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?