Jun 03 2011

Why giving money to street kids is a really terrible idea

Published by at 7:04 am under Culture


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.

Schools out - permanently

School's out -- permanently.

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.

Sleeve licking is the new black

Sleeve licking is the new black.

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.

Smiles all round

Smiles all round.

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.

Further reading
Travel blogger Michael Hodson has a piece on Third World begging that is also worth a read.
More tips on reading? Let us know.

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32 responses so far

32 Responses to “Why giving money to street kids is a really terrible idea”

  1. Mark Ordon 03 Jun 2011 at 9:07 am

    Excellent post – totally agree. Well done!

    The ‘begging babies’ get me too. Had to have a word the other day with no less than 6 mums with babies standing outside the minimart begging! I did politely suggest 1 of them babysat all 6 babies allowing the other 5 mothers to go and get jobs doing laundry or cleaning rooms. (and then some idiot tourist goes up and gives them a $)

  2. Sannyon 03 Jun 2011 at 9:09 am

    I’m a big believer in not giving money to the homeless/poor. Instead, I’d rather give out food or water or something they need rather than give them the responsibility to buy it themselves (which I’m not sure they’d do).

    I’m the past, when someone has stopped to beg me for a money for phone/money/other, I have offered them the use of my phone/given them a biscuit/banana/drink or said “sorry” and walked away.

    I just think giving money is wrong unless you know what it’s going to be used for. I still don’t give money to charities as I know where half of it ends up.

  3. Donnaon 03 Jun 2011 at 10:07 am

    At the Landmine Mueum there is a sign. That says (paraphrase) please do not give money to the children. They will become beggars and stop going to school

  4. Kristinaon 03 Jun 2011 at 1:24 pm

    Yes, I learned this on my first trip to Cambodia in 2002. It sometimes makes me feel horrible to say no, but I choose instead to support http://www.theplf.org, an NGO in Siem Reap which supports local schools. I’ve gone back to Cambodia twice more to work with them and can testify to the excellent work they do. I hope to return next year to volunteer again.

  5. Adamon 04 Jun 2011 at 12:17 am

    You had me until the very last sentence. Voluntourism often produces worse outcomes than giving money directly to street children.

    Orphans aren’t animals in a zoo, to be pet and photographed.
    If a fence needs constructing at a school, isn’t it better to hire local labor to do it? Teaching English should not be left to 18 year old gap-years.
    How often do voluntourists consider these things?

    For more on this exact subject I’d suggest you read a Siem Reap resident, Daniela Papi, thoughts on the matter. She articulates them well here: http://goodintents.org/staffing-or-employment/voluntourism-what-could-go-wrong

  6. sebaon 04 Jun 2011 at 2:23 am

    if you want to feel at least less guilty, look at the kids, they never ask money to other cambodians getting off their lexus.
    Another thing i felt bad was this english teaching thing, like we are making them ready to be employed at $40 a month in sme bars. we need volunteers that teach carpentry, bricklaying, things useful for their own community and not just for the tourist world of Siem Reap.
    And let’s not even start with the money making machine that is called VOLUNTEERING….

  7. Kristinaon 04 Jun 2011 at 2:51 am

    Hmmm…not all volunteering is bad. I agree that one must do their homework before deciding where to go.
    The organization I work with, http://www.theplf.org, does not charge people to volunteer. Their focus is not “teaching English” either.
    It’s simply making sure that kids have what they need to go to school and get an education; books, supplies, uniforms, bicycles, even supplimenting teacher salaries. They’ve built dorm houses for kids from small villages where there is no secondary school so they can have a place to live in another town to continue their education beyond the 6th grade.
    These kids can then go on to be whatever they want once they have an education. Volunteers who stay long enough to help in the schools have not only taught English with the kids, yes, but also give classes to the teachers and teach computer classes, sewing, art, and work on rebuilding classrooms.
    It’s a fantastic, well respected organization and Ponheary Ly was nominated as a CNN Hero last year.

  8. Deborahon 05 Jun 2011 at 2:39 am

    Having traveled all over Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia for months at a time I found my best experience and most beloved place was Siem Reap. THe gentleness of the people, the calm of the river, the smell of frangipani trees, the beautiful food and the magnificence of Ankgor Wat made me feel like I had found a place of beauty and tranquility. And beyond all the parties on pub street and girls working this most definitely was my favourite stop in South East Asia. And one of the main reasons was the volunteer work I did for a little (an I mean tiny- like 8 people) organization called Touch a Life.org. This small outreach feeds hungry woman and the women street sweepers. Run by Mavis Ching, a beautiful hearted soul who left the hub-bub if Singapore to help others, it not only re-routed my trip but taught me so much about Cambodia and its people and myself that I did not know. We would meet at the kitchen and cook on Mon, Wed, Friday and Saturdays. Kosal her heroic Cambodian man of action is one of the most delightful, kind, empathetic and loving people I have ever met. Coming from the big city in north america, with the do eat dog mentality it was such a delight, not only to met Kosal and Mavis but all the other rouge travelers here were kindred spirits. Australian, Dutch, Welsh, Canadian, American….it was an awesome experience. My stay went from 4 days to 2 weeks. I highly recommend you not only plan a stay in Siem Reap but google http://www.toughalife.org.my and get a shift in to cut some vegetables…it was the best time I’ve ever had!! You can reach Mavis at touchalife@gmail.com
    It will change your life.

  9. Nickyon 05 Jun 2011 at 11:18 am

    Hi Adam, you’re right that a lot of voluntourism is either not helpful or, as you note, actually detrimental by taking paying work away from Cambodians who are in far more need of the pay than a westerner is in need of yet another self-affirming experience to add to their CV. At the same time, there are people out there with skills that are really, really useful for small NGOs that are working really hard on behalf of their beneficiaries, on very tight budgets. For them, people with skills in photography, marketing, accounting, sales management, IT, carpentry, mechanics, website design and construction, human resources, business management (NGOs may not be businesses, but management skills from one can be invaluable in the other), the list goes on, can be utterly invaluable. Another example, instead of wanting to teach the kids English (and how to sing The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round for the umpteenth time), why not ask one of the organisations if they’d like a qualified teacher to come and teach their teachers some additional skills, then go home and raise the funds for it? The money spent will deliver returns for generations to come. It should be noted that the reputable organisations that offer schooling for their beneficiaries, do so as a supplementary to the state schooling the children also receive.

  10. Samon 13 Jun 2011 at 9:05 am

    I think it’s important to understand the contribution that qualified volunteers make to small organisations and NGO’s around the world. Yes, the volunteerism fad is a problem that is leading to the capitalisation of charity work, and that should be understood by everyone. But there are thousands of people contributing to capacity building and filling skilled labour shortages every year. The idea of tarring all volunteers with this negative attitude does not help anyone and could have detrimental effects on organisations need this type of support. The problem with this modern volunteerism comes from consumer demand and the money it generates. People should approach volunteering in the same way they approach a job. What skills do I have and where can they be put to the best use? Many people do not ask these simple questions and want a quick and easy one size fits all ‘holiday whilst giving something back’. No one should be surprised that travel companies and profit making volunteer companies move in to provide these services. You get what you want. As long as your prepared to pay for it!

  11. Brianon 18 Jun 2011 at 2:12 pm

    Thanks for tackling such a difficult issue. I agree with some of your statements but I also agree with Adam and Seba. Child poverty and poverty in general are enormous issues that have not simple solution (otherwise they wouldn’t still be around). Simply avoiding giving change to beggars doesn’t help them in the long run nor does simply teaching them English. As Seba points out that simply prepares them for low paying tourism jobs catering to us tourists.

    Volunteers need to start looking at the larger issues like why they are poor in the first place, why is there such a divide in the distribution of the wealth? How can that be changed? It’s a tough question that has no simple solution.

  12. [...] The kids selling stuff at Angkor Wat particularly touched me. (Further reading on giving money to street kids) [...]

  13. [...] leads to the second issue. The behavioural pattern of abusers in Cambodia is changing.  Children selling on streets long provided easy prey for paedophiles in Cambodia. But with increasing scrutiny, the ability to [...]

  14. Fahrion 02 Jul 2011 at 1:19 am

    Tell those capitalist bastards who are robbing all of humanity to stop increasing their disdainful wealth and sharing it with those from whom they had taken it. Tell Them to Give it Back, and not to Rob anymore. One’s luxury is other’s suffering. Radix mallorum est cupiditas. Greed is the root of evil. It is a shame to be poor in a country well governed, and it is a shame to be rich in a country badly governed. instead of trying to cut to the root of problems, what you are suggesting is that people should stop cutting the thorns and instead do nothing at all.

  15. Fahrion 02 Jul 2011 at 1:45 am

    I was harsh perhaps in the tone, but excuse me please, what goes on in this world makes me sick. Here is a decent comment that I agree with. “Thanks for tackling such a difficult issue. I agree with some of your statements but I also agree with Adam and Seba. Child poverty and poverty in general are enormous issues that have not simple solution (otherwise they wouldn’t still be around). Simply avoiding giving change to beggars doesn’t help them in the long run nor does simply teaching them English. As Seba points out that simply prepares them for low paying tourism jobs catering to us tourists.
    Volunteers need to start looking at the larger issues like why they are poor in the first place, why is there such a divide in the distribution of the wealth? How can that be changed? It’s a tough question that has no simple solution.” You mentioned about the distribution of wealth and I was thinking about those people who are talking about 3rd world countries and the corruption that is going on in there, as if that corruption is not their product as well. One can look at the distribution of wealth in a single country, but how about the world as a whole, since we are talking about some global economies today. The stratification of the society and the unfair distribution of wealth where football players gets millions solely by chasing after a ball and people are staring at it day and night as if it is important. ‘Singers’ (not musicians) get a lot of money again, and no need to mention the revenues the capitalists are playing with, for if I tried to mention I wouldn’t have been able to conceive those numbers, in order to properly write them. They colonize exploit the resources of other countries, and then talk about humanitarian aid to those countries which they have left bereft of a decent economy and government. The corporations and capitalists are many-folds worse than the Nazis they so much exaggerate and talk about.

  16. Nickyon 02 Jul 2011 at 3:54 am

    Hi Oscar, I agree entirely that the greater problem is why are these children and their families so poor in the first place, in a country so incredibly flush with giant Lexuses. This is a problem that a number of agencies/organisations are seeking to tackle through rule of law and other initiatives, though the progress is impossibly slow, and subject to the law of two steps forward, one and three-quarter steps back. But the issue being addressed here is a separate one. In reality, there is not much that volunteers can do to address the broader issue of why so many Cambodians live in poverty, but they can help to mitigate some of its worst effects by being aware and taking care.

  17. [...] Further reading Why giving money to street kids is a bad idea [...]

  18. [...] All along the riverside you'll be able to find children selling genocide-related literature, but please don't buy books from them — purchase from one of the many adults selling books on the riverside instead (Ed: do remember [...]

  19. [...] kids are another example of why giving to street kids is a disastrous idea – far better to give to organisations like the Green Gecko, the Sangkheum Centre or Anjali House, [...]

  20. carlson 29 Oct 2011 at 4:00 pm

    The 5 or so teenagers/children with babies tied to them are becoming quite vicious and come across as needy-desperate, when in fact there is a ‘mamasan’ watching them. When they get formula for babies the ‘mamasan’ returns it to the minimart for money. This desperate grabbing of people and physically harassing any westerner means I often see people going to the minimart buying them baby formula or going to select restaurants they are dragged to by the children. PLEASE DO NOT GIVE IN TO THEIR RELENTLESSNESS. Instead watch from afar, it is easy to see this organised ring in action. Stand up and tell other tourists as well, as not everyone is as informed. Give money to charities that help support communities (not orphans) and families staying together.

  21. [...] across this short (one-minute long) video that explains oh so well some of the very simple reasons why you shouldn't give money to child beggars in Cambodia (or anywhere for that matter). The video was produced by Friends International, who have been [...]

  22. [...] A good article on Travelfish about why giving money to street kids is a bad idea. An in-depth article about how voluntourism can go wrong. [...]

  23. [...] Further reading: Siem Reap blogger Nicky explains why giving money to street kids is a really terrible idea  [...]

  24. [...] or, in the case of the kids, postcards, jewellery or flowers. This post is not just a request to not buy anything from the children, but also a strong call to please buy from the adults. Welcome to Cambodia — [...]

  25. [...] general, I have a general rule about street kids. You don’t give them money, as much as you might want to. My personal [...]

  26. [...] check out Ethical traveller: Giving money to street kids on BBC and Why giving money to street kids is a really terrible idea on Travelfish. Share with friends!Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. Posted in Other | [...]

  27. Kyreenaon 24 Sep 2012 at 11:35 am

    Yes, it’s like this in every country. In fact, the implications are often a lot worse, in places like India, and much of Africa, as the kids aren’t sent out by their parents, they are kidnapped and enslaved to do these things, so your money just goes to their slaver.

    I’m saddened there are people who fall for it, but glad there are people working against it.

  28. Chong Kneas | Travelfish on Cambodiaon 10 Oct 2012 at 11:54 am

    [...] sun. Begging is easier though and generates more returns for their parents in the immediate term. The long terms costs are almost literally crippling however. The water gets kind of low from March until [...]

  29. Don’t Give That Child a Dollar – NYTimes.com ← Arlymear Travelon 20 Nov 2012 at 1:57 am

    [...] a travel blog site, offered this take on child begging in Cambodia: Giving to street kids is a short-term solution that ensures that [...]

  30. A Cambodian Christmas « Antevasinon 28 Jan 2013 at 1:21 pm

    [...] http://www.travelfish.org/blogs/cambodia/2011/06/03/why-giving-money-to-street-kids-is-a-really-terr… [...]

  31. [...] Siem Reap things are no different, and giving money to the child beggars and hawkers in and around Pub Street is never more than a quick fix and rarely, if ever, does [...]

  32. Why giving to streetkids is a really terrible idea | Nicky Sullivanon 06 Mar 2013 at 2:43 pm

    [...] or sometimes just begging for money. Cited in the International Herald Tribune, this post for Travelfish attempts to address the many issues [...]

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