A Little Quandary…When do you Donate?

The oldest girl in the group of children, she couldn’t have been more than 13, leveled a sly look my way before stating:

“Lady, you buy our bracelets or who knows what will happen to your bicycles…”

At that point, I think my jaw dropped.

The Backstory

Laura and I rented bikes for a day of exploring the Angkor temples closet to Siem Reap – and after a pretty harried bike ride down a dusty and trafficky road we were grateful to chain up our bikes to a nearby tree with some pretty pathetically thin chains.

Welcome to Angkor Wat

Locals and tourists alike bike around the Angkor Wat temples

As we bent over our bikes several of the children selling information books and bracelets surrounded us and proffered their goods. We good-naturedly tried to joke around with the kids and steer the conversation elsewhere from the buying of yet more bracelets…it didn’t work.

At that point we very firmly (but still smiling) declined buying any of the bracelets, books, necklaces, and handmade knickknacks. We had just finished chaining up the bikes and were ready to head into Angkor Wat when the oldest of the girls sized up the situation and looked me straight in the eye when she hit with that line:

“Lady, you buy our bracelets or who knows what will happen to your bicycles…”

Then, at my shocked and incredulous look she quickly back-stepped a bit:

“Oh no lady, we won’t do anything to your bikes…but if you buy bracelets then we will watch them for you…otherwise who knows what will happen to them…”

Protection from the mad dust and pollution!

Protection from the mad dust and pollution as we tuk-tuked it every other day we visited the temples

The Internal Debate

Laura and I were both pretty taken aback by the situation but quickly recalculated and with a brief glance agreed that one of us would buy the $2 worth of bracelets now and the other one would pick out something when we came back for our bikes.

All of the kids were grinning widely at our sudden about-face and eagerly proffered their colorful basketfuls of bracelets so that we could adorn our arms with several of the light brown bamboo woven circles.

What’s the Solution?

So here’s the conundrum…what would you have done in this same situation? As a traveler I hear all of these opinions:

  • Don’t give to beggars, give to local support organizations…
  • Don’t buy from street children because they should be in school and you only encourage them to sell goods to tourists…
  • Donating to kids on the streets contributes to their exploitation and abuse in countries like India, so don’t give your spare change…

And all of this is well in good in theory. But what about in practice? I caved in this situation and bought goods from the kids – in fact, I bought boatloads of bracelets from the little ones all throughout my time in Southeast Asia…it’s really hard to say no – and in a few cases I bought the bracelets from my niece, but other times purely out of guilt.

Sunset at Angkor Wat

Sunset from one of the moderately crowded temples we could bike to in the evening

It’s just, I don’t know where the middle-ground is…I do have the money to donate to the occasional beggar, and certainly to give a bit of money here and there to the kids. In some cases, I would whip out a spare banana from my purse to those kids begging for food…and about 60 percent of the time they accepted it gratefully; then there’s the 40 percent who just wanted the cash and walked away from the food – it’s those situations that make it all so discouraging and confusing at times.

As far as the kids who basically brokered a soft-core bribe at Angkor Wat for the bikes…yeah, I paid them, which likely means they’ll do it to other tourists too. And while I don’t regret the decision per se, I’m still pretty conflicted about how to deal with these situations on my travels.

Any thoughts?

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60 Responses to A Little Quandary…When do you Donate?

  1. enrolled agent exams March 18, 2010 at 3:07 am #

    I just found out about your blog recently really great and very informative! Sadly kids on some countries would like it better if you give them money rather than food, I had an experience same as your. Like you said once your in that situation, most of the times you just cave in.

    • ShannonOD March 18, 2010 at 3:54 am #

      Thanks Ricco for the kind words about the site. As for the children, it's
      really jsut such a tough call; sorry to hear that you've had that same
      experience with the children – though I know I should stand strong the guilt
      is always so strong that I just willingly cave to them under tough
      circumstances!

  2. ShannonOD March 17, 2010 at 8:54 pm #

    Thanks Ricco for the kind words about the site. As for the children, it's
    really jsut such a tough call; sorry to hear that you've had that same
    experience with the children – though I know I should stand strong the guilt
    is always so strong that I just willingly cave to them under tough
    circumstances!

  3. Ricca March 17, 2010 at 8:07 pm #

    I just found out about your blog recently really great and very informative! Sadly kids on some countries would like it better if you give them money rather than food, I had an experience same as your. Like you said once your in that situation, most of the times you just cave in.

  4. mina March 13, 2010 at 7:40 pm #

    We just visited a township, in Cape Town, where a middled aged man from the UK would take pictures of the children and then call them over and say (very condescendingly): “Here's some money, do you know what this is for? It's because I took your picture”. This same man told us that he was worried about going to the township because he didn't want them to think he was gawking at poor people. We were so disgusted by his behavior. They weren't even asking for anything. If the kids didn't know about begging/getting money from tourists, they do now. Alex and I typically don't give for several reasons already discussed here – but sometimes it's difficult and we cave.

    • ShannonOD March 15, 2010 at 3:58 am #

      Wow, that's incredibly insensitive of that man, it kind of leaves me
      speechless – you can really only account for your own actions I guess, but
      let's hope that perhaps if there's a miracle that he will gain a bit more
      perspective down the road.

  5. DavenDeb March 4, 2010 at 3:16 am #

    I didn't mean to chastise you Shannon. Honest:-) I was just stating
    what we do. It is always a difficult choice and heartbreakig to see
    kids having to work rather than be in school. I was shocked with these
    kids though and feel that they need a good scolding for being bratty.
    I can understand being caught off guard though. Who knows what I would
    have done in that siuation. Just today I bought a boy a Samosa at the
    train station and then they all came out of the woodwork. I probably
    shouldn't have bought for him because it wasn't fair to all the other
    boys. But we are only human right. So to sum up, we just don't give
    out of the fear that kids will be stuck begging if adults think they
    can make money off of them. But then again there are many poor
    families that really need the money and have to send the kids out to
    beg. It is hard and on our minds every day here in India. We are
    looking into charities to give a donation to.
    Sorry if it came off wrong, I really didn't mean for it to read that
    way, I was just our opinion.
    Dave and Deb
    Canada's Adventure Couple
    http://www.theplanetd.com
    theplanetd@gmail.com

  6. ShannonOD March 3, 2010 at 7:10 pm #

    Yikes, I feel properly chastised here Deb! You're right though. I fully
    realize that by giving when they threatened me I ensured that they would
    continue that same behavior with other tourists and perpetuate the cycle.
    It's such a tough decision when you're faced with these situations and just
    want to help out; I really admire that you and Dave are able to stick to
    your principles that strongly.

    • ShannonOD March 14, 2010 at 8:58 pm #

      Wow, that's incredibly insensitive of that man, it kind of leaves me
      speechless – you can really only account for your own actions I guess, but
      let's hope that perhaps if there's a miracle that he will gain a bit more
      perspective down the road.

  7. ShannonOD March 3, 2010 at 7:06 pm #

    Thanks for the thoughts Mary. Several of the other commentors have
    approached the situation with a similar strategy, of giving when it feels
    right, but opting for food whenever possible; I feel like this is a good
    compromise to the stronger perspective of straight-up never giving.

    • mina March 13, 2010 at 12:40 pm #

      We just visited a township, in Cape Town, where a middled aged man from the UK would take pictures of the children and then call them over and say (very condescendingly): “Here's some money, do you know what this is for? It's because I took your picture”. This same man told us that he was worried about going to the township because he didn't want them to think he was gawking at poor people. We were so disgusted by his behavior. They weren't even asking for anything. If the kids didn't know about begging/getting money from tourists, they do now. Alex and I typically don't give for several reasons already discussed here – but sometimes it's difficult and we cave.

  8. ShannonOD March 3, 2010 at 7:04 pm #

    Thanks for weighing in Arlene, I struggle with these same issues and it
    makes it hard to say no to them when you wonder if your $2 could make the
    difference of feeding them that evening…

  9. ShannonOD March 3, 2010 at 7:02 pm #

    I think my guilt from the situation stems from the fact that refraining from
    donating is wholly to discourage the begging…yet I gave when the kids were
    displaying particularly poor behavior…but I'm still fairly positive I
    would have done the same thing if I had it to redo… Thanks for weighing
    in! :-)

  10. ShannonOD March 3, 2010 at 7:00 pm #

    I like the perspective JoAnna, giving food is a good compromise so that you
    know that you are still genuinely helping, but not contributing as much to
    some of the issues that stem from putting cash into the hands of these kids
    and teaching them to beg from tourists. I'll definitely be opting for this
    tactic in situations where I feel compelled to give.

  11. ShannonOD March 3, 2010 at 6:58 pm #

    Thank you for such a detailed response Jackie! I am incredibly interested in
    checking out these books that you mentioned to learn more about the effects
    and ways to actually give without undermining what state and local
    governments are trying to accomplish. I had really never considered that
    side of the Oprah school situation, but it's interesting to contemplate the
    levels of change she could have affected by donating books across a region
    and bettering the educational level of a whole area…interesting, will have
    to read up on this more.

    As for the volunteering, I am exactly aligned with you on that, it's through
    volunteering at joining a community for several weeks that I was able to
    better understand how the community functioned and just what a benefit
    having someone on the ground and caring. And consider me properly chastised
    on the giving to beggars… :-)

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