So, it's dusk, and you're in a busy street in a souq, somewhere in the Middle East. Sitting quietly amidst the crowds is an old woman, begging. There she is - do you see her?
You come closer, you see she's too old to work, and she's shaking with some disease. The local stallholders are chatting with her, and one of them has given her a chair. What is her story? . Do you give her money?
A little way further on, you cross a footbridge across a main road. A little girl aged about four sits on the ground, and you nearly trip over her in the dark, Her head is hidden, but her hand is raised, shaking a tray of matches at heedless passers by. What is her story? Do you buy her matches, do you give her some money?
You walk on a bit further, and reach a Western style shopping centre, full of Christian Dior and Mulberry, Chanel and Hermes. Outside, where the rich people go in and out, is a woman carrying a baby. She has four other children, aged between about four and ten. They're lively, cheerful kids and they're selling cheap teatowels, running around in the crowds, pestering people to buy. The woman looks worn, but she is keeping an eye on her kids, and speaks kindly to them. What is their story? Do you buy their teatowels or give them some extra cash?
It's always a dilemma, one which is also dealt with here (in a slightly different way) in Nomadic Notes blog.
When I encountered the above three cases - they're true stories - this is what happened.
I gave money to the old woman, and she gave me a dignified "bless you" sign.
I did not give the child money. I was with a local who told me that organised gangs run children like this, and teach them to look pitiful, and take the money they make, and that they should not be encouraged to find this lucrative. He actually pulled me away. I worried about it for days afterwards, and even went back to try and find the child again, but I never did. I think he is right. Children do not look sad merely because they are poor - poverty doesn't depress their spirits; it's other things that do that. The little girl was probably, as my friend said, trained to act in a pitiful way. But I still see her poor little form sitting on the dusty ground, in my mind.
I bought teatowels off one of the boys for much more than they were worth. He whooped with joy, and so did his brothers and sister. Then the rest of them tried to get me to buy their teatowels too, and chased me half way down the road, but they were cheery, enthusiastic kids and did not annoy me.
So what do you do about beggars and hawkers, in a country where there is no social safety net, where a widow left with small children and no income must find a way to feed them? Where an old woman who cannot work chooses to sit in the market and solicit alms in the name of Allah? Where ruthless people leave small children alone and at risk to get a few pennies?
I should say that I don't know what the truth was in any case - that's just how it seemed to me. But it made me think again about the ethical dilemma of giving to beggars and hawkers. I don't have a rule of thumb, I go by what I feel like when deciding what and if to give.
I do have a few rules about people I don't give to, though. I don't give to people who traipse around looking pitiful and carrying small children who are apparently deeply "asleep" - those children are generally drugged. I am sorry to say that I don't give to gypsies. this is for entirely practical (not racist) reasons, because I have several times been threatened by gypsies in various countries when they see I have money, and sometimes it's been very scary. I continue to wrestle with the problem of how to respond to children who are deliberately abused or left alone and vulnerable in order to incite pity. In a country where you don't speak the language, and it's nobody's responsibility to care, what exactly can you do? I feel like just taking them away to somewhere safe, of course, but for the child, being taken by a stranger would be even more petrifying. Sometimes you can buy them food, but that doesn't solve anything. You can give to charities, but the charity may not exist, or if it does, it may not find that particular child.
I'm glad that in England we don't usually have to consider these issues as starkly as in less developed countries. Of course there is poverty here, and there are beggars, but there are systems in place which are supposed to help and there are many charities for children and the homeless. They are far from perfect, of course, but unless the homeless person actually chooses not to use the help, it is never a question of literally having to beg or eat.
This got me to thinking of all those nice ordinary people I know trying to live their lives and being engulfed in bloodshed and unrest, or else suffering the rule of greedy dictatorial elites who have no interest in the peoples' welfare, and would rather grab money for themselves, to buy those Dior handbags, than even try to alleviate terrible social evils.
It certainly reminds me not to be too sorry for my own problems.
I've been slow to respond to blogs etc. lately but I've mostly caught up and hope to be back to normal soon!