The politics of begging

To give or not to give – that's the question. And it's one travellers are presented with daily. Hourly. Constantly.

Everywhere you go there are hands out. Please give me money. A dollar. A few cents. Feed my family. Feed my son. Help me.

Depending on your experience, it can be shocking, disturbing. But it's something travellers eventually get used to. After all, it happens in most countries.

As Australians, we're in the position of being better off financially than pretty much all of the people we encounter overseas. We're marginally better off than some (like those in Eastern Europe); and we're vastly better off than others (like those in Bangladesh, or Greece*).

Regardless of where you are, however, you'll frequently be presented with the choice of whether you will or won't give money to beggars.

I've seen a few interesting arguments on this blog about the politics of beggars and I've rarely weighed in because, to be honest, I don't see myself as being any better informed than anyone else. It's often a matter of the heart, deciding what's right when you're presented with an upturned palm and a pleading face.

But I'm going to put my case forward here.

As a general rule, I don't give to beggars while I travel. Does this make me heartless? A tight-arse? A typical over-privileged white boy? Maybe, but who's to say giving to beggars is right?

There are persuasive arguments against it.

Travellers often like to mutter about beggars, particularly the small children, all being part of gangs, and that the money isn't truly going to the person you hope it is. It's split up amongst the gang hierarchy.

That's sometimes true, particularly in the sub-continent. But not always. Other times, the gang thing is a convenient platitude to ease the burden of guilt. A way of explaining to yourself why you didn't give a starving kid a couple of bucks.

The other one that's easy to roll out is that giving to beggars just reinforces the culture of begging, and this is one I certainly subscribe to. Go anywhere in East Africa and you'll see the phenomenon writ large, where white faces resemble walking ATMs.

"Hey mzungu, give me money." It's a familiar refrain repeated to any white person, because that's what mzungus do – we give them money. After decades and decades of well-meaning charity, the mindset among the underprivileged has been cemented: white people will give you money.

We give out pens, too, and school books. So now kids will chase after you and demand pens and school books. Who can blame them? And what's the alternative?

The more money beggars are given, the more beggars there will be. That's the truth. But it's also a pretty cold thought when you're staring into the eyes of someone who's grasping at the poverty line.

I don't give to beggars but I do donate to Oxfam, with the thought that large-scale action targeted at improving the situation of whole communities is always going to be more effective than the short-term solution of a couple of bucks stuffed into a grubby hand. But try telling that to the owner of the grubby hand.

Still, that's one of my main reasons. But the other one, the one that stops me reaching into my pocket time and again, is this thought: Where does it end? How do you draw the line?

A couple of dollars here, a couple of dollars there. Do you give that to every single beggar you see? You'd be broke before you got to the first hostel. And if you don't, how do you decide which beggars are worthy of your charity? Who deserves it more?

It's a moral minefield, and it's not one I'm convinced I've navigated successfully.

I don't claim to be better informed or more intelligent than any other traveller faced with an outstretched hand. I just go with my gut. And my gut says no.

Do you give to beggars while you're travelling? What about to a charity? Or is it not your problem?

* Joking, settle down.

Follow Ben Groundwater on Twitter @bengroundwater