Ask Kate: Dealing with Child Beggars

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How do you deal with heartbreaking poverty and child beggars?  This week’s letter writer finds out.

Hi Kate, I love your blog. I’m an 18 yr old girl just about to embark on my first travel adventure with my sister, who’s 23 to se asia, thailand, cambodia, vietnam, laos. Also India.

What are your tips for dealing with poverty and child beggars?

It’s very sad to see poor and hungry children in the streets, but it’s unfortunately something you see around the world.  When you have so much more than them, it can feel like you have the power to save them.  So how do you deal with those feelings?

I don’t give to child beggars and I also don’t buy anything from children.

Why?  Because when you give money to children or buy things from children, you support a system that keeps children out of school and at the hands of an adult who possibly subjects them to abuse.  These kids are not business masterminds.  The adult in charge keeps most of their money.

I didn’t always do this, as you can see in the photo above.  In Sihanoukville, Cambodia, I bought a lot of bracelets from the kids on the beach — in part because the kids were sweet, charming, and hilarious.  It took time before I realized that my actions were keeping a system in place that keeps kids from getting an education until they age out of bracelet-selling and have no choice but to keep working on the beach because they don’t know how to do anything else.

Additionally, I’m careful where I donate my money, and I’m wary of “voluntourism” organizations.  There are orphanages that exist solely to extract donations out of sympathetic tourists, keeping the money for themselves instead of improving the children’s lives.

So what CAN you do?

Find a local charity that helps children, and donate money there.  There are many charities in this part of the world, but not all of them are equal.  Visit Charity Navigator and do your research before donating.

Donate supplies to a school.  Pens and notebooks are usually in demand.

And above all, please don’t buy from children.  Don’t buy roses from kids roaming the streets at night, long after they should be in bed.  Don’t let those hilarious kids talk you into buying a bracelet, even after they start weaving one in front of you.

And when a tiny Cambodian girl with torn clothing and dirt on her face tries to get you to buy postcards at Angkor Wat, resist the temptation to buy everything she has on her.  Her parents know that dressing her that way sells more postcards.

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52 thoughts on “Ask Kate: Dealing with Child Beggars”

  1. i totally agree. It’s heartbreaking to say no, but you can’t in good faith support this type of system. Just watch Slumdog Millionaire for an idea about how beggar children are treated by the adults that basically pimp them out. You may think it’s just a movie, but having seen the inordinate number of begging kids missing body parts in India, I tend to believe it. If you HAVE to give them something, give them food or pens. All kids love school supplies 🙂

  2. We share your philosophy. It’s heartbreaking to see impoverished people, especially children. As you point out, giving to a child beggar may feel like a good deed but it feeds a vicious cycle of child exploitation. We assuage our guilt by giving generously to local and international charities. After a recent trip to Guatemala we even tried to use our blog to multiply the impact of our giving by offering to match our reader’s donations to Heifer International. It’s something we’ll probably do again.

  3. As callous as it may sound, you have to train yourself not to make eye contact with them while keeping Kate’s explanation of why you shouldn’t support them in your head. There are child beggars everywhere in India, and you have to remind yourself that if you make some sort of contact with one of them, you’ll have a dozen of them around you. Don’t look at them and keep walking or moving.

  4. I totally agree with this, too. There was a great little art gallery in Sihanoukville when I was there in 2011; all the paintings were by local kids. For $5 a pop, you could buy a painting, and the money went back to the families and to the local schools for supplies (it was run by a few foreigners at the time). I bought a few and tried to stay away from the kids on the beach, but it sure was a challenge. I did end up buying a bracelet off of a boy who sat with us for over two hours, but I try to politely decline whenever I’m faced with the same situation these days.

    Very good advice as always!

  5. When I’ve come across children who are begging because they say they are hungry I’ve offered to buy them food (either from the local corner store or the restaurant where I’m eating), but they’ve always shaken their heads and simply walked away. That’s when, sadly, you realize they are working for someone else…

  6. I would add that you can give then food or water however. I wouldn’t give money as it goes back into the system but a bag if crisps or something the kids can devour right away

    1. That’s a good tip and one that can be used anywhere in the world with beggars of any age. As a long-time resident of New York City I adopted the strategy of offering to buy sandwiches (or anything from a near-by deli) for anyone asking for money claiming to be hungry.

  7. Great advice and sometimes tough to do! In India, our guide told us to not even make eye contact with them because if you do, they wouldn’t stop trying to sell. There were even tiny little girls dressed provocatively in torn clothes. It’s sad. And I felt like a total B ignoring them. But you’re right, finding a reputable charity is the only way to really help.

  8. Even though it seems harsh, this is really good advice.

    It’s SO difficult not to give to child beggars – especially when they’re usually so adorable with their little sad faces. But you’re right that giving them money only keeps the exploitative system going. It actually makes me really mad when I see perfectly healthy kids out on the street begging for food. Clearly they ARE being fed if you can look past the dirt stains and tattered clothes.

  9. I agree. What you can also do though is – if you feel like you really want to do something NOW and there is just this one child (or two) – then give them something to eat. The other day my son and I got a child a pencil box and notepad. Something that will help and/or bring joy, but is of no value to their parents.

  10. Kate, this is a great article, packed with really interesting information! The best article about travel I read so far this year!

    Especially the tips at the end are very useful and for me the key information of this article every traveler should now. How about highlighting them somehow?

    Thanks for sharing this!


  11. Oh learning that adults take advantage of kids like that just sickens me. Even to know that organizations that impose as a haven for children but really are making a fortune for themselves, makes me so angry. Thanks for flat out saying that you don’t help, because I know it is hard not to.

  12. It’s a very difficult thing to resist. I first came across it in Sihanoukville, when the kids were sitting with us at around 2am, way past their bedtime, asking me to buy bracelets.

    In PP there was quite a lot of it too, I took to giving them fruit – I thought giving them sweets might be bad for them if they have no access to dental care and don’t eat sweets normally.

    One beggar woman shoved her child at me and told me he was starving and pleaded for me to give her a dollar, I instead gave the child a banana, the woman took it off the child and threw it away! Clearly starving!

    However, I think that’s the minority, in most cases the kids seemed really happy with being given food, or simply scampered off if they knew there was no money coming.

  13. This post is so timely for me! I’m currently travelling in Mexico through a region with a lot of indigenous people and the children begging is constant. You can not get through a meal without little kids at your table every ten minutes. The worst part is that unlike the adults when you tell them no they just keep begging you to buy or give them money. It reminded me a lot of the way I tried to get my mom to buy me an ice cream cone as a kid – obnoxious persistence and even full-out temper tantrums. It’s a sad reminder that they are indeed young children and so very difficult to sit through. But for all the reasons listed above, you can’t give in.

    Thanks for bringing to a light a touchy subject that unfortunately, travelers come across all to often!

  14. Hi Kate!
    Thanks for the tip, I am so overwhelmed with emotion everytime I see a child with no opportunity to education as we had. Its wrong for the adult in charge to use their innocense to enrich themselves

  15. This is VERY true. I learned first hand while in Nicaragua that it’s the parents that send them out in the streets, all day and night to beg.

    I never give them any money.

    However, I do give them food. If they ask for food and I have some, I usually give it.

  16. I am glad you wrote about this issue. Too many tourists don’t really know that they are supporting a vicious circle by buying things from children. I work for an NGO in Cambodia that is supporting street kids and provides them and their family with alternative sources of income and provide education to children. I agree with your suggestion to donate money to professional NGOs or charities who are used to deal with situations like that.

  17. Traveling in Asia, I ran across this problem a lot, and I did what you used to do, that is give them money or buy stuff from them. In my mind, I thought I was helping the kids but after reading this article, now I realize I wasn’t really helping the kids at all.

    Great article and I’ll be sure to keep this in mind next time I go to Asia.

  18. I immediately recognized where you were in the photo! The children, and adults, selling things on the beach there were all so charming.

    I like the suggestion someone else said about giving food when possible – I think that’s the way to go for any begging if you can.

    Also, I have often had some stickers on me and will give those out to kids if they insist on sticking around. In Luang Prabang a group of young girls kept sitting around me just waiting so I brought out the stickers and they were thrilled…I could see the woman ‘in charge’ of them standing a little ways away and she was not happy. By giving out the stickers I felt that I wasn’t ignoring them but also not giving the adults what they wanted – it doesn’t help break the system though. The 8 – 11-year-old girls shouldn’t have been on their own talking to me or the other tourists walking by.

  19. This is very helpful information for me as I have started to travel and always wondered what the best way to handle this was. Thanks.

  20. I’ve volunteered in different countries, and I too am wary of voluntourism organizations that require you to pay a volunteering fee. Volunteering should be free – right? When planning volunteer trips for myself or my clients, I prefer finding independent volunteering opportunities that fit into my itinerary and that are free of charge. I try to make donations to the school/organization that I’m volunteering with, but if I can’t, giving my time is just as valuable.

    1. True, but it also costs them money to run a volunteering program, and it costs NGOs money to host volunteers. Not all voluntourism programs are bad, but a great many of them are ripoffs.

  21. I agree. In Vietnam, for instance, most of beggars (children, elders) were controlled by a group of adult. To them, it’s a business opportunity. There was a story of a blind old woman who is able to earn few hundred dollars a day from begging. Most of the money is taken by those gangster/mafia who controlled the show. It’s sad, but true. We are trying our best to fight this social issue.

  22. Agreed! This also goes for giving money to women who are begging while carrying children – often those kids are sedated with alcohol or drugs, and are just part of an abuse system. It is so sad!

  23. I never tip beggars and children peddlers.
    But I don’t do that to avoid exploitation, I’m just stingy 🙂

  24. I was quite surprised to see a mother motion to her 5year old to follow me and beg, it was surprising because I had just bought a book from the lady (she had a street bookstore stall) and while there an older child begged me for money and I gave her.
    Back home in Kenya, a few years back street kids would use the money to buy shoe glue or petrol which they dipped a rag and would sniff to get high…and when we interviewed a few of these kids, we found out they had families or were staying with grandparents and had run away to live on the streets and get a lot of money from begging which they used in turn to buy glue and petrol to get high..and they always had food which they would get from hanging around eating establishments during closing times or airport dump sights or supermarkets (pretty much like dumpster diving). So it’s advisable to give books or pens or donate to orphanages etc. Some children in Bosnia rejected my offer of food I offered instead of money..sad.

  25. I totally agree. Whenever traveling around a foreign land why not put some food items in the backpack in anticipation of these hard working children approaching you. Offering food is a much better choice. It doesn’t cost much and definitely doesn’t weigh much. I’m thinking crackers, fruit, sweet goods, etc.

  26. I totally agree. It breaks my heart but I don’t give anything! On a resent trip up mt batur the children selling the drinks and food, start at 11pm to walk up and down the volcano selling, in the dark and alone. They then go to bed 10am until 3pm then school 3pm until 8pm then back to work!

  27. It’s a sad truth and an important story to share as too many people prey on the empathy of good-intentioned travelers. I always give to organizations and social enterprises rather than individuals- children or adults. I once saw a guy throw out a bag of cut mangoes my friend gave to him in Nicaragua. In Nepal a “popular” scam is women with babies asking for milk/formula, shaking an empty bottle. She will show you a shop nearby where you can buy it, but the woman has a relationship with that store worker where she will sell the milk back, less a small cut for the shopkeeper. Horrid. We need to be aware of how to give responsibly.

  28. Hi Kate,

    wise words spoken, there is nothing more to add here!

    One question though: We are planning a charity for Gambia. Any connections or recommendations here? We’ll check out the Charity Navigator as well!

    Thank you and keep up the awesome work,

  29. Oh dear. So much first world angst scurrying around these comments The fact is that when you, as a tourist in a poor country, are confronted with people begging, scamming, selling etc. there is no ‘correct’ way of responding. If you want to chat to the kids and buy the bracelets-fine. If you want to give them food- fine. If you want to ignore them and give to charity- fine. By all means do whatever makes you feel good but just don’t delude yourself that any of those choices makes the slightest, tiniest difference to the endemic poverty of the country you are visiting. If you’re going to get your expensive Rohan shorts in a twist about this, well just go to Scotland instead.

    1. I strongly disagree with your assertion, Ferguson. Just because it’s one small action, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make an impact. If that were the case, why would anyone ever do anything positive?

      1. Kate, are you suggesting that giving kids packets of crisps or blowing up balloons for them has some kind of mysterious effect on a country’s GDP?

          1. I thought so. The bottom line is that the begging kids are there because you are. Your presence as a a tourist is partially responsible for parents making the decision to keep their children out of school in the first place.

            You’re having great adventure in an underdeveloped country with a wallet full of credit cards in your pocket and an iPad in your back pack. And of course you’re absolutely taking full advantage of all the cheap travel, food and accommodation you find there.

            So just see all that annoying begging as payback-time. And realise that you have no right to pontificate on how other people choose to respond to their poverty.

  30. Thanks for posting! Saw it on pinterest and dropped in to see what you suggested. Thanks for spreading truth and informing fellow travelers! Its sad that people take advantage of children and our heart strings.

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