It seems so natural and harmless, and resistance feels so callous and cruel, to give to the kids that fill the streets of Siem Reap selling books, postcards, flowers and jewellery, or sometimes just begging for money. They are poor, they’re clearly in need, and they’re so full of fun and banter that it’s impossible to say no.
It’s tough even for those who know that giving to street kids actually locks them into the cycle of poverty they’re trapped in. And make no mistake, there is no such thing as a harmless dollar when it’s pressed into a small hand on the streets of any town in a developing country. This may seem harsh, as after all a dollar will surely get them and their family a meal for the day, which they clearly seem to need, or will pay for the kid to go to school and that can’t be bad at all, can it?
The unfortunate truth is that yes it is bad. Put brutally, the only person helped in this transaction is the visitor who gets to feel virtuous for a while, believing they have done something to resist this dreadful poverty they can see all around them. It’s a completely human and understandable response, it doesn’t make anyone a bad person, but it’s still wrong and here’s why.
Giving to street kids is a short-term solution that ensures that long-term answers are more difficult to implement. It helps to ensure that they stay poor for the rest of their lives and, as uneducated parents, means that their children will probably be just as poor too. It ensures a thriving labour market for young children who should not be working, many of whom are not from Siem Reap at all but brought in from other provinces to work the streets. Worse yet, working on the streets not only impairs their education, it exposes these children to predators: traffickers, drug dealers and child sex tourists.
There are a number of reputable charities in Siem Reap that work with street children, ensuring that they go to school, providing additional schooling for them, giving them an arts education, supporting their families and generally working very hard to ensure the children in their care have the power to shape their own destinies.
Sam Flint, the director of the shelter Anjali, says that when travellers give to street kids, it makes his job that much harder to do. “Giving to street kids jeopardises their future, and it’s difficult for an organisation to offset the attraction for parents to send their kids out to the streets”.
His organisation provides each family that takes their kids off the street and enrols them in the programme with rice every month, to balance out some of the lost income. But every dollar that a tourist gives deprives the parents of an incentive to make sure their kids go to school and get a proper education, which includes not being too tired to study.
Flint continues, “Yes, these are low income families, but there are alternatives. Not giving money to street kids however cuts out the easy option”.
It’s not all gloomy: there are ways that visitors can help kids without sustaining a system that exploits them and deprives them of a future. Several organisations are registered with an NGO called Concert Cambodia, which imposes strict accountability and accounting standards on members. They can advise you on ways to support organisations, and which ones are safe to give to and which not. They can also help you with volunteering options too.
By Nicky Sullivan
Last updated on 3rd June, 2011.
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