Giving money to beggars: is 'no' always the right approach?


This subject has been covered by many others and a common message seems to run through the discussions that ensue. While it might be tempting to show pity on those who approach us pleading for a dollar to feed them and their family, by giving money we are encouraging the act of begging and perpetuating a cycle of dependence on handouts from passing tourists. 

But walking past a person asking us for help leave most of us feeling guilty in some way. Guilty for having so much more, guilty for not being able to look them in the eye, guilty for saying no. Guilt alone is not a reason to give of course. Yet are there some circumstances where the act of giving to a beggar is justified? Where the long-term downsides of giving should be disregarded for the greater immediate need of that individual? 

Here are five simple examples that many of us will have come across. Who would you give your change to? Who would you decline?

Person 1: the Cambodian war veteran who lost both his legs to a landmine explosion. Now he sits at the entrance to the craft market begging for change from passing tourists.

Person 2: the Indian woman with a young baby slung across her chest. She shuffles between cars at the busy Delhi intersection, palm outstretched and wearing a mournful look of despair. 

Person 3: the Roma lady with three young children hanging to her skirt who approaches you for money while you are sipping a coffee in a Venice cafe. 

Person 4: the young man who suddenly appears as you stop your rental car in the small South African town for a spot of lunch. He asks for a few rand to 'watch the car'. 

Person 5: the young girl on the London street, asking politely for some spare change as you enter the underground station. 

Would you adopt the same approach for each of these situations? Or does the way that we handle beggars depend on our own perceptions of their need, and on how we think they will use the money we give them?

Comments (7)

  1. I'm Brazilian and used to live in Sao Paulo. I was approached by beggar about 5 times a day, sometimes more. I noticed that if I'd stop to give money to everyone who asked me I'd be broken — and would solve no one's problemas, while creating on for me.

    So I established a policy: if I can't give money to everyone, I'll give it to no one. I feel sorry, but I don't feel gulity. I find giving money to alleviate guilty a very selfish act. You don't actually care about those people, you are solving no one's problems and you're just buying your way out of guilt.

    If you really want to help, there are other ways — I did some voluntary work in a poor community in Sao Paulo, for instance. You have to commit to it, take the time for it, really get involved, otherwise you don't know wghat you're getting into.

    For example, in Sao Paulo, there are children who get exploted by abusing adults who create a network of begging kids, and collects all their money in a sick pimping scheme. If you give money to them to alleviate your gulit, are you really helping? Do you know what you are doing?

    Do you want to know?

    Do you want to get involved? If you do, then go and really do it, get your hands dirty and get involved. If you don't , why are you giving money to them?

    This post asks a very complicated question.

    Daniel 23rd March 2011

  2. Sorry for the typos. I whish I could correct them :(

    Daniel 23rd March 2011

  3. If they aren't incapacitated or aren't providing a service then it's mostly a no from me. Even incapacitated people can often be doing something, which is better, freely giving money to the guy with no legs or buying a book from him?
    Then I don't consider someone selling items or providing a service to be a beggar.
    Kids are extremely vulnerable but I mostly apply the same idea to them too, the difference here is if the are working in some way is it child labour? And lets be honest it wasn't that long ago that western kids were polishing shoes or running messages for a buck. Maybe it's just part of a developing country developing.
    I do draw the line though, kids selling pointless crap like roses or photos to guys in red light areas is most definitely child labour.

    Dan 24th March 2011

  4. I totally agree with this article. I grew up in places with a lot of begging, and my parents always taught me that it's better to give them food, instead of money. In Europe I've seen many beggars standing at the doors of supermarkets, and I happily buy them what they need. It's usually not much, just bread, milk or fruit. I personally think this is the right approach if one really feels like giving someone something the need. Giving beggars money just reinforces the behavior or people that beg from sheer laziness or to finance a drug habit.

    Carla 5th April 2011

  5. Sorry, I meant to say I agree with the view of the article, although i wouldn't actually give money to anyone begging for it.

    Carla 5th April 2011

  6. In South Africa it happens more often than not. When children ask me for money for food, I always aks them what food - a reply is usually bread and milk, or mieliemeal - so, in I go to the shop and add to my list of groceries, bread & milk, or mieliemeal when I exit I hand those items to the children.

    Once a lady begged me for money, I could see she was not quite with it and said "No". She insisted that all she wanted was some fruit and bread, I did not believe her but had some bread rolls and a packet of apples in the car with me as we were taking a long trip, I handed them to her. The petrol attendant then said to me, "She'll just throw that away".

    My good intentions turned out to be a waste of food!

    Never pay person 4 to 'watch your car' unless he's wearing a uniform from the store from which you wish to enter in South Africa, you can always enquire in the store if you are unsure - but always pay person 4 when you're at a Border post in Zimbabwe! On recent trips into Zimbabwe our vehicle was not touched, others had flat tyres or missing spare wheels and I'd hate to have a smashed window, so I'll pay the watchmen, for sure!

    Jennie 12th April 2011

  7. I always feel bad for beggars . Its just such a shame so I must say that its 90 percent yes and 10 percent no.

    Richard 10th July 2012