As any traveller to India or similar countries would confirm, one of the most confronting aspects of these countries is the extreme poverty which gets right up in your face and challenges everything that you believe about the world and yourself. Deciding if and how you’re going to respond to this poverty is a process that continues from the moment you arrive to the moment you leave such a country, and there’s no right way to go about responding to it.

Although it’s not immediately obvious, one of the most difficult things about being confronted by a beggar is the way it makes you feel about yourself. A decision to give or not to give is less about your genuine compassion for the beggar’s situation and more about your self-image and your sense of self-determination. In Australia, a common response to being asked for money on the streets of Melbourne or Sydney is that “they’re just going to go and spend it on drugs,” which is probably true in many cases, but the justification for not giving money is also a way to make ourselves feel better for having made a decision not to give. But Australians give enormous amounts of money to charity each year so we’re not at all a miserly or compassion-free people, so it’s obviously something about coming face-to-face with an actual person whose circumstances make empathy difficult that generates a bunch of conflicting thoughts and emotions.

For the entire time that Lisa and I were in India we struggled with the best system for giving money responsibly, and we felt no closer to an ideal solution after eight weeks of trying. We both felt that we had a moral responsibility to give money to those in need but we really had no idea how to do it responsibly. I honestly don’t know if there is a correct answer to the question of responsible charity while travelling because everyone seems to recommend different courses of action. Some Indian people gave to beggars and some didn’t – we were even told off by one local man for giving to a beggar.

While most people believe that charity is noble and humane, it’s useful to keep in mind the reality of the impact that you’re able to make as a single visitor to a vast country with a vast poverty problem such as India – you are not going to change any lives or overhaul entire societal systems, but you can provide a small amount of relief to a small number of people. But most importantly, there’s no point denying to yourself that the act of tourist charity is as much about changing the way you perceive yourself as it is about changing the way another person feels. Travel through India highlights for all Western tourists how good they have it at home and the infinitesimal sacrifice required to drop one or two rupees here and there in beggars’ bowls can generate such a disproportionately high benefit for people in need.

With that in mind, here’s what we more or less ended up doing:

  • We did not give to beggars in high-volume tourist areas because we thought that doing so would only encourage a reliance on tourist charity
  • We gave to beggars in low-volume tourist areas who seemed to be in obvious need, although the arbitrariness of such a decision-making process generated a lot of doubt in our minds
  • We did not give money to child beggars because we noticed that they were often sent out by their watchful parents and did not want to encourage such behaviour

Until the moment we hopped on the plane to come home we were riddled with doubt about whether we were doing the right thing in the right way. On a lot of occasions we debated a decision to give either before or after the action of giving, or even before and after.

So, what do you reckon? Is your philosophy of responsible travel charity different? What factors influence your thinking about the matter?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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