We are incredibly fortunate to be able to travel places we never thought we would have the opportunity to go, and to teach our kids the importance of learning from and getting along with those who do things very different than we do. I know that I’ll cherish some of the memories we’ve made on these trips for the rest of my life. However, not every memory made on a trip is a good one, and that’s okay. One of my more vivid memories in Malaysia occurred when we went to Jalan Alor Night Market. It was a Thursday night and although it was dark, it wasn’t particularly late – maybe ~2000 or so. As we walked down the line of restaurants on our way back to the hotel, we passed a little boy who couldn’t have been much older than Miles. He was out on his own asking for money and trying to sell small trinkets from a large tray hanging from a rope around his neck to anyone who walked by. With a very concerned expression, Miles looked up as we walked by and asked where the boy’s family was. “Why wasn’t he at home with his Mommy and Daddy?”
These kind of situations are some of the hardest one’s we’ve come across. Certainly, it doesn’t just pertain to those traveling with kids, either. We are hard wired to want to protect and help small children, but giving money to child beggars or buying goods from children on the street can be one of the most harmful things you could possibly do for them. Despite your good intentions, giving children money, or even buying their overpriced souvenirs, is showing them that it’s easier to stand out on the street asking for money than it is to go to school, work hard, and eventually crawl themselves out of poverty. In a way, your desire to help only pushes them further into the cycle of poverty.
Even worse than children making this realization for themselves, are the adults in these young peoples’ lives who take advantage of the sympathy of tourists and can force kids (some of which are not even their own) to beg on the street for money. In parts of the world, children are kidnapped or sold into slavery in which they are forced to beg on the street. Knowing that children with disabilities get more sympathy than those who are well bodied, there are even reports of adults paying to have children’s limbs amputated or their faces burned in order to “make them more profitable.” Unfortunately, these kind of events are not isolated to one location. A bit of research will turn up similar occurrences happening all over the world. This isn’t even just in developing countries either, it’s easy to find similar events in Western Europe, Australia, and even the United States. I’m a firm believer that overall people in the world are good natured, care about each other, and want to do the right thing. However, you would be a fool to think that this is always the case.
In October 2017 we made a trip to Cambodia. By that time we had started working on this website and although it wouldn’t launch for several more weeks, the research we put into the trip started to highlight how widespread child begging, trafficking, and even the horror of child prostitution was in some parts of the world. In particular, we kept reading about the “powdered milk scam,” which had apparently become so successful (and widespread) that there were actually signs in the airport warning tourists not to fall for it. Here’s how the scam works: A young mother, often barefoot and wearing only rags, approaches you with her baby. Instead of asking for money, she asks you to buy her powered milk to feed her infant. Feeling heart broken, you agree to help her, as buying formula is much better than purely a monetary handout, right? However, as soon as you are around the corner she heads back into the store and through a pre-arranged agreement with the shop owner, gives the milk back for a share of the money. In your desire to help, you’ve unfortunately only ensured that she will be on that corner with a baby…any baby….every day to make more money.
This post is definitely not advising you to loose compassion for those less fortunate than you are. Far from it, actually! We would only ask you to think about the long-term repercussions from your actions when visiting a foreign country, particularly when it pertains to giving money/gifts or buying goods from children. Your best intentions might actually be helping to push them further into poverty and keep them from getting an education. If you desire to help, there are several amazing non-profits who have the infrastructure to ensure your dollars, euros, or yen will actually go toward improving children’s lives. Please see a few of them below (all of which are rated A- or above in Charity Watch’s rating scale):