Having lived in a third world country for four years, I’ve become very opinionated when it comes to handing money out to beggars. Here are some of my (rather harsh) insights and advice to those traveling through third world countries.
The vast majority of Beggars you will come across are career beggars. Begging is their job, they are good at it, and they earn a surprisingly large amount of money. Since begging is not a career I would like to support in general my first instinct is to reject.
A Woman With A Child -
Awww what a heart breaker – she has a child and needs money… She looks reasonably healthy, except for her ragged dirty clothes, as does her baby. Well thats not entirely true, the baby looks sound asleep, passed out almost!
Career beggars often borrow a friends baby to go out begging. What’s worse, they commonly give the baby some form of drugs to keep the baby looking helpless and asleep.
I REFUSE to give a mother and child any money and you should do the same. I will NOT reward a woman who drugs a baby.
The Guy In The Wheelchair With No Legs -
I used to see the same guys in wheelchairs cruise up and down a popular tourist cafe street every day, asking for money. I used to sit and watch, counting how much they collected. I would never finish by coffee before the guy in the wheel chair had collected more than the average national daily wage… in 15 minutes…
While they may have an actual disability, there are proven stories of people disfiguring themselves in order to become a successful beggar. Further, there are plenty of non-government-organisations (NGO’s) which provide work for the disabled, and these are arguably undersubscribed as the better money spinner is to hassle tourists for a bit of coin.
The Blind Man With A Flute -
I love the blind man with a flute, being led along the street by a cute little girl. He plays a little tune… not very well, and then the child asks you for money.
The number of times I’ve seen the blind man walk around the corner, take off his glasses or blind fold, and light up a cigarette… Its a beautiful scam, whose going to guess I’m not blind, if someone has to lead me around. Who would dare refuse a little girl who spends her day leading around a blind man?
In the vast majority of cases the man isn’t blind and across the board the dual earns quadruple the national average wage.
Hideous Disfigurement And Scars -
Agent Orange, Acid Throwing, Battle Scars – A disfigured face is hard to look at and it makes us all feel guilty. Much like the man in the wheelchair, there are undersubscribed NGO’s who find work for disfigured and disabled people. Also much like the man in the wheelchair, people have disfigured themselves to improve their begging careers, and each beggar earns substantially more than the national average.
I feel for these people, I really do, but there is absolutely no reason they can’t be doing something productive with themselves.
I’ve made friends with the disfigured people in the local market near my house. When people give them money they don’t really care, but when I look them in the face and say hello, they smile.
The disfigured beggars earn plenty of money, what they lack is self esteem.
The Opportunist –
A white man walks along a street, random person X notices said white man, spins around and says “please money” – I’ve had a woman laugh after asking for money, all her friends laughed along with her.
The opportunist will be going about a normal daily life, see the opportunity and transform into the most helpless human on the planet… “please money”
The Group Of Children –
Generally opportunists, the group of children swarm and flock. They appear out of no where, you didn’t notice them begging before (or maybe you see them every day in the same spot) and they are all laughing and jumping.
I personally won’t condone parents sending their kids out to beg, also in the vast majority of cases the kid aren’t even beggars, they are just playing with mates and want to score some cash from the tourist.
If you ever do give any money, it will never be enough. The kids will continue the chase, asking for more money and fighting amongst themselves.
The kids are the most aggressive and rudest of beggars. Just other other day I had a swarm of small children hitting kicking and pushing me because I wouldn’t give them any money.
So we can be very cynical and assume every beggar is pulling a scam, but I have a favorite filter to establish if a person is in need, or in greed.
“please money, I hungry” says the beggar. “Ok, heres a banana” says the foreigner.
A banana is very very cheap, but any hungry person would jump at it. The person in need will be genuinely grateful, the person in greed will pull a face, either take the banana and continue to ask for money, or flat out refuse to take the banana.
Who Should You Give Money To?
We should all want to help those less fortunate, and I strongly suggest you do try to help those less fortunate, but choose carefully.
People Who Beg From Locals –
A person genuinely in need won’t go looking for the tourist dollar, they will be asking locals for assistance – if you notice this, it is generally a safe bet to give them some money.
I always give Monks a little bit of money – they are asking for money from locals, and its also good karma.
A New Face -
If I frequent somewhere regularly and I see a new face in the begging crowd, it is more likely that this person is genuine – as a tourist you likely won’t ever have enough local knowledge to identify the new face.
People Selling Something -
Many of the disabled and disfigured won’t resort to begging, instead they will try to sell you something. Often books or trinkets. If you need anything they offer then they have earned your money. People trying to sell you something make far less than the people just asking for money.
People Providing Service -
Just as with people selling something, many people in need will offer a service. They may watch your parked car for you, they may offer you a shoe shine. Again, if you need the service then your money has been earned. These people also earn less than the career beggar in greed.
People Who Don’t Ask –
Ok first of all its incredibly rude to assume somebody wants your money, so don’t just go and give money to any random person. But a person who sits patiently with a small bowl, not asking for any money but obviously needing it, is most likely very ashamed of having to beg and won’t make a career of doing so.
Two Memorable Stories:
Woman With Children –
I drove home from work on the same road every day for four years – one day a woman showed up on the side of the road at a traffic light with two children, a baby, and child of about two years old. My beggar filters started to kick in – This woman was waiting, not asking. She was begging from locals, not tourists. Her children were alive and crawling, definitely not drugged and I had never seen her before, so I gave her some money. Two days later she was gone.
I saw her again about three weeks later and again gave her some money, she wasn’t back the next day, obviously having collected what she needed.
The Leper -
Just around the corner from my house is a little shop popular with foreigners where I would buy drinks, snacks and chocolate several times a week. There was the usual swarm of beggar children, and a few woman with babies, and the occasional blind man with a flute. One day I noticed a new face of a young man in his mid-20′s who was showing early signs of leprosy.
He was obviously in pain, looked very very depressed, and begged very politely from a distance.
Since I had never seen him before and he had obvious signs of a serious illness I gave him a very sizable amount of money, equivalent to an average monthly salary. He thanked me very politely and profusely and left straight away.
I was very relieved to see him leave, if he had stayed after receiving such a large sum of cash, I would have had doubts about his need.
The Conclusion –
Charity is definitely a good thing – but be careful how you distribute your money. Many people have made a career out of fooling tourists, and other people are exploiting or even harming children in the pursuit of greed.
I have very strongly thoughts on donating to large charities (and don’t recommend it) but will save that for another blog post.
Instead of giving lots of small amounts to lots of career beggars, wait until you find the person who is really in need and make a bigger difference.