As a traveler, what’s the best response when people ask you for money?
By Rolf Potts
Should you ever travel to Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, there’s a good chance you’ll meet Francisco in the city’s humid, touristy colonial zone. Barefoot, emaciated, and filthy from sleeping in the street, Francisco looks far older than his 19 years, and his wavering gaze carries a look of hardened desperation.
I met Francisco — or, rather, he made it a point to meet me — when I was sitting on a bench near Independence Park, on my first full day in the city. After chatting me up for a few minutes (asking how I liked Santo Domingo, and inquiring about my favorite baseball teams) Francisco got down to business. “I’m homeless,” he said, “and I haven’t eaten all day. Can you give me 100 pesos for some food?”
I’d sensed this was coming, but something seemed a little suspicious about Francisco. “You speak great English,” I said. “You must be educated.”
“I’m not educated,” he said. “Not really. I lived with my uncle in New Jersey for a couple years, but they made me leave the country after 9/11, and it’s hard to find work here in Santo Domingo. Please, 100 pesos is nothing for you. It’s not even three dollars.”
This was true enough — and it was obvious that Francisco had indeed been sleeping in the street — but I’d never been comfortable handing out money to strangers. “I haven’t had lunch yet,” I said. “Come to the restaurant and eat with me.”
Francisco agreed to come, though he seemed vaguely disappointed by the proposition. When we got to a nearby cafeteria, he suggested I just give him the 100 pesos, claiming he could get bigger portions at a restaurant in a poorer neighborhood. When I suggested we go to this restaurant together, Francisco said it was too far away to walk, and asked again for 100 pesos. I refused, and when our sandwiches arrived, Francisco continued to goad me for money. Eventually I became irritated, and slapped down 50 pesos.
Francisco took the money, finished his sandwich, and was gone in under a minute, leaving me to deal with the sickly mix of emotions I feel whenever I wind up in such situations: anger, pity, resentment, guilt.
Over the course of the next week in Santo Domingo, I slowly discovered just how ill advised my investment in Francisco had been. Contrary to what he’d said, there was no shortage of work in Santo Domingo: Most all of this physical labor was done by Haitian immigrants, who toiled in the heat while the likes of Francisco lolled in the shade and hustled tourists for money. Moreover, I began to notice that the colonial zone was home to other, more needful beggars: amputees; elderly blind men; women with painfully withered limbs. Francisco, who was young and able-bodied, had likely used my 50 pesos to invest in a brief chemical high — glue, most likely, or possibly some cheap form of speed.
I share this incident with Francisco not to preach some tidy lesson about dealing with the needy as you travel, but simply to illustrate my frustration at the moral ambiguity of the whole beggar issue. Indeed, after ten years of traveling in developing nations, I still have no hard and fast system on how to respond to beggars. Usually, whether or not I give depends on some combination of my mood, the appearance and persistence of the beggar, and whether or not I have small change. And, regardless of whether I give money or choose not to, I always end up feeling a little guilty.
This sense of guilt, I believe, is at the heart of the whole traveler-beggar issue. Life is not fair, after all, and traveling to poor countries (or seeing poor people in rich countries) only underscores this fact.
Still, handing out money solves few problems. Who, after all, do you give to? Everyone? Only the worst looking cases? And how much? And how often?
Moreover, this very sense of guilt is part of the “marketing” for hustler-beggars and needful beggars alike — and that’s why children get forced into beggary, drug-addled mothers beg with sickly babies in-hand, and tourist zones invariably attract hordes of disheveled panhandlers. With the rise of urbanization in the past 50 years, some people can make more money begging in the cities than toiling in the countryside. And, in many parts of the world (perhaps most famously in India, Kenya, and among the Gypsies in Europe), begging rings are tied to organized crime, and very little of the money actually goes to the beggar herself.
Thus, while I offer no universal solutions as to how to deal with beggars on the road, my travel experiences have taught me a few principles to help navigate this sadly common and difficult situation:
1) Spend some time in the community before you give to beggars
This was perhaps my primary mistake in dealing with Francisco. Not only will a few days of immersion in the local culture give you a better sense for which beggars are and are not truly needy — it will also give you a sense for the spending power of the local currency.
Moreover, a little cultural familiarity will allow you to see how locals react to beggars: when they give money, and how much they choose to give. Most of the world’s spiritual traditions have time-honored practices for helping the needy, and following these local religious protocols is often the most culturally appropriate way to give money. In less religious societies, such as those in Western Europe, state funds are often available for the homeless and indigent, theoretically eliminating the need for hunger-based beggary.
Donations to local charities and NGOs are another solution for helping the needy in a given community — though you should research aid organizations carefully, since many such agencies are notorious for siphoning money into bloated administrative overhead.
2) Practice skepticism
My second mistake with Francisco is that I failed to practice proper discernment when I chose to give. This in mind, try and donate to those who truly need it (physical deformities are usually a reliable indicator of need), and try to avoid putting money into the hands of hustlers. Any able-bodied beggar who is too aggressive, charming, accusatory, persistent, melodramatic, or (in non-Anglophone countries) good at English is probably working a scam, trying to raise drug money, or avoiding legitimate work.
Children who beg are always a tough call, since it’s natural to feel sympathy for them. I almost never give to child beggars, however, because child beggary is so often tied to organized crime and familial exploitation. Moreover, even if a given kid is begging independently of opportunistic adults, I find it best not to reinforce this behavior at such a young age. Some travelers suggest giving pens or other educational supplies to child beggars, but I find this strategy a tad credulous. Better to give school supplies (or money) to an actual school or aid agency in a developing country than to presume these items will go to good use at random.
3) Don’t be afraid to say no
It’s better to give out of conviction than guilt, so don’t give if you truly don’t want to. Some travelers I know even have a policy of never giving to beggars at all (reasoning that their donation stands to create as many problems as it solves), and this is as legitimate a way as any to deal with the situation. Beggars realize that what they’re doing is a numbers game, and that not everyone who walks past is going to give them money.
4) You’re not saving the day
Giving money to a person on the street may make that person’s day a little better, but rarely will it do much to actually change his or her life. Individual travelers are rarely more than a fleeting presence in the lives of beggars, so keep things in perspective, remain humble, and don’t condemn those travelers who choose not to give.
5) Be courteous
It is perfectly normal protocol to ignore beggars in a given situation (they’re used to it), but don’t lecture them on how they should live their life or spend their money. In other words, remember the essential humanity of the needy as you travel, and don’t presume the presence of beggars is somehow an affront to your vacation. After all, as a traveler you are a mere guest in a faraway place, and they have just as much right as you to hang out at a given landmark, a public square, or tourist attraction.
This essay originally appeared in Yahoo! News on August 14, 2006.