BEG THE QUESTION
There are better ways to help in developing countries than handing out coins to children on the street, advises Christine Retschlag
HERE’S hardly a corner of the world where travellers can avoid poverty. Many of us, with just a few short days to experience a destination, grapple with ways in which to address the issue without making situations, such as begging, even worse.
At best, many travellers feel ineffectual and embarrassed and, at worst, some transform into the uncaring ugly Westerner.
But there are many practical and positive ways to make a difference. Kristie Kellahan, a writer who regularly volunteers at an orphanage in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, suggests contacting aid organisations, such as the Red Cross, to assess the needs before you visit a country.
She advises travellers to think about what they are giving and avoid pushing Western values on to different cultures. ‘‘ People come to visit the orphanage and want to give the children toys, lollies, soft drinks and ice cream,’’ she says. ‘‘ But what would be useful is nappies for the babies, blank exercise books, pencils, sharpeners and things like that for the older ones.’’
Kellahan says while it is important not to judge the actions of fellow tourists, there are often more constructive ways to make a difference than handing money to beggars. ‘‘ By supporting kids selling postcards and chewing gum, it encourages families to send them to the city and they may be missing out on going to school. It’s damaging for kids who make money when they are cute and young, but when they get older they can’t make money any more.’’
In countries such as Laos, many children have never owned a book, let alone read one. In June 2006, in Luang Prabang, the Big Brother Mouse program opened its doors, publishing colourful and educational books in English and Lao. Travellers to this charming town can visit two centres — recognisable by the cut-out mouse outside — and read or speak in English with local children. Outside the town centre, tourists can purchase packs of educational books that come with a set of useful instructions, such as not to give the books to the most forward children on arrival in a village but consider the shy child in the corner who is likelier to share. Or, where possible, present the books to a local teacher.
In Cambodia’s Siem Reap, the gateway town to Angkor Wat, the La Noria hotel has dedicated two massage rooms by the pool where blind masseuses offer massages to
Group hug: Cambodian youngsters are being helped by charities such as Sunrise Angkor Children’s Village guests priced from about $US5 ($5.35). All money goes directly to the masseuses, for whom extreme poverty would otherwise be a certainty. Also in Siem Reap, Raffles Hotel d’Angkor supports the Sunrise Angkor Children’s Village, a local orphanage that opened in 1979 after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime and is managed by the Australia Cambodia Foundation. Every Sunday, between 2pm and 3pm, children at the orphanage dress in exquisite costumes and perform traditional Cambodian dance and music. Entry is free but donations are gratefully accepted.
Kerin Ord, World Vision team leader for southern Africa, the Middle East and eastern Europe, warns travellers to be aware of scams that exploit children.
‘‘ Be wary of giving money to young children begging, they could belong to a Fagan-like organisation in which children are exploited. The children don’t get to keep the money but have to pass it on to the leaders,’’ she says.
‘‘ If you want to give something, consider small gifts such as pens or clip-on koalas or offer to buy them a meal or some water. While you may want to buy a soccer ball for the children to play with, what they may really need is food.
‘‘ People who are moved by their experiences shouldn’t forget about it as soon as they get home. Harness that passion and become engaged in global issues; maybe join the Make Poverty History campaign or volunteer for a reputable charity.’’
In Code Green: Experiences of a Lifetime (Lonely Planet, $29.95), editor Kerry Lorimer cites ‘‘ indiscriminate giving by tourists’’ as a contributing factor behind a ‘‘ begging culture that undermines traditional culture and social structures’’ in many countries.
‘‘ As a traveller, you’re seen less as a human being and more as a piggy bank,’’ she writes. ‘‘ Alternatively, you could choose not to give to anyone, but to refuse someone genuinely suffering can border on inhumane. The best approach probably lies somewhere in the middle and where that middle is, is up to you. You might decide that someone (who) performs a small service should be rewarded with a tip, or that mothers with children, entertainers, holy men and women and-or the disabled may deserve a contribution.
‘‘ Perhaps best of all, try to give of yourself,
The future looks brighter: UNICEF children rather than your wealth. Share a joke or a meal, start a conversation, pull out photos of your kids or home town or play a game.’’
Travel wholesaler Peregrine and Geckos Asia destination manager Becky Last advises travellers to try to see beyond the beggar to the person. ‘‘ It’s really hard for us to identify with the people who are tugging at us demanding money, but try to retain your sense of compassion, and playfulness with the kids,’’ she says. ‘‘ Those truly living hand-tomouth on the streets can’t afford to stop begging, but for those kids who are trying it on with the tourists or to see if it works or what they can get, a game or messing about with a pad and paper for five to 10 minutes is a healthier interaction for everyone.’’ www.redcross.org.au www.bigbrothermouse.com www.lanoriaangkor.com www.siemreap.raffles.com www.makepovertyhistory.com.au www.sunrisechildrensvillage.org