Street children: do tourist dollars help or hurt?

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.

How can you say no to this?

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?

Typical scene along the Bangkok Skytrain- photo from

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.

A Cambodian child sniffing glue - photo from eyeofzann

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!

Friends International
Street Friends
Think Before Giving
Save The Children

Posted by | Comments (6)  | February 7, 2012
Category: Asia, General

6 Responses to “Street children: do tourist dollars help or hurt?”

  1. Rolf Potts Says:

    Thanks for the insight, and for sharing the info from ChildSafe. It’s hard to say no to child beggars, but they are a manifestation of a much more complicated situation, one that is hard for travelers to understand. I gave advice in a similar vein (in the context of “Slumdog Millionaire”) a few years ago in my World Hum column:

  2. Beth Says:

    Another really amazing organization in Cambodia to consider supporting is the Green Gecko Project []. It gives street kids a safe place to live, a good education, and so many opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. When you’re in Siem Reap, the easiest way to support the project is by eating at Green Star Restaurant – all of the proceeds go to Green Gecko and the food is incredibly delicious [we ate there at least three times in just the few days we were in Siem Reap].

  3. DEK Says:

    Get out of town as fast as you can. Stay away from tourist places. If you must, offer food and notice how enthusiastically it is accepted.

    You’re not there to do social work and the people who are there to do social work don’t give money to beggars.

    Ask locals about the beggars. In one town there was a persistent fellow. When I asked about him I was told that “he was in business for himself”.

    Some things you learn when you travel aren’t going to be pleasant.

    By the way, how do you explain this to your children? You might want to talk about that with them before you leave.

  4. Chris Carruth Says:

    If the problem is at the state-level, hand-outs won’t help…as money alone won’t empower people. It doesn’t raise personal capital, at least not in the way(s) we’d like it to when giving it out. Massive infrastructural changes are needed in some cases and, in others, the culture of poverty is as daunting an obstacle. I like your emphasis on giving money to institutions, but would caution about what motives said organizations have (that’s an aside though). The International Labor Organization (ILO) has some interesting stats on child labor and even points out some ways in which money, or time, could be better spent. If you’re so inclined ––en/index.htm

    Either way, a great read.

  5. Nicole Says:

    This is really important to know. Thanks for including tips and charity information for me to follow-up with.

  6. Chris Says:

    Cambodia is the country where you can find some of the poorest people in Asia, but it’s also the country where the tourism is one of the most important. So beggars are everywhere and it’s really hard to say no. I’m living in Siem Reap and i know now most of them now, true some are doing a lot of money (kids asking can milk to feed the baby they are carrying, and often renting to poor families) but there is people behind to drive them and get this money. I’m not giving them money but often i buy them food, and ask them to eat in front of me to be sure.

    Child safe and Green Gecko Project are good organization (“Life and Hope” also in Siem Reap, managed by monks) but there is so many other crap ones, or even fake orphanages, so you have to be very vigilant if you want to donate. But this people still wonderful, and please don’t run away when they ask you something, just talk to them to make them feel important 5 minutes.