Here’s a tough question: When you’re traveling abroad and a child begs for change, what do you do?

At Slate, Jillian Keenan writes that it’s not helpful to give money to begging children — it may actually just reinforce a so-called “begging mafia.” There are plenty of crime syndicates that kidnap young kids and put them on the street to beg for cash, money that will go straight into the hands of traffickers. Worse, these criminals may even harm the children, maiming them in order to garner more sympathy and, in turn, tourists’ dollars. In India, official statistics say that nearly 60,000 children disappear each year to human trafficking.

According to UNICEF, Human Rights Watch, and the U.S. State Department, these children aren’t allowed to keep their earnings or go to school, and are often starved so that they will look gaunt and cry, thereby eliciting more sympathy—and donations—from tourists. And since disabled child beggars get more money than healthy ones, criminal groups often increase their profits by cutting out a child’s eyes, scarring his face with acid, or amputating a limb. In 2006, an Indian news channel went undercover and filmed doctors agreeing to amputate limbs for the begging mafia at $200 a pop. (Who knows how the little boy I met in New Delhi lost his legs.) To prevent the children from running away, traffickers often keep kids addicted to opium or other drugs.

If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, you’re familiar with stories like these. Keenan adds that other countries like China, Bolivia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Senegal, Pakistan, Austria and America engage in this type of human trafficking as well. The U.S. State Department reports that in China, a person can earn as much as $40,000 each year on the backs of beggar children and the elderly.

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Keenan’s overall idea is correct: giving individually probably isn’t the best way to help curb poverty. Larger charity organizations are best, but be sure to thoroughly research where your money is going (remember that one time Wyclef John swindled the world with his Yele Haiti foundation?). But the way Keenan talks about poverty drips with a guilt and otherness that makes it tough to stomach. Like her suggestions for other ways to interact with kids rather than handing them money:

Recently, I’ve been traveling with a small hand stamp. When kids approach me, I put a stamp on my own hand and give them the option to do the same. I’m sure some parents aren’t thrilled to see their kid come home with a stamp on her hand—or, in the case of one particularly excited boy I met in the Philippines, directly in the middle of his forehead—but it has been a fun and minimally disruptive way to interact and prompt a few smiles, including my own. One friend of mine travels with a lightweight animal puppet and another always ties three long ribbons to her backpack and uses them to show child beggars how to make a braid. The options are endless.

So don’t hand the children money but...touch them and play with them? If you’re not going to give them spare change, why do you feel the need to interact at all? The locals, and their children, aren’t there for playtime. Yes, they’re children, but just because they’ve approached you doesn’t mean you get to redefine the terms of the encounter and draw out the interaction. You are a stranger; it is not your place to teach children how to braid or put stamps on their hands.

Image via AP.


Contact the author at Hillary@jezebel.com.