During your travels in Asia you’ll be approached by beggars on more than one occasion. It may seem like an easy way to help, especially when a tiny, dirty hand reaches out, pointing to an empty belly, but it isn’t as straight forward as what meets the eye. Their parents know, the cuter, smaller the child is, the more money he or she will bring home at the end of the day.
“Gimme” or “One dollar” is repeated over and over again as we make our way through the breath taking temples of Angkor Wat. A little boy proceeded towards us and made me jump as he touches my arm with his dirty hand. Startled, I turn away, avoiding eye contact. My heart goes over my chest and a familiar feeling washes over me. It’s difficult to say no to children when they are asking for so little and it’s human nature to see a hungry child and want to help.
Families demand their children to go out begging to bring home money. In the short term it is a solution for their financial problems, however, it sets the children up for an even more difficult future as the country develops and the poor get further and further behind.
While the kids are on the street, they aren’t going to school, which takes away any possible opportunity for a brighter future. Every dollar a tourist gives deprives the parent of the incentive to send their children to school and provide them with proper education. Worse, it exposes them to predators: drug dealers, child sex tourists and traffickers. Refusing to feed this system, gives children a better chance and in the long run, breaks the cycle of poverty.
It’s not only tourists parents target but also locals and expats. It’s cross-cultural. For Cambodians, it’s cultural, part of the Buddhist practice.
Walking through the lush, green country side, my mind is racing. Looking at all these young children on the street, I can’t help but think: what can I do to make a difference? What about books, toys or toothbrushes? Dark eyes look directly into mine. As I skim his little smooth, tanned face, I realize he can’t be more than three or four years old, but his eyes indicate much older, wiser and hardened by this world. It is important to do some research and plan before you act. Most schools will have a strict giving policy and prefer your donations to be pooled until there is a fair amount for all students so that some students are not made feel more special than others. Call ahead and organize your donation with the head of the school.
In most of the South-East Asian countries there is no welfare system in place. The family supports them and that is identical with people with disabilities. In fact, a strand of the Buddhist philosophy points to that disability as a punishment for bad deeds in a previous life. In this case, use common sense and maybe it will bring some relief.
So, what can you do?
In most South East Asian countries there are established organizations working with the community to provide support in training, education, employment, health care and social support. Local NGO’s supporting sustainable projects who then manage and look after themselves is an excellent way to start. Look them up and support them if you want to help in a meaningful way. Last but not least, use some common sense! You don’t have to be cold hearted and it can feel just like that when refusing a pleading face. Just remember, you are actually helping more by not giving money, in most cases.