It’s hard to accept that giving a couple of dollars to a street kid is actually harmful to them.
When they stare at you and say they’re hungry, will get beaten if they go home with no money, or they need to work to get money to go to school we inevitably make an emotional connection with them and want to give. Sometimes they build that connection in a playful, fun way, through games and laughter… we often forget the situation they’re in and don’t question why they are selling books or garlands in a busy pub or restaurant at 10 pm, situations that would have us calling the authorities if it happened ‘at home’…
You could, of course, raise the ‘but it's different here’ argument. In societies where access to structured social services is minimal, if in existence at all, people face a daily challenge to provide for themselves and their families. This is very real.
A particular struggle is for those with no education or skills. Accessing work to earn an income leaves them feeling they have minimal options, and these include sending their children out to work. However, the reality is the situation may in your eyes be ‘different’, but the children are not – they have the same rights as all children have around the world, including the right to be protected from harm.
An adult male begging each day in high tourist season may struggle to gather enough to feed his family. A young child begging will generate much more, as we feel an emotional obligation to give more to the ‘poor little child’, than to the adult.
Children have become the working, money generating tools in the family network. Quite the opposite of what we’re used to at home. Yet many tourists, who have for the most part good intentions, continue to support this harmful situation.
What risks does a begging child face? First, there are immediate ones – physical and emotional abuse, abduction, rape, and accidents. Longer term there are others… an increased likelihood of drug use to ease this hard lifestyle, along with the risk of being coerced into other dangerous work or bad situations (prostitution, forced labour, unsafe migration), involvement in crime plus a growing disconnection from their family and community.
So that cute young girl child begging from you or selling you postcards and other products, is she going to school? Almost certainly not, despite what she tells you. As long as there are people willing to give her money, she will continue to be on those streets day in, day out. So where do you imagine her as a 20-year-old young woman? Without education and having spent a life on the streets selling or begging her opportunities will be minimal. She may still be begging, using drugs, perhaps even involved in prostitution and trapped in what in development terms is referred to as ‘the cycle of poverty’. What about any children she has? Their future will be pretty bleak also.
As awareness of the negative impact of giving to beggars emerges, so do new scams that still place kids at risk. Take the Baby Milk Scam prevalent in tourist hot spots such as Siem Reap. Young children of 9 or 10 years old carry babies around, day and night, begging tourists not to give money, but to buy a can of formula for the baby. The unsuspecting and empathetic tourist is sent to certain shops that are in on the scam, charging them double the amount. The child returns later to sell the can back, retrieving half the money paid.
So what to do? In most countries, there are established organizations working with the community to provide support for education, training and employment, access to health care and social support. These are long-term, and crucially, sustainable projects that give the community the means to manage and look after themselves. Seek them out, support them and you will really be doing something positive to break the cycles of poverty keeping children at risk on the streets and in the pubs and restaurants of South East Asia.
Written by: Friends International, recently awarded a top NGO for the year 2013, works to improve the life quality of marginalized urban youth and their families. Reaching out to over 50,000 children annually in eight different countries worldwide. To learn more about what they are doing and how you can get involved check out their site.