Should you give to beggars while traveling?

in colombo bus

One of the best things I love about traveling with my children is being able to impart lessons otherwise they could only see in television or read in books. They learn it first hand; sometimes it’s a joyful experience but sometimes, it’s a sad one.

But nevertheless, they learn something important.

We were in Colombo last summer when while walking in the streets in one of the city’s main train stations, a beggar approached us and asked for something (either money or food, I am not sure since we don’t speak the local language). We were in a hurry to catch the bus on the other side of the road so we walked past him and did not give. Our ten year old was stumped.

This is something our children do not see everyday in Dubai. In fact, there are NO beggars roaming in Dubai (actually there are but very discreet as it is illegal here and they can get arrested – it is common during the holy month of Ramadan. Otherwise, you could not see any obvious beggars here).

Pristine was shocked at our naivete, and I remembered the same face she made when we traveled to the Philippines when she was 5. I grew up in the Philippines and street kids and beggars are not new to me. Still, I cringe at the thought of children living in the streets, putting their lives at stake and living by chance – depending on other people to give alms for food, for their basic needs. It hurts more after I had children of my own.

children at colombo fort

I had to explain to my daughter (again – I already told her when she was 5 but I doubt she remembers our discussion that time) that tourists should not give to beggars, children or not. Never mind it’s the cutest child, or a disabled one or a blind man. Our daughter could not understand it and she started to cry. She was very disturbed with my seemingly ‘cold’ decision not to give to the needy.

We needed to catch the bus at the other side of the road and the pedestrian light is turning red so we walked past the beggar, crossed the road and got on the bus.  We spent the entire journey explaining why giving money to (child) beggars is the least generous thing a tourist can do.

Here are reasons why giving to beggars (especially children) do more harm than good:

1. It contributes to the cycle of begging and poverty.

Children learn quickly and if they become aware that they can earn in the streets from begging, they will continue to do so. The more you give to beggars, it affects their way of thinking that it’s a viable thing to do and so they will continue to do it. And some impoverished parents even encourage children to beg instead of sending them to school.

2.  The money you gave might not be for food but for drugs.

In my home town, there’s a group of children living near the church who spend their entire day begging and when someone gives them, they buy cheap drugs to get high.

I’ve read in one article that even the most seemingly harmless gifts often end up into something else: A Consortium for Street Children report, for example, found that when tourists gave milk powder to child beggars in Brazil, the children traded that milk for crack cocaine. Yes, milk for crack.

3. You might be supporting a ‘begging mafia’ that exploit children.

In India, it is reported that thousands of children disappear every year and end up in the streets forced to “work” as beggars. And since disabled child beggars get more money than healthy ones, criminal groups often increase their profits by cutting out a child’s eyes, scarring his face with acid, or amputating a limb (remember the movie Slumdog Millionaire?).

4. It keeps children away from school.

We give (money or small gifts) in the best intention to help but these children can resell it and skip school since they are earning in the streets.

5. The government will downplay the problem.

The government, the entity that should find solution to helping kids off the streets will downplay the problem because children who continue to get something from tourists are thriving.

It is not easy to ignore children in the streets. It still breaks my heart whenever I am in a taxi in Manila and children tap the window when the taxi stops at a signal. Those eyes. Those ragged clothes. No slippers. Those children risking their lives cheating death by chasing cars. The taxi driver always say to “lock the door”.

I told our daughter that not giving money to child beggars doesn’t mean we don’t care about children and turn our backs on them. We can help by donating to legitimate NGO’s and charitable agencies, orphanages, etc. We need to find ways to be kind to children that don’t encourage continued cycle of poverty, or support human trafficking and organized crimes.

But I tell you what, all this well-founded advice is tough to follow when standing face-to-face with a child who look truly starving, who obviously needs help. I was waiting for a bus one stormy night in Manila many, many years ago when a child came up to me, begging for food. She did not have any umbrella and was completely soaked and feeling very cold. I had so many thoughts racing in my mind but in the end, I gave a small amount, I couldn’t help it. And now, I always pray no one comes near me to beg, especially children because it is still difficult to say no and walk away.

Have you encountered children begging in any of your travels? What did you do? I know I have readers out there with some amazing perspective. I would love to hear from you.


  1. I don’t give, as it’s not fair to give to only one beggar. If I give, it would have to be for all the beggars there in that place. I can’t give to only one, he/she might be bullied by the others. So I don’t, and as I prefer in kind rather than cash, give to charity instead.

    When Mt Pinatubo erupted, there were Aetas who were displaced and had ended up in nearby provinces. There was one afternoon that 2 or 3 families were knocking at each gate in the neighborhood, asking for food. THEY WERE NOT ASKING FOR MONEY. Given them some rice to cook, water, canned goods, and the leftover from lunch. And yes, for them, even if they were not asking, we gave money.



  2. I faced this problem in Bicol and I caved. Although I am a savvy traveller and am aware of (and agree with) every reason you listed, I still broke down. I gave money and cried.

    As a mother, it is especially hurtful because I could only think of how fortunate my family is. We are no better than anyone else. We are no better than drug addicts, alcoholics, the homeless…I am human and so are they. If I was in a desperate position, I would hope someone would not question why but only wish for me a better life and help in any way they can. Of course, there is a certain level of naivete in hoping that the family really needs it and will use it for a good reason. But I’m not God, who am I to judge.

    Again…I agree with every single thing you posted. I know I may be doing more harm than good, most of the time (if not all of the time). However, I can only do what my heart guides me in any particular situation.



    1. It’s really tough to face these because we have our own kids too. This is why I don’t like to stay in Manila. Pristine always want to cry whenever she sees street kids approaching our taxi…once I attempted to open and gave and then we were swarmed by other street kids. The taxi driver was furious – he said, “don’t ever do that again! You’re not from here, are you?”

      It’s always a reality check whenever I travel back home. I wish there’s an international airport near my place so I don’t have to pass by Manila again 😦



  3. I am from India and I have had a lot of interesting encounters with beggars. I also remember when a school boy was asking me for money since he has lost his book and I borrowed some money from my friend to give him. A few days later I was shocked to see him doing the same thing with another person. We can easily get fooled, however it’s really difficult to hold back. I think it is better to buy them food instead of giving them money.

    However, I haven’t faced such a situation after having kids and I don’t know how I’ll react.



  4. I admit I’m guilty of giving to beggars when I’m traveling. I know that in some cases, the money may end up in the wrong pockets or being used for purposes I wouldn’t want it to, but in many other cases, it’s a question of day-to-day survival. How can I tell that mom with 2 small children sleeping on the same spot as she sits during the day that “no, it’s against my policy to give money to you”? However, I prefer to buy a sandwich or a soda for them instead of just handing over money.
    Of course it’s another case in Denmark. Nobody has to beg to survive and a qualified guess would be that 99% of the beggars in Copenhagen are Eastern European criminals or part of organized crime.



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