The rain was coming down hard, which was unusual for April in Phnom Penh. It was a Saturday night, but Pub Street was only half full of tourists darting between bars, trying to stay out of the downpour. I had my jacket pulled over my head, looking for someplace to hide from the rain when I felt a tug on my elbow. It was a small boy. “Please, I don’t want money, just food.” He was joined by a girl who looked to be about 7, with a baby swaddled to her chest. They all looked dirty and disheveled.
I looked around and spotted a banana pancake stand. “You want pancakes?” I asked them. “No, we need milk for the baby.” They pointed at a nearby grocery store. I agreed, and started heading that way. “Why are you doing this?” My traveling companion called after me, a little irritated by the detour. “How could I say no?” I thought to myself. The kids led me into the store and to the infant formula isle and pointed to the can they wanted. They wanted three, but I only had enough cash for one (it was $11, a tidy sum in Cambodia, where a tuk tuk driver probably earns less than that on an average day). After I paid, they thanked me and ran off. I later saw the same girl on the street, no doubt making the same request of others.
Let’s be clear – I am no sucker. I know that they probably sold the formula, or returned it to the store and kept some (all?) of the cash. Nonetheless, my heart went out to them. Even if it was a scam, I know that they didn’t dream it up – kids don’t want to be in the street begging for money, or selling flowers or trinkets, they want to be doing kid stuff. Some adult has undoubtedly put them up to it. On that particular night, some adult knowingly sent children and a tiny, defenseless baby out into the rain to make a few dollars. It is heartbreaking and exhausting to be asked for money from children again and again.
That night, I just ran out of “no”s. I gave money to those kids. I gave money to a severely disabled man on the street. I gave money to a sassy little girl selling flowers after she called my dinner companion a ladyboy and beat him in an epic three-round Paper, Rock, Scissors battle.
Did I do the right thing? Honestly, I don’t know. Normally, I try to avoid giving money to begging kids or buying things from them, because I think that if they weren’t making money, they wouldn’t be out begging – they would be doing kid stuff while their parents made the money. But perhaps this is an oversimplification of the complex problem that arises when (comparatively) rich tourists visit (comparatively) poor countries – suddenly there is an opportunity for a begging or souvenir-hawking child to make more money than their parents by playing on tourists’ sympathies. Often times, the desperation in the children’s voice sounds real – I try not to think about what happens to them if they don’t come home with enough money for the day.
I am curious to hear how other travelers deal with these all-too-common situations. What is your philosophy for giving to begging children or buying things from children when you travel?
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