Begging: The Question

Many travelers find it hard to say no to young beggars such as this girl in Beijing, but experts urge tourists to donate instead to organizations that focus on helping poor children.
Many travelers find it hard to say no to young beggars such as this girl in Beijing, but experts urge tourists to donate instead to organizations that focus on helping poor children. (Peter Parks - AFP/Getty Images)
By Lori Robertson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 14, 2007

When Lauren Ratner spent three months in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, she was overwhelmed by the poverty and the number of people, including children, begging for money in the streets.

"Guilty" is how the 31-year-old D.C. resident describes her feelings at the time. Now working in maternal and child health policy, Ratner was in the country in 2003 for an internship with an international family planning organization. As a foreigner, she attracted plenty of beggars.

"I got so tired and bitter of always being such a target," she says. But on the other hand, "I was incredibly rich in comparison, so why shouldn't I be a target?"

Her response to these mixed emotions was to wake up every morning with a new rule for herself. " 'Today I'm only going to give money to moms with babies,' " she recalls thinking. "Or 'Today I'm only going to give money to disabled people.' Or 'Today I'm only going to give money to kids if they're selling something.' So it varied completely."

Whether to give money -- and how best to give it -- is a dilemma for many travelers who visit developing lands and confront levels of poverty they are unaccustomed to. It can be particularly difficult to watch young street children asking for coins or selling trinkets and photos of themselves to tourists.

Travel didn't create this problem: UNICEF cites some estimates of 100 million street children worldwide, not just in popular destinations. But it is clear that Western tourists, prime targets of cute, poor children, are expected to respond. Should foreigners give them money -- or even food? How can they turn away from a child in need?

Several nonprofit organizations that work with street kids tell travelers to just say no. They point out that giving money can keep a child in a dangerous situation. But they also acknowledge that such advice is impossible to follow in every circumstance.

"Ideally, you should try to find an organization that is working with these kids, so that the money goes further and supports as many kids as it can," says Paul Dimmick, spokesman for EveryChild, a London-based organization that works with vulnerable children in 17 countries. "But sometimes when you're there and you're staring at someone face to face, it's incredibly difficult to just walk away."

Lexie Armao and her husband, Jon, have taken many international vacations, including a recent trip to Southeast Asia. The Armaos are 60-something technical writers from Reston, and they have a policy of not giving money to street children because, Lexie Armao says, "you don't know for sure what the situation is."

They once saw a woman in Turkey using a beautiful little girl as a front, Armao adds, saying she'd rather give to an organization.

But she will buy things from children, a well-meaning act that landed her in an uncomfortable situation in Cambodia. When she bought bracelets from a young girl, a second child got angry. "Another girl followed me and was harassing me that I wouldn't buy from her," she says.

"It's basically like the hard sell," Dimmick says of the aggressive behavior some children exhibit. And it sometimes works. But "you still can't tell where their desperation comes from."


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