Children or beggars? Or both?

In Europe, we teach our children not to accept sweets or anything else from strangers. Not healthy, not hygienic, not safe. Why does that change when people visit a developing country? There, the poor and pitiful children with their beautiful brown eyes must be craving for our sweets, pens or old toys. In general, the usefulness is doubtful, and we do it more to make ourselves feel good that to really help the child. Of course, we do expect the child to be grateful and want to take a photo (or video) together with the “happy” child. How great we have been. Reality is that children are usually perfectly capable of creating their own toys, pens are worldwide available and the diet in developing countries is mostly starches and sugars. Which explains the widespread prevalence of diabetes and makes sweets a pretty bad addition to their food.

The message we give with all this is that white people are walking wallets and that begging pays. Pays a lot sometimes.
Around Angkor Wat, the biggest tourist attraction in Cambodia, you can find a lot of children. Not to admire the temples, but to earn money. They beg, they sell “souvenirs”, they guide tourist to the tiny restaurants. Many tourists will melt at the sight of their begging eyes and sweet, almost clean faces. What better to do than help those poor little ones a bit and give or buy something. Better not give or buy something probably. These children are sent by their parents to increase the family income, and quite often earn more than their parents. Not bad for a poor family, you think? That’s what the parents think as well, but it does mean that parents get more children, as they bring in the income, and it especially means that those children don’t go to school and don’t have a future once they’re too old to earn money with their sweet faces. What happens to their children, is easy to see. That way, we keep the cycle of poverty intact with our good intentions. And Cambodia is certainly not the only country where this happens.

Extreme example? Yes, fortunately, it’s not that bad in most places. But here in Rwanda, a country where tourism is only just developing, it’s easy to tell from the reactions of the children whether you’re in an area that’s regularly visited by tourists. Where there a no or very few white people, the children are shy or they come and want to touch you. When they see more white people, they start to ask for your water bottle (which is what all westerners carry and they want to imitate) but very soon they ask for money (or rather, say “give me money”, as the local language Kinyarwanda doesn’t have a word for “please”). Children are very quick in learning how to get something. Therefore, giving to children is, in general, not advisable. Of course, there are exceptions. In South Sudan, we gave food to the street boys on a daily basis. Often not much more than some bread, a local doughnut or fruit (I will never forget the disbelief on their faces when one day they got a piece of chicken), but at least they were not hungry for a while. These children really had no other options than stealing of begging to get something to eat. The only organisation that provided structural shelter, didn’t come close to having enough capacity and they couldn’t get in when they had sniffed glue. Which is what they did to forget their misery if they could get a bit of money.

Is it then impossible to help? Of course not, but please, think before you act. If you want to give to individuals, give to adults. If you have children’s clothes or toys to give away, find a mother or caretaker to give it to. If you want to give money to beggars, and sharing your wealth is certainly not a bad idea, give money to adults who are not able to work. People who are too old, or disabled, often don’t get (enough) support from government and have to beg to survive. Personally, I refuse to give to adults who take their children along. If you want to do something more substantial, find a (local or international) organisation that offers structural support to children, support that’s beneficial in the long run, where donations are always welcome. Again, do your homework. Children are not tourist attractions, so be wary of organisations that allow you to visit the children. Many unreliable companies know very well that a pair of sad children’s eyes is a great incentive to give money and use that knowledge to increase their profit. Bona fide organisations sometimes allow visits after good planning and with safeguards for the well-being of the children, but orphanages where you can just walk in, are by definition not reliable. Look for organisations that send children to school or give them an education that’s valuable in the long run (so no ‘pretending to be school’ tapestry production where they have to leave once their fingers are too thick for the finest knots, like I encountered in Egypt).

Here in Kigali, we have an art gallery, where 40% of the profit of the artworks is used to get children off the streets, give them shelter and food and send them to school (the rest of the profit goes to the artist). You can’t visit the children at the school or in their shelter, but they do want to show what they’re doing to attract more donations. So they children also can learn to paint or sculpt or learn the traditional Rwandan dance. The dance troupe that emerged from that, with both adults and children, performs on a regular basis, and once a month people are able to visit the training sessions. The children clearly enjoy what they’re doing and it brings them extra attention and money, so they can take in more children. Besides, the children learn something with which they will be able to earn money if they choose to. It’s not just tourists that are interested in the traditional dances, but the Rwandans themselves have them often performed at their parties. This kind of organisations exist in many countries, but you have to make a bit of effort to find them. It pays off for the children in the long run!

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