How I Give to Beggars

Image result for aid beggars cartoon

A defining image of modern international development is that of young aid workers, wearing fashionable jeans with bulging wallets, ignoring destitute beggars as they walk down the street. If you’re reading this blog, chances are that you’ve seen this yourself – or, even more likely, felt a twinge of guilt as you ignored starving people, on your way to work at an organisation that purports to help them.

Given that aid workers are notionally driven by a desire to help others, I’ve seen surprisingly few expat aid workers actually give money to beggars. I think this is mostly caused by a mixture of guilt and confusion about whether this actually helps. Does it just trap people in a cycle of poverty? Will they just use it for drugs and alcohol? Will it encourage them to pester more foreigners in future? With all these uncertainties, it’s easier simply to ignore the problem.

Understandable, but I hope I’m not alone in finding this morally questionable. In countries without a social safety nets, people begging on the street often genuinely have no other way to avoid starvation, and giving a few pennies can do more real good than your fancy new M&E framework. (Hard to believe, I know). For aid workers to simply ignore people who have nothing is an unpleasant dereliction of the instincts which got many of us into this business in the first place. So for those also wrestling with this challenge, here’s how I give.

  • See what local people do. When you walk around with local staff, how do they treat beggars? Do they donate a coin, a note, or nothing? Do they give in some places, but not in others? Almost everywhere I’ve worked, people have given money regularly to beggars – often much more so than I would myself. Watch the local customs and understand what’s appropriate.
  • Give small amounts of money, regularly. I get change every morning from the bus ride to work, and keep a few coins in my back pocket to give to beggars on the street. This works out as about three pence a day – pretty affordable for me. Giving large amounts of money can encourage people to stay on the streets (or to aggressively target foreigners) but I figure nobody would remain a beggar on the off-chance that someone will tip them a penny. Keeping money in my back pocket means that I don’t need to get out a wallet, which reduces the chance of theft.
  • Don’t give if you feel uncomfortable or targeted. I don’t give to people who run up to me because I’m a foreigner, who knock on my window in the car at traffic lights, or who ask in an aggressive or unpleasant way. Selfish perhaps, but I think I have the right to walk down the street without being harassed.
  • Don’t give to children, or people using children to beg. Arguments about the role of children in income generation will run and run – witness the latest debate on child labour. Based on conversations with people working with streetchildren, I think that giving money to children is more likely to encourage them to stay on the streets, even if they have homes to go to. Giving money to people who are using children to beg – for example getting their kids to run after you – also encourages this behavior. It’s tough sometimes, but I suggest ignoring children.
  • Give larger amounts to serious charities. Of course, your three pence a day is hardly solving the root causes of urban poverty. Neither – in the vast majority of cases – is the project you’re working on. I think every aid worker should give 10% of their income to a well-chosen charity; whether one working abroad or back in your own country. The excuse that ‘you’re doing good through your work’ doesn’t really cut it, no matter how great you think your latest two-hundred page report was.

This is a pretty idiosyncratic list, based on limited experience and conversations with people working with the homeless. It’s clearly not a solution to poverty – but it does help me sleep at night. What would you add?

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4 thoughts on “How I Give to Beggars

  1. I live in Indonesia so I am faced with this problem daily. If children truly look hungry, I give them food. I almost never give money, except to elderly people. For others, I give clothes and other things I would throw away myself. They will know how to sell the items to recyclers/scavengers. By the way, I love your posts.

  2. Pingback: How I Give to Beggars. #HumanitarianLife #Expat | Brian Kanaahe Mwebaze Bilal's Public Health Freaks' Blog

  3. I feel your pain OP, but I would also like to expand upon a few points.

    1) This is an issue usually for aid workers who have been in the business for only a relatively short time and these sorts of feelings very much depend upon the specific aid program a person has encountered. For example, workers in a war zone or an epidemic don’t lose too much sleep over whether or not they give money to beggars in an R&R spot or even down the path from their tent. No, they are usually troubled by PTSD or maybe recovering from a wound or a disease. One cannot know the experience or mental state of an aid worker who walks past a beggar.

    2) Underlying this post is the idea of “the moral imperative” which you hint at when the term “morally questionable” appears in the text. The moral imperative is an extremely loaded issue. Your post points out a number of examples where money to beggars might be a bad idea. Unfortunately, the moral imperative does not allow for wiggle room. The starving must get food, the sick must get medicine, and extreme poverty, as represented by a beggar, dictates money assistance. Entire countries in distress (think Syria, Rwanda, or Bosnia) are often recipients of aid because the donor community decides there is a moral imperative and so the aid flows regardless of the unintended, often negative, consequences. I wonder what Barbara Harrell-Bond’s take of the moral imperative is? Does anyone know? If so please comment.

    3) You are somewhat cautious about the efficacy of aid programs. In that sense, I could not agree more. But there is a caution: if three are lousy, there is always that one which is absolutely fantastic. (This is my own metric. I always say 25% that are truly effective is a good goal. The others normally have debilitating problems, often not in the control of staff or the NGOs involved.) I am wondering if you have every worked on one that is firing on all pistons. The great program which saves lives and makes a difference is what we are all looking for. Yes, they are rare, but just noticing an aid worker walking past a beggar with an empty cup will in no way give any information about field programs.

    So OP, please don’t take my comments in the wrong way. You are hitting on a complex issue that has been around a long time: one that most of us have grappled with. (I often ignore beggars, but I do have my favorites and they usually get more than the going rate.) As one of my mentors, who is dead now, once told me: “Even in the midst of a hopeless disaster and there is a single person out of a million that you can help, you must do so. It is the morally correct thing and that is all there is to it.” Thanks. Duke

  4. This is an interesting issue and whilst I agree with Duke that the post is somewhat simplistic in its approach and exhortations, I think there is benefit in sharing how people deal with this situation. Another aspect of this is what to do when an acute situation creates a potential for begging to appear where it was never present before. We saw this in Vanuatu in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam in 2015. There were a few instances of people stopping those entering the biggest supermarket in Port Vila to ask for money. Begging on the street has never been a part of how ni-Vanuatu obtain money, including from foreigners so it was very obvious when this happened. The response on the part of the few people who encountered this (not aid workers, in the main but citizens and long-term residents) was to refuse to give money but instead to buy some extra food items and hand those over on leaving. Two years on, street begging remains noticeable by its absence in Port Vila.

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