I recently read a thought provoking article *Do you give money to beggars in which the author questioned their motives for not giving hand-outs to beggars. The article concentrated on the homeless of cities like Auckland or New York but nevertheless it did its job and made me think, about begging and responsible tourism.
We all probably have a subconscious policy which we abide by, as far as people begging is concerned. Looking away, avoiding eye contact and ignoring the person in need is probably the most common. Justifying this by telling ourselves they would probably have only spent the money on drugs or alcohol.
Some choose to buy food which they then donate; at least this way the Good Samaritan can be sure that the homeless person has been properly fed. I’ve tried this approach in Germany, an eccentric man turned up at a festival, he did not beg but it was clearly homeless. Enjoying a drink with a friend outside a bar, I ordered a sandwich and had it delivered to him. My friend thought I had lost leave of my senses.
Usually I also ignore those that just hold out their hand or a cup, preferring to give to those that at least seem to be doing something. Sellers of the ‘Big Issue’ a magazine published to provide the homeless with an income, usually not even taking the publication. Buskers on street corners, in subways or parks will usually be the beneficiaries of the change in my pocket.
Many travellers have experienced the effects of begging when abroad, we are perceived as wealthy and as such suitable targets. This perception may not be entirely accurate but to the poor in the developing world we are indeed wealthy.
Being followed by a conga-line of children tugging at our clothes or having total strangers call us friends and asking for a ‘gift’ are things all seasoned travellers become accustomed to.
Begging in areas of the world where poverty is rife can be heart wrenching. Old men in rags or children with any sign of hope seemingly gone from their eyes will test the resolve of reasonable person. Sometimes the begging can seem cynical; women with very young children certainly appear so. Many may have no choice but to have their children in attendance but equally some purposely use them as a form of ‘prop’.
It is difficult to ignore those that have suffered from the weapons of warfare, some of which were employed by our own countries. The casualties of landmines, amputees which only the most cold-hearted can completely ignore or Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, the children whose birth defects are an inconvenient truth for western tourists.
Giving hand-outs may seem charitable but where to stop, give to one and there is another a few metres further on. In some circumstances they can even start to expect a hand out, drop a coin into the cup of one beggar and another across the road almost insists you do the same for them!
Children often test the resolve of tourists; we can be surrounded by a score of them holding out their hands and asking for any change we have. Giving them anything encourages them this is a viable way of getting an income; if money can be obtained in this manner why bother working. A new generation of beggars will hit the streets and this isn’t responsible tourism.
Travellers can also become blasé about the poverty witnessed, in a way ‘battle-hardened’ by being constantly bombarded from requests for money. We have probably all witnessed a weary tourist brushing aside the unwanted attention of children, even those not actually begging but selling. Excessive exposure to aggressive begging often causes the traveller to cut themselves off from it or in some situations escape from it altogether.
“Is this exploitation?”
My personal decision is usually to not give any hand-outs, though I often take photographs of beggars as they make interesting subjects. I always ask and then provide them with some coins but am I taking advantage of their situation? Is this exploitation? They are clearly not in a position where they can afford to refuse, though a few have.
I have often struggled with my conscience over this. I have justified it by deciding that they have been paid for a service and therefore I’m improving their situation with some dignity. I can only hope they feel the same way about it.
Responsible tourism can be defined by not having an adverse effect on the culture or community which is visited. Encouraging begging will almost certainly have a negative result; apart from the short term damage it will possibly affect future tourism. A destination which gains a reputation for aggressive begging will possibly experience a backlash in visitor numbers.
Those that make a living from tourism, providing accommodation, owning restaurants, providing food for the restaurants or producing hand crafted souvenirs will suffer from this. These entrepreneurs are the catalysts for kick-starting a local economy, as their business expands they may even be able to offer some of the ‘beggar children’ employment in future. Communities helping themselves should be the goal of responsible tourism and therefore of responsible tourists.
Ultimately providing hand-outs to beggars is an individual decision, prompted by the conscience and sense of responsibility of the traveller. Do you give money to beggars?
*This article has unfortunately since been removed