As one travels around the world, especially to less affluent countries, they should expect to come face to face with the grim realities of povety. One of the most difficult manifestations of this will undoubtedly be the phenomenon of the street child; a grown boy or girl that has been forced to subsist off of meager income generating activates, most likely that of begging.
One has to choose their position on how to deal with the matter; to give or not to give. Each person typically has their own stance, with some never giving anything ever, some always giving whenever they can, and most likely falling somewhere in the middle, leaning more towards one side or the other. What is important is to decide for yourself what is best and to stick to it.
In my experience, the consensus is not to give. While my Western guilt might implore me to hand over even just a small bit of loose change, just about any local resident you ask will advise against this. There are typically two reasons given for this opinion.
One, giving money teaches the wrong lesson and will only act to encourage the behavior in the future. Rather than looking to find a more legitimate way to earn a living, to find a more reliable source of income, the act of charity teaches them that they can do well by asking for money and will bring them back to the streets every day.
The other common criticism is that it is considered unlikely that the money you give will actually go to support the child in the way that you intended. You may expect that your financial charity will go to purchase the essentials in life, like food and clothing, but in reality this might not be the case. It is cited that often the child receives little if any of the money themselves, instead being expected to hand over all of their earnings to their father who will then use it not to support the family, but rather to support his various vices, like alcohol or cigarettes. Even if the child does keep his/her earnings, there are no assurances that they will use them in a beneficial way. It is common to see a child holding a bottle of glue to inhale, or a bottle of cheap alcohol, which was more than likely purchased with said acts of charity. Thus, not only might your act of kindness trap the child in the cycle of poverty, but it might also be enabling the destructive behaviors and vices that will make any chance of achieving a better life impossible.
Unfortunately, in reality rational considerations like this are not the only motivating factor you will face.
Just before writing this, as I was sitting on the front patio of a restaurant that is just off of a main road, two obviously impoverished children approached me from outside the decorative fence that separates the restaurant from the sidewalk. The larger boy could not have been more than 10 years old while his companion had to have been a number of years younger than that. Both wearing tattered clothing and covered with dirt, it was questionable whether they had a home to go back to, or even parents at that.
Stretching his small arm through the gate, the larger boy asked me for 10KSh, or approximately 1cent CAD. I politely said no and returned my gaze to my work in front of me. After some time of silence, all the while the two remaining standing there, the older child then asked me for my half-drank bottle of Coke. Again, I respectfully declined and continued my work.
Despite my refusal the boys remained and continued to periodically repeat their previous requests. This time, however, I ignored their requests and kept my attention on my papers. After some time of this exchange the older boy gave up and backed away, disappearing into the street. The younger child, however, did not follow his friend, but instead continued to stand there and stare in silence. I didn’t look up, but I could feel his burdened eyes on me. Then, overtop of the music coming from my headphones, I could hear his soft, but angry voice. He only said on thing to me.
“You are selfish. You are a selfish man.”
I couldn’t bring myself to look at him as he repeated this again and again, and by the time I did look up he had disappeared into the street just like his friend.
This boy’s statement shook me to the core, and not just because it was a criticism of me, but because I saw it as a criticism of his society’s position on begging. It seems to me that the position against giving money is predicated on a number of things. For one, it seems to assume that there are ample opportunities for these children to escape from their condition. People might cite examples of government assistance programs, ingenious income generating initiatives by individuals, or other cases of methods for these unfortunate individuals to improve their condition. It plays a kind of ‘blame-the-victim’ card, making it seem as though the only thing stopping them from succeeding is their own motivational shortfalls. It seems to me that this position is both naive and disingenuous.
It is naive to think that in a country such as Kenya, where there seems to be an inability for it to take adequate care of its middle class let alone those at the very bottom, for the government programs to offer adequate support for the majority of the needy. As well, the examples of creative income generating projects are wonderful and inspiring, but in no way represents the apparent capabilities of the street children I see who seem to have a lot more demons to confront than just their source of income. It seems to me that it is not just the children that have self imposed barriers upon them, but society as a whole. This is not to say that these children don’t have the ultimate ability to fix their problems, but rather that institutionally, culturally and economically speaking it is as though not only are the cards stacked against them, but that they were put that way on purpose.
So, perhaps I AM being selfish. To me, 10KSh is no money at all, but to them it is a day’s income. I am able to purchase as many cokes as I could ever want, but to them it is a rare treat. What is insignificant in my privileged life could be a moment of ecstatic happiness in their lifetime of struggle and hardships. Perhaps when I refuse them I am just looking through my eyes of ideological rationalism, rather then through my heart of sympathy and compassion, which is where my actions should come from. Perhaps, as the boy had accused, I am being selfish.
Despite these reasons to give, I still don’t believe that it is the right thing to do. As is often said in the field of Development, good intentions are simply not good enough, and when dealing with poverty the right thing to do is never easy nor simple. While I want to give these children all of the metaphorical Cokes in the world, I know that that is not the solution. While it does not necessarily have to be a zero-sum approach, I feel that the best thing to do is to stay true to my beliefs that can be found in the arguments against giving; to choose the best of the worst. I must remind myself that the handouts ultimately are not the solution. While the system and cultural perceptions may not be perfect, they are still these children’s best option for improving their impoverished conditions.