Three kids recently asked if they could sing a song for me outside of Phnom Penh’s National Museum. They were between five and ten years old, barefoot, and covered in dirt.
Baffled, I obliged. They sang an adorable (and broken) version of a Sean Kingston song before breaking out into a more original number, pleading in unison for money to spend on food and school. Their bursting giggles turned to murmurs of desperation and they rubbed their bellies to show me their hunger. I gave them a dollar and my bottle of water, and they were quickly back to giggles before running away.
My new friends worked Sean Kingston into their act, but street children have many ways of asking for money and it’s often difficult to say no.
One brave girl latched onto my arm at Angkor Wat, tugging my bag and yelling, “I want money and I want a meal!” I said “maybe later” and kept walking, but not without a guilty conscience. She let me know that that “maybe later” means “yes” in Cambodia. Sure enough, she reappeared a few hours later to ask again.
Visit tourist areas all over the world and you’ll likely have a similar experience. You’ll see kids tapping on taxi windows in India, and begging women holding sleeping infants in Bangkok. With scenes like this all over developing countries, when, if ever, is it best to give?
Taking a cue from the ChildSafe organization in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, I learn that our money actually does more harm than good.
A begging six year old girl can often earn more money per day than her parents, making her a necessary income source for the family. The more handouts she gets, the more appealing it becomes to continue living as a beggar. If she can make a good living on the streets, why go to school? These children are exposed to sexual exploitation (most often in the form of child prostitution) and drugs, either for themselves or for their parents or “beggar masters.” Cambodia has one of the highest rates of child solvent addiction, and tourist dollars continue to support these habits. Many kids remain beggars for the rest of their lives.
Next time you see a child with outstretched arms, no matter how adorable, think about the power of your dollar. Give your money instead to organizations that are trained to help break the cycle of street begging. Below are a few exceptional charities!