It kills me every time. Walking past beggars in Bangkok is harder than it is in most of the places I have lived around the world. There is something about the depth of desperation and despair that just feels more acute here.
You may see an amputee with no legs, dragging himself across the sidewalk amidst the storm of pedestrian traffic. Or it may be a mother with two tiny babies, holding up a soda cup on top of a foot bridge. Or it could be the dad with his two kids (pictured), pleading for change outside 7-Eleven. It’s hard to know how to respond.
I wrote a post – Should you give to beggars? – when I still lived in Northern California. At the time I lived in a college town with a large population of transient 20 somethings that begged for cash. The knowledge that there were relatively well-funded shelters nearby and the fact that the travelers looked to be in good physical shape made it easier to walk past. In Bangkok, the same is not true.
Here are the questions I struggle with in Bangkok. I’d would really like to hear your ideas and reactions in the comments. Jammie and I really want to make a difference out here, however we can:
Does the fact that begging is professionally organized make it unwise to give? It’s no secret: begging in Bangkok is an extension of organized crime. Beggars are organized by bosses that function much the same way pimps do in prostitution rings. It is merciless and pure exploitation. There is no doubt the beggar is suffering. The problem with giving them cash is that the money goes back to the bosses and the beggars only get a pittance. Google “beggar mafia Bangkok” to see what I mean.
Will my giving help? – If the bosses take the cash, how will my giving help? In an immediate sense, giving beggars food instead of cash will help meet needs like basic nutrition. But it does little to address their larger needs like shelter, security and healthcare.
Is it OK to simply help aid organizations? I used to think that the real answer was to give to charitable organizations that would in turn help the people. After spending half a decade in the world of professional fundraising though, I know that a lot of my cash will go to things I don’t support, like executive salaries that are often in the six figure range.
How much is enough? So I am caught in a quandary. I still give to organizations that I believe are ethical, not overly top-heavy and make a difference but between that and the occasional direct gift to someone in need, I think “how much is enough?”
What is the bigger picture? Most professional aid workers I talk to will talk about the big picture of poverty alleviation. Often politics come into play. The right will say that you “have to allow people to fail and learn to help themselves.” The left claims you “can’t pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you don’t have boots” and then tries to justify another government program as a solution. I am not convinced by either approach.
No response is going to be perfect (this is easy to see) but this cannot freeze me in undecided inaction. I’ve got to start somewhere.
As mentioned before, Jammie and I are currently working with an orphanage and with prison visitation. We want to expand our work to help homeless beggars. Help us think of an effective way to help beggars by leaving a comment with your thoughts and suggestions. We are all in this together.
Thanks in advance for your comments!
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Bjorn Karlman Bangkok, Thailand