Keep the Change. Giving money to child beggars is the least generous thing a tourist can do.
I still remember him vividly. He was a little boy, maybe 10 or 11 years old, who navigated the streets of New Delhi by lying, stomach-down, on an old skateboard, and pulling his body along with his arms. He didn’t have any legs. He rolled over to me, looked up into my eyes, and asked for money. Struggling not to cry, I reached into my pocket and handed over the equivalent of $10, less than what I spend on coffee each week.
Giving him those $10 might be among the most destructive things I’ve ever done.
Tourists should never give money to child beggars we meet abroad. Not even the cute ones. Not even the disabled ones. Not even the ones who want money for school. Don’t give them money, or candy, or pens. It’s not generous. In fact, it’s one of the most harmful—and selfish—things a well-meaning tourist can do.
Many travelers already know that when we give money (or gifts that can be resold, such as pens), we perpetuate a cycle of poverty and give children a strong incentive to stay out of school. You also may already know that giving candy to children in some areas of the world actually causes enormous suffering, since many communities do not have the resources to treat tooth decay. But the reasons to never, ever give to child beggars go much deeper than that. Organized begging is one of the most visible forms of human trafficking—and it’s largely financed and enabled by good-hearted people who just want to help.
In India, roughly 60,000 children disappear each year, according to official statistics. (Some human rights groups estimate that the actual number is much higher than that.) Many of these children are kidnapped and forced to work as beggars for organized, mafia-like criminal groups. According to UNICEF, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. State Department, these children aren’t allowed to keep their earnings or go to school, and are often starved so that they will look gaunt and cry, thereby eliciting more sympathy—and donations—from tourists. And since disabled child beggars get more money than healthy ones, criminal groups often increase their profits by cutting out a child’s eyes, scarring his face with acid, or amputating a limb. In 2006, an Indian news channel went undercover and filmed doctors agreeing to amputate limbs for the begging mafia at $200 a pop. (Who knows how the little boy I met in New Delhi lost his legs.) To prevent the children from running away, traffickers often keep kids addicted to opium or other drugs.
Since disabled child beggars get more money than healthy ones, criminal groups often increase their profits by cutting out a child’s eyes or amputating a limb.
And it’s not just India. According to one U.S. State Department report, a man in Shenzhen, China, can earn as much as $40,000 per year by forcing enslaved children to beg. Horrific examples of trafficking in children (and the elderly) for the purposes of organized begging have been found in countries all over the world: Bolivia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Senegal, Pakistan—even Austria, other European countries, and the United States. No country is immune to human trafficking. And when trafficked children get too old to beg effectively, they often graduate into forced prostitution, the black-market organ trade, or other gruesome fates.
So when we, well-intentioned tourists, give money directly to child beggars, there’s a decent chance we’re actually lining the pockets of criminals who will turn around and use that money to abduct, enslave, rape, torture, and maim even more kids. It’s a devastating pill to swallow, since enslaved children who return to their captors without money might be beaten, tortured, or worse. But by giving them money, we only encourage the cycle, finance a horrific business model, and put future children in grave danger. When we give directly to children, we hurt more than we help.
So how can we know if a child beggar is a victim of trafficking? Actually, we don’t need to know: Even in the best scenarios, giving money or gifts directly to kids is always a bad idea. Tourists who give child beggars money, pens, or other trinkets can interfere with a family’s social dynamic and undermine the authority of those children’s parents, who can’t offer those kinds of gifts. Even giving children pens “for school” is problematic, since begging for pens to resell is a strong incentive to skip school in the first place. (And because many schools around the world prefer re-useable chalk and slate, many kids likely couldn’t use those pens in class anyway.) Physical gifts also undercut local businesses; after all, the woman who sells pens at her corner store probably has children to feed, too.
Simply put, as tourists, we just don’t have the knowledge, experience, or long-term investment in the communities we visit to understand whether our generosity might do more harm than good. Even the most seemingly harmless gifts often enable terrible suffering: A Consortium for Street Children report, for example, found that when tourists gave milk powder to child beggars in Brazil, the children traded that milk for crack cocaine. Yes, milk for crack.
The impulse to share our blessings with people we meet around the world is a wonderful and compassionate thing. But there are better ways to give. Established non-governmental organizations can ensure that charitable donations go to effective, sustainable projects, and they know how to implement positive change in minimally disruptive ways. Sending a check to a responsible NGO doesn’t feel intimate (and won’t make a very interesting addition to the photo album) but it’s by far the best way a tourist can help. If you’re tempted to hand out pens or school supplies, consider making a donation to Books for Africa or the Cambodian Children’s Fund instead. Free the Slaves and Save the Children work to liberate people around the world from modern-day slavery, including forced begging. Ladli offers vocational training for “abused, orphaned, and destitute children” in India. Finca, Kiva, and Pro Mujer empower people-in-need to create their own small businesses with microloans and other financial services. (And although it’s true that corruption exists off the streets as well, there are plenty of resources that evaluate national and international aid organizations.)
But none of that helps much when we’re confronted with heartbreaking poverty and suffering, right? It feels cruel and heartless to look a needy child in the eyes and, as many guidebooks suggest, “say no in a loud, firm voice.” Even travelers who know about the very real risks of organized begging and the genuinely harmful influence of gifts can find it nearly impossible to just walk away when a child asks for help. I know I can’t do it.
So we can’t say no. And we absolutely cannot say yes. What can we say?
Find an inventive, responsible way to be kind. Recently, I’ve been traveling with a small hand stamp. When kids approach me, I put a stamp on my own hand and give them the option to do the same. I’m sure some parents aren’t thrilled to see their kid come home with a stamp on her hand—or, in the case of one particularly excited boy I met in the Philippines, directly in the middle of his forehead—but it has been a fun and minimally disruptive way to interact and prompt a few smiles, including my own. One friend of mine travels with a lightweight animal puppet and another always ties three long ribbons to her backpack and uses them to show child beggars how to make a braid. The options are endless.
The imperative to not give money or gifts to child beggars doesn’t mean we have to turn our backs on them. Donate to responsible NGOs, and look for creative new ways to be kind to children that won’t disrupt familial dynamics, encourage long-term poverty, undercut local businesses, or abet human trafficking. Be generous: Leave those coins in your pocket.
By Jillian Keenan | Published in Slate on September 30, 2013