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What to do About Begging (and Your Conscience)

11/10/2010 10:54 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Any sort of third world travel means that you are going to have to decide what you want to do about begging -- and the related issue of children attempting to sell you little trinkets and such. From the heart wrenching to the highly annoying, begging is unavoidable when you travel in large portions of the world, and it is best to have thought it through a little before you arrive.

I decided before my round-the-world trip that my particular answer was going to be "just say no" to straight begging. On the other hand, I will occasionally buy something from the street kids. From my point of view, there is a difference between straight begging and showing a little entrepreneurial spirit. Is that a heartless or Western-centric way of looking at things? Perhaps.

My Reasoning:

• It reinforces a culture of helplessness and dependency.
• Often times, the children begging are just pawns in a game whereby the money ends up in the hands of the criminal gangs that run the operation from behind the scenes.
• Successful begging discourages children from going to school and trying to acquire the means to lift themselves out of poverty.
• There is little way to differentiate when to stop giving. If you give to this person and that person, what rational basis can you make for not giving to the next dozen people that ask?
• The locals I have talked to have been vociferous in their desire to not have me give.
• The substitutes to money that some give are no better than money. Candy just leads to dental and health problems and pens are just sold for money anyway.

I don't normally make an exception for children selling postcards or trinkets or whatever, but occasionally a truly enterprising kid will manage to get a buck or two out of me. The kids that have memorized all the capitals of the world (at least the tourist producing world) and can say something a few words in dozens of languages particularly have a way to get to me. Because my language skills are so poor, I'm just impressed.

And yes, I realize that the same arguments I -- and others -- make against giving money to beggars applies to these kids also. They aren't in school. They are on the streets making a life of this. They also are subject to gang control. But irrational as it may be, I just occasionally give in anyway, or in one case, wish I had.

The Good Fortune of the Geography of Birth:
Basically, the whole issue comes down to Western guilt in my eyes. Should I feel guilty for having the good fortune of my geography of birth?

I come from an immensely wealthy country. Talk about good luck -- I am a white male raised in a middle class household in the United States. The starting line that I set off from on the moment that I entered this world is light years ahead of those that want a dollar or two from me. I had the benefit of a freely provided and usually excellent education until I was eighteen years old. The list goes on and on.

But I'm not sure I should feel guilty about it. And frankly, I don't. I applied myself to my studies and worked for over a decade to save up the money to do my traveling. I had great luck, but also believe I have participated in making the world a better place in my way.

And as it relates to being in the third world -- I am here, spending my hard earned money. I am doing something for the people in the third world -- I am injecting money into their economy. Is that a drop in the bucket? Perhaps, but a bigger drop in the bucket than giving someone a small handout. Additionally, I am out here trying to understand these cultures and bring some of that understanding back home through what I write and tell people, which I believe helps bring us all together in a small way.

The Exception: Laos and Cambodia: The big exception to my feelings on this topic was when I went to Laos and Cambodia. There, I was confronted with bomb and land mine victims that were missing limbs -- missing entirely because of the actions of my country. While one can certainly make the claim that the United States has occasionally done its part to keep people in certain parts of the world "down," there is no clearer example of that than in these two countries. 2010-10-20-MineSign300.jpgDuring the Vietnam War, we dropped about two and a half million tons of explosives on these two countries, in a completely illegal and undeclared war. Thousands of those bombs are still strewn through the countryside and over 20,000 completely innocent people have maimed or killed since the war.

My country did that. Illegally. And even more heinously and immorally, we have done next to nothing to go back and try to alleviate the suffering we have caused. While we spent billions causing this destruction that continues today, we have spent almost nothing to go back and clean up our mess.

There are a couple groups of land mine and bomb victims that have set up areas in and around Angkor Wat to play music and ask for contributions. When I rode past the first group on my bicycle, I stopped because the music was hauntingly beautiful. Then I noticed their prosthetic legs sitting next to the platform they played on. Never was a gift easier to give than on that day. 2010-10-20-Cambodia_Music300.jpg

Here is the link to the United Nations organization that is still in the process of cleaning up unexploded ordinance in this part of the world. They accept contributions. I just wish that my country -- that I believe is the greatest nation in the world -- would contribute more to this effort than the pittance they do now.

Addendum: Photo of Land Mine Sign from Everything-Everywhere.com and Photo of Land Mine Victim Musicians from Hole in the Donuts Travels.

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