Begging in Developing Countries

Local people asking tourists for money has proven to be all too common in my travels. In my recent trip to Nepal, I had many very cute children come and ask me my name, which country I was from, and then follow it up with ‘give me money’. In India, many of the children asking for money were disabled and disfigured. It proved to be very confronting and challenging. At the main stupa in Kathmandu I had numerous mothers carrying babies say “no miss I don’t want money, could you please just buy me some milk”. I felt like telling them that if they googled ‘Kathmandu scams’ they would see that the “buy me some milk” scam is heavily reported. Once you have paid tourist rates for the milk and the shop has profited, the mothers go and sell the milk to get the money that you think you didn’t give them. In Anibong, Philippines – where 3 container ships have been washed up onto the shore, children regularly shouted ‘give me money’ as we walked past.

All through Zimbabwe, Malawi and Tanzania I had children ask for a pen or a book. When I said that I didn’t have one for
them, without acknowledging what I had said, they turned and ran as fast as they could to the next tourist. They tried again and again, with tourist after tourist, until they were inevitably successful. I have no doubt, as with the mothers and milk in Nepal, they sold the books and pens to make money. I’ve witnessed how entrepreneurial kids can be, sometimes at such a very young age.

My experience in Bliss, Barangay 68, Tacloban has been slightly different. Being in Bliss has been quite different to the experiences mentioned above – in my two weeks there I did not have any children asking me for money, however other volunteers did. The other volunteers who were being asked for things had previously given out balloons, stickers and lollies. The children knew this and kept coming back to ask for more. They weren’t doing this to profit from the gift, unlike my experiences in Africa and Nepal. However, worse than that, I believe that it creates a power relationship between the local and foreigner – one which I am not comfortable with.

Fundamentally, I believe that begging (particularly when it’s children) calls on our sense of good nature and charity. Most people, if they see a need, would love to think that they could do something to help to provide for people in need. There are many ways that we can have an impact in developing countries. However, I strongly believe that giving beggers or children money, pens, books or milk is NOT the way to do it. Sure, a few times in my travels I have, but I have never felt comfortable doing so. I’ve always had this disconnect between the short term satisfaction of giving and the implied message that I am sending. It has never felt right.

I believe that giving money to beggers and children reaffirms the assumption that white tourists have money and they don’t. In fact, it’s not just an assumption, it is fact. The wealthiest 10% of people in the world account for 60% of the world’s wealth (World Bank Development Indicators, 2008) and most of them are from developed countries such as Australia, North America or European countries. However by giving these children the thing they are asking for, you are indirectly telling them that you have more than them. You are reaffirming the rich white guy stereotype. Sure, it’s great when they give you a cute grin and say thank you, but louder than any of that, it is saying to the child “I am white and I am so rich that I can give you things that you ask for, even though I don’t know the first thing about you”. In your home country you may not see yourself as being rich. You may have been saving for many years to take the holiday that you are on. However, in the economy of a developing country, you are one of the wealthiest people there. In the Philippines, my weekly salary as a teacher in Australia is more than the annual income of the majority of Filipinos. You are always the rich white guy, whether you like it or not.

As well as reaffirming the stereotype that white tourists are rich and the locals in the developing country you are in are not, giving things to beggers and children increases the dependency of them on the white tourist. Next time they genuinely need something for school are they likely to say “that was really nice that I got a free pen last time, this time I’ll make sure I get some money together and buy a new one”, or are they more likely to say “hey I got a free pen last time by asking a tourist for one, why don’t I try that again?”. I have witnessed and understand that we are talking about people in extreme poverty, I get that more than 3 billion people in the world live on less than $2.50 a day (World Bank Development Indicators, 2008). I have been to some incredibly poor countries. But in Africa, what I experienced was that it was like a business. The children saw tourists only as a source of income and resources. That’s it. They moved on very quickly when they realised they couldn’t get anything from us.

I also know that giving a pen, or a book, or 5 pesos doesn’t solve the issue of poverty. If you give them a pen now, when it runs out, they are still not going to be able to afford a new pen. The mother who sells the milk might supplement her income for that week, but she is still going to face the same issue next week. Until we get some of the 72 million uneducated students into school (World Bank Development Indicators, 2008) and have them graduate, they are not going to be able to contribute and earn money to support themselves. As the old proverb goes, “give the man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. In this case, don’t give a child a pen, help him and teach him how to earn enough money to be able to afford that pen.

The more people give trivial gifts while travelling, the worse the asking becomes for subsequent travelers, due to the dependency and the sense of opportunity that it creates. As a result, it can become quite uncomfortable for travelers that come afterwards. In Nepal recently I asked some children if I could take a photo of them. They said yes. Once I took the photo and said thank you, they then said “give me chocolate”. Obviously in the past, previous tourists who have taken a photo of them have given them chocolate. It sets a precedent that I’m not really happy to follow. I am happy to say that the children in Bliss are nothing like this, however I fear that if volunteers aren’t careful, it might become like that.

Despite all of this, I am certainly not suggesting that you don’t give. Often when we travel we are confronted by the enormous need and extreme poverty, and we realise that some of our travelling fund or disposable income would be better spent on people with a genuine need. What I am saying, is I’d urge travellers and volunteers to reconsider how they invest in a community if they see a need and would like to help address it. There are many ways that this can be done and by deciding to volunteer with Volunteer for the Visayans, you are already choosing action and advocacy over charity. Here are some other suggestions to help, if you feel you’d like to do more:

–          Make a one-off or continuing donation to an aid agency that works in the area, for example Save the Children, World Vision, UNICEF or the Red Cross.

–          Forge relationships with people in the area and develop a trust fund or a charity for getting kids who aren’t in school, into it. I have seen and heard of many successful stories of westerners setting up orphanages in developing countries and they and their friends and family send money monthly to pay for the salaries, food and clothing etc. for the children, who would otherwise have nothing.

–          Use your volunteering experience in the community to share your knowledge, skills or expertise to build capacity. Building capacity is far more effective and long-lasting than charity. By sharing and teaching skills and knowledge, you empower people to help themselves. We have a lot to learn from one another – so remember this knowledge sharing isn’t just one way. You also have a lot to learn and gain from your volunteer experience.

–          Advocate for those living on the margins and for the benefits of voluntourism. Use social media to shed light on the conditions in which people live and the impact that you can have. Encourage your friends and families to make a difference and to volunteer, and direct them to local not-for-profit volunteer organisations. That way, all of the program fees that you pay, go into the local community.

–          Donate to a local organisation that can distribute the aid/support where it is needed most. In my experience, I have found that members of the local church and council are good starting points, as are schools. Do your homework – find out what could be of most use to the community and purchase it or employ contractors. Giving things that will be used is far better than giving money – particularly if you are concerned about corruption.

In saying all of this, I think it is important to point out that although I have made many generalisations, I am talking about the minority. I have met countless people in developing countries who are too proud to ever allow their children to beg, and would never accept a hand out from a foreigner, no matter how much they needed it. This is only my opinion, this is certainly not a clear cut issue. All I would hope is that travelers, when confronted with poverty and begging, first consider the bigger picture as to how they can have a longer-term or more significant impact on the community. There are so many ways in which we can help, however giving trivial items is not sustainable and does not build capacity. It certainly doesn’t help break the cycle of poverty.

By Selena Risk


  1. Hi Selena,

    Thank you for such a great post! This is truly a huge issue that most volunteers never realize and it is so determental to the communities they work in after they leave if they don’t consider the long term impact they have. I hope that all volunteers and tourists alike will consider the message you have sent before giving in.

  2. Dan

    I totally agree with you. There is a very thin line that separates charity and helping out.

    One of the reasons why a lot of people give money, things, or the like to children is because it is more convenient and it immediately gives that good feeling of giving and sharing. It takes a deeper understanding for one to realize the negative and long-term impact of giving alms. And it takes a deeper commitment for one to actually exert time and effort in helping out these children.

  3. Craig

    Hi Selena, thank you for a great article; you’ve opened my very well-intentioned but clearly somewhat naive eyes!

    I would love to help a family not just survive, but also to grow, in terms of education and sustainable self-sufficiency, but for the long term, for life. Thanks again.

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