The sixth feeling is confusion teamed with the seventh, a sudden sense that I am being naïve and that I need to protect myself as a traveller.
Would the money really be spent on food? I have given food to beggars before who have said that they are hungry, only to have them reject the food and continue to demand money. As a traveller who cannot speak the language and doesn’t quite understand the nuances of the country (who can ever understand India?) there’s of course a feeling that I don’t want to get scammed and be that stupid, ignorant tourist. I am travelling on a budget and I can’t afford to give to everyone, I think to myself.
So what do I do?
The child loses interest and moves on to beg in the next carriage, unaware of the intense conflicting feelings that he has just evoked in me. I gave him nothing. Was this the right thing to do? NGOs and child protection organisations tell me that it is, yet I still feel guilty, ashamed, angry, helpless, confused and naïve.
Throughout my travels in India and South East Asia, I’ve been approached by beggars of all ages. Sometimes, I’ve given money or food. Sometimes I haven’t. Every time I go through a complex surge of emotions and the internal dilemma I’ve described above.
Does everybody feel something similar to this? How do you cope with being approached by beggars? I’d love you to share your opinions to this article as it’s something that I continue to struggle with whilst on the road.
And, if you feel in any way like I do, then the best website I’ve found for helping with these confusing thoughts is GiveWell, it’s a non-profit organisation that promotes ‘research backed philanthropy’. Whereas it can be difficult for you to make an on the spot judgement about whether to give money to the person who is standing in front of you holding out their hand. These guys know where your money can make the most beneficial difference to people’s lives. Thousands of hours of research have gone into finding charities that are evidence backed, thoroughly vetted and underfunded. This way, when you give money, you know that your good intentions are not perpetuating any further pain for the victims of the world’s inequalities, but helping to alleviate them, even if in a very small way.
Also check out ChildSafe for more information on how to protect children as you travel in Asia.
By Nikki Scott.