Thursday, October 18, 2007

The begging dilemma

I absolutely adore Cambodia--the scenery is gorgeous, Angkor Wat is an unbelievable sight to behold, and the people are some of the warmest, most pleasant I have met anywhere in the world.

That being sad, both poverty and the ramifications of Cambodia's tragic recent history are still very much evident throughout the country. While the tourism industry is clearly helping to the country into greater future prosperity, it is an uphill battle for many Cambodians. As a tourist or temporary visitor to the country, it can often be easier to turn a blind eye to some of the social problems plaguing the city streets.

Yesterday, as I was walking back from the office to my hotel, a young girl of about nine years old started following me, asking for money. I feel rather strongly that giving to children often causes more harm that help--parents are often aware that foreign tourists are more likely to give to small children, and they thus send their children to beg for money rather than going to school. Parents also learn to depend on the children and children learn to depend on begging, perpetuating some of the social problems and causing inequality in communities. Furthermore, it can undermine the poverty alleviation efforts of governments or NGOs. I often encourage others to give to organizations that provide social assistance or teach vocational skills. While it oversimplifies the situation, the well know proverb that if you give a man a fish he will eat for a day, but if you teach him to fish he will eat for a lifetime is relevant.

All that being said, it is hard to look into the eyes of a nine year old, her baby sister of a about 10 months cradled in a large scarf tied around her shoulder, barefoot and underclothed for the rain that was beginning to fall, and claim that you can't or won't help her. After she followed me for about two blocks, I stopped at a small street small to buy a snack to eat--I figured it was better to give her something to eat, rather than to pass along money that would be very unlikely to actually go directly towards helping the young girl. Upon ordering a couple kebabs for her, two other girls showed up, so I ordered a couple extra for them as they giggled and told me their names. After I handed them to the children, the first girl pointed out that the baby she was carrying had finished the milk in its bottle. We wandered further along the street, walking for about 10 minutes before I found a large grocery store and went inside to buy some milk to refill the bottle. The rather well-stocked shop carried powdered milk formula for children, so I purchased a can of that as well (making sure it was age-appropriate and had directions in Khmer, as I didn't want to give anything that might be detrimental to the child's health) and gave it to the young girl. As the girl nodded that she understood how to use the formula, I left her to tend to her crying baby sister, wondering what would happen as the rain began to fall harder.

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