“Now, if I buy all your flowers, you’ll go home, right?” said the Aussie girl next to me.
“Yup,” said the little girl selling roses as she handled the bundle to my friend.
We were in Bangkok and I was watching my Aussie friend take pity on a little Thai girl selling flowers to drunk backpackers on Khao San Road in Thailand. She bought all the flowers, feeling good about herself and confident that she had kept a little girl from staying up all night, sending her home to get rest for school tomorrow.
“Oh what the hell!” I heard her say about 30 minutes later. I looked up and there, across the street, was the little flower girl, selling a new batch of flowers. She avoided us this time.
My Aussie friend was clearly disheartened. She felt as though she had done some good, only to realize a cruel reality of Thailand: kids don’t go home until their parents say so. After spending many years in Thailand, I knew this was going to happen. My other friends and I had warned her not to buy all the flowers, that the little girl’s parents would just send her out again. But she didn’t listen.
And now that I’m back in Thailand and I see beggars and little kids again, wandering the streets asking for money, I wonder if giving is doing any good or just supporting a flawed system. In much of the developing world, you see kids selling trinkets and flowers to Westerners. You see parents begging with a kid “asleep” in their lap in order to gain sympathy. After all, the parents know what we know: it’s hard to say no to a kid. You automatically feel bad for them. You think about the poverty they live in, the life they lead, and think, “Well, I’ll give a little bit and help out.”
If people weren’t giving, those kids wouldn’t be there. And as much as people protest and shoo the kids away, many other people open their wallets in hopes of doing some good. We look at the woman with the baby in her arms, reach into our pockets, and go, “OK, just a little bit.”
When I see these beggars on the street, I’m often torn on what to do. On the one hand, I don’t want to perpetuate the system. I don’t want the children to be out selling trinkets instead of learning in school. I don’t want parents using their children as a shortcut to quick cash. I don’t want kids to be used as emotional blackmail. I want them asleep at 10pm, not dealing with angry, drunk tourists who are annoyed at them.
Yet I know that many poor families often do this out of necessity. They simply need the money. I often think about Bangladesh. Back in the 1990s when child sweatshop labor became the cause du jour, the focus was on Bangladeshi sweatshops. There were boycotts. A crying Kathy Griffin. An uproar. Legislation. Clothing manufacturers cracked down on suppliers who hired children. Child labor decreased, and Westerners could sleep easy.
Yet years later I remember reading a newspaper article on a study that followed up on what happened to the children in Bangladesh. Turns out, they didn’t go to school. They ended up on the streets as beggars. The families needed the income for food. And if they couldn’t work making clothes, they could work on the streets.
The need for food trumps all other needs.
I remember once walking past this guy and his kid in a part of Bangkok I went to often with my friends. The man sold some junky stuff I didn’t want. But one day I walked past him, and the desperation, the pleading in his voice just made me stop.
“Just look. Please. Please,” he said.
I’d never seen such a sincere look of desperation on someone’s face as I did that night. I don’t know if it was all part of the “get money” game, but I just couldn’t look at that guy with his kid and stuff no one wanted and not be moved. I pulled out my wallet and handed the guy 1,000 baht (a little over $30 USD). He was dumbfounded by the money, but I just couldn’t walk past him anymore without helping. The sadness in his eyes was just too real…just too palpable.
Giving money to beggars often represents more than a black-and-white choice between supporting and not supporting a flawed system. Many of these people lack any real social support structure that can help them out of poverty. Thailand has no social assistance program. Neither does most of the developing world where you see such abject poverty and so many beggars. They’re on their own.
And so despite hating the system, I usually give. If there’s change in my wallet, I give it to the homeless and beggars of the world. It’s simply too hard to say no. My heart breaks for them.
And I know that’s sort of the point. They feed on your sympathy. It’s hard, especially with the kids.
What do you do? Do you give? Do you not give? What’s the answer here? Is there one? I’m interested to know how you deal with this situation as you see it unfold around the world.