When beggars are rife, a begging policy can help


It was the murderous anger aroused by the gypsy woman wheedling in the Metro that finally forced me to realise I needed a beggar policy.

She sat, head bowed, one of her grimey children on her breast, her whine echoing along the freezing tunnel. I wanted to blot them out of my sight, to be left in peace to enjoy Paris.

I don’t think I’m alone in this heartless reaction. Every tourist in Asia and Europe passes beggars every day, feeling each time an exhausting mixture of compassion, anger, confusion, judgement, helplessness and enormous guilt – reactions compounded by the many different types of beggars, each arousing a different mixture of emotions.

Types of Beggars

  • The gypsies or ‘travellers’ who are professionals; the skills of begging passed down through the family. They are almost always women and/or children.
  • The dispossessed, who have fled a country impoverished by greed, inept governments, globalisation and war, most often former French colonies.
Beggar in Paris, December 2009.
  • The down-and-outers, mostly white, filthy and odiferous, who leap on the metro and eloquently tell the carriage what suffering  has brought them to this pass - then ask for money for a ‘resto’ (restaurant)…
  • The disabled, who are sometimes so disabled - without feet or arms - it is hard to know how they arrived at their place on the pavement.
  • The backpackers who have run out of money and haven’t dared ask their parents. They are clean, well-dressed, young and white.

Who, of all these beggars, does the traveller give to? Should it depend on their hastily assessed ‘worthiness’, or is it better to give nothing?

Reasons to give nothing

  • They all have Mercedes Benz at home.
  • It will unbalance the local economy – especially in Asia.
  • They have deliberately maimed themselves and/or their children.
  • They have strapped on false deformities.
  • I am a decent human being, but I can’t give to everyone.
  • I have managed in my life, why can’t they?

Reasons to give something

  • They are hungry and homeless.
  • They are refugees, without jobs or social security.
  • They are fellow human beings needing help.
  • There but for the grace of God go I.
  • I try to be a decent human being, therefore I must act.
  • They have no feet.

Depending on our ideology, mood, and ability to suppress guilt, we make a decision and either walk past, or drop a few coins in the McDonald’s cup. Either way, we don’t feel much better, but given we are not going to devote our lives to changing the political, social and economic policies which create beggars, what are we to do ?

A few suggestions towards a beggar policy

  • Make a donation to an aid organisation working in the country you are visiting. The beggars who contact charities will be better off; you will feel a little better, but not a great deal.
"Every tourist in Asia and Europe passes beggars every day, feeling each time an exhausting mixture of compassion, anger, confusion, judgement, helplessness and enormous guilt."
  • Decide on a consistent policy. For example, give only to children, or the elderly, or the disabled, or those so unwashed no-one else will, or simply to the first beggar you see that day.  Beggars of your choice will feel better; you too will feel better, but not a great deal.
  • Decide you will give nothing but you will look each one in the eye as you say no. Beggars will at least feel like they exist; you won’t last the day.
  • Accept the fact that coming face-to-face with the inequalities, injustices and suffering of the world are a necessary part of travelling. Observe your meanness - and your compassion - and be discomfited by your inconsistency. In the end, beggars may be better off and you will feel a great deal better.

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