Why Don’t I Give Money to Poor People?


Originally posted on The Billfold

“Hey, you want necklaces? I sell you necklaces!”

He’s dishevelled, but not more so than most people you see on the street here. He’s wearing a bright green soccer T-shirt, a team I’ve never heard of, and a goatee. He introduces himself as Paul.

This is Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. I am backpacked, sunglassed, earbudded, on my way to the waterfall. The only way I could be more obviously a tourist is if I had a fanny pack and an “I ♥ Zim” T-shirt on.

“Thanks, but I’m not interested,” I say. I may have actually physically waved him away.

He walks with me for a few minutes, pushing necklaces, wooden giraffes, 50 billion Zimbabwe dollar notes into my chest. I repeat the same thing: Sorry, not interested. Sorry, no.

Everywhere it’s different but the same. In San Francisco it’s the guy who could visit his sick sister in Portland if he could just get 10 bucks for the bus fare. In Paris it’s children with their arms out. In Istanbul it’s amputees on a sheet of cardboard, literally begging.

And my answer is always the same: “Sorry.” I don’t know when I started saying this, when I stopped bothering to lie about being out of spare change, when I stopped thinking before I said it.

Right after Paul peels off, I take what I think is the turnoff to the falls. The path peters out, I turn around and when I get back to the road, Paul is there.

“Where are you trying to go?” he says.

“Just to the park entrance,” I say.

“Oh there’s a shortcut just up there to the right,” he says. “It’ll only take you five minutes. Make sure you make it to the gorge before dark. Spectacular, man, spectacular!”

I thank him, and realize that as he was talking I was thinking oh, he’s a person.

You’re not supposed to give beggars money. That’s the conventional wisdom, right? You don’t know what they’ll spend it on, you might be encouraging them to stay on the street, you’re not addressing any of the structural issues that got them where they are. I used to live in Copenhagen, and whenever I got panhandled (yes they have panhandlers in Denmark), I wanted to roll my eyes, like, all this free money in your country and you want mine?

Needless to say, that attitude is a lot harder to maintain in Zimbabwe. It’s even harder to maintain for me, considering I am here working for a human rights organization. How do I justify spending two weeks in Harare attending conferences, meeting NGOs, working on statements and recommendations to make this country less poor and then, the minute I’m on vacation, neglect to do the one thing I’m actually equipped, actually qualified to do: Give it some fucking money.

The sun is setting when I come out of the park, and Paul is at the exit, soliciting another tourist. He sees me and breaks off.

“How was the park, my friend?” he says.

“Good,” I say. “How’s business?”

“Not so good today,” he says, the full bouquet of necklaces still dangling from his hand. “Look, can you help me out, just with a dollar? I’m hungry.”

I feel like Paul has taken his mask off, he’s talking to me outside of his role as a street vendor, like we’ve both stepped out of character for a second and it’s just us, man to man. I give him two bucks. He thanks me profusely, leaves without asking for anything else.

Two hours later I see him again. This time I’m on a trail behind Victoria Falls’ fanciest hotel. I’ve just eaten a French croissant pudding that cost 7 times what I gave to Paul.

“My friend!” he says.

“Hi Paul,” I say, weirdly happy to see him. I’m travelling alone, and he’s the only person I’ve spoken to all day.

“Hey, do you have some dollars for me?” he says.

“I just gave you two,” I say,

“But I ate with those, man,” he says. “Can you give me some more for dinner?”

As much as I hate to admit it, this irks me. I already gave you money, dude, coming back for more just makes me feel like a mark—like this is a business model. If you don’t get tourist money with merch, get it with sympathy.

“Sorry,” I say.

Later, I wonder what outcome I was actually trying to protect myself against. Giving money to someone who is demonstrably worse off than me? Maybe Paul used that money to buy himself lunch, maybe he didn’t. What am I, USAID? Who cares what he spent it on. If those two dollars (or 10, or 20) magically disappeared from my back pocket, I never would have noticed. Why am I Jay Gatsby when it goes to making me better off, but Ebeneezer Scrooge if it does that for someone else? All that shit about enabling, it’s just an excuse for me to keep what I feel is mine.

In development circles, everyone is all excited about this “just give money” thing. The idea is: Poor people know better what to do with their money than we do, so if you want to help, don’t tie a donation to some entrepreneurship scheme, behavior modification, Excel-sheeted output, just hand over some scrilla, no questions asked.

Apparently it worked in Uganda, another country I have visited to do development work in the daytime and say “sorry” on evenings and weekends. If this idea is real, maybe I should be refusing all the conferences and acquiescing to all the beggars.

I have no idea what I should do. When I travel to developing countries for work, should I set a daily amount that I can afford, say $20, and hand it out randomly? Should I start donating regularly to charities who do that? What is, as the MBAs say, ‘best practice’?

I am in Victoria Falls for two more days. I will probably run into Paul again. He will probably ask me for money, and I will probably give some to him. I might even give him enough to try that French croissant pudding.


Filed under Personal, Travel

14 responses to “Why Don’t I Give Money to Poor People?

  1. Steve Smith

    Do you ever notice that whenever you make a donation to a charity that they do the same thing?

  2. Lisa Vankula-Donovan

    Interesting. Very insightful writing on the duality of emotion.

  3. When a beggar asks you for money, you should give it to him, because irrespective of what he’s going to do with it, as sentient beings, we must help our fellow human beings. I mean hey, only if you feel sorry for them.

  4. Casey Fallah

    Giving money to people in the street is the worse thing you could do to them. Raunaq1991 says “as sentient beings, we must help our fellow human beings.” but what if the money you’re giving them is going straight to their drug fund that is tearing their family apart? Some say “well I did it with good intentions. I don’t care what happens to the money” but that’s so wrong on so many levels. If you think you, as someone who has money to spare, should help the ones in need, you should care about them as people too.

    My solution to this social issue is giving them what they’re asking for rather than money. If a begger comes up to you and says “I need 2 dollars for lunch”, instead of giving him the 2 dollars, just take him to a restaurant or a food trolley and buy them lunch. If they need 10 bucks to ride a bus to see their sick sister, take them to the ticket office, give them the money they need and buy them the ticket. If they’re telling the truth, this would mean the world to them and if they’re faking all these, then you’ve exposed them and that’s shameful to them. You have thought them a lesson.

    Once I read a story about a mugger who drew a knife on an old man and demanded his wallet. The old man then asked “what do you need the money for?”. “For food.” the kid replied. The man then took the kid to a local restaurant, had lunch with him, and then bought his knife for 15 dollars. After this, the kid started crying and ran away from the old man. The incident might have changed the kid’s life. Imagine if the old man had gave up his wallet. The kid would have kept mugging people and might have got himself or someone else in deep trouble.

    • Well I simply say that because we have no right to judge a beggar. As much you try and empathize, you wouldn’t know what it feels like unless youve been there. And what they do with the money is their business, literally. Tearing their family apart? I’m sure beggars have bigger problems than a broken family. Besides, if you really cared about the beggars you wouldn’t be too happy, living in a capitalist state. And mind you, I speak of only beggars. Not muggers and poor people.

    • Suf

      Casey, your response is so shallow and suburban, I doubt you have ever taken a beggar to buy a bus ticket or bought a homeless person a meal. If you had, you may have realised by now that drug addicts do not beg for money (I’ll leave it to you to decide how they get it), and people who beg for money must be so tremendously desperate to be in that situation.

      The OP is talking about being away from his home country, in a land of absolute poverty, and facing a social an ethical dilemma when solicited for money every day. You are talking about judging beggars and homeless people in the place where you live, based on assumptions of how they got in that situation and how much they deserve your money. They are two completely different situations.

      You talk about caring for them as people, yet you lack the depth in your comment to suggest you have considered what it may be like “in someone else’s shoes”. For someone to have the courage, or the desperation to stand in the street surrounded by wealth and affluence, and beg for money takes a lot of courage. I live in Australia, and living on the street is not easy, or safe here. Hundreds of homeless people are raped, murdered, robbed and beaten every night. A huge amount of the homeless people are mentally or terminally ill, without a medical advocate or a fixed address for which to receive welfare benefits. Again, a large proportion of these homeless people are young – in their 20s and 30s.

      No young person *chooses* to beg, or *chooses* to live on the street. It is not easy. It is cold, scary, lonely, humiliating and demoralising.

      I don’t care if you give money to people who beg of you, or not. I really don’t. But I do take issue with you sitting up there in your ivory tower, looking down on the beggars and the homeless, telling the rest of us your bigoted opinions on how to deal with this “social issue”.

  5. There is this young kid that hangs out in my neighborhood sometimes and when people walk by he whispers, “got any change?” I don’t know his situation, but it’s possible he might legitimately need money. However instead of sympathy I feel anger because he is young and physically capable of finding a job and just why should I give him the money I work so hard to earn?

    Then again, sometimes I find myself at restaurants with the bill in hand and an open wallet. The service was exceptionally good, I’ve had a few drinks and feeling generous so I tip the waiter. Did they really deserve the extra money? Did it mean they were finally able to pay rent? I have no idea.

    I also have a hard time deciding how charitable to be when traveling.

  6. Tyler Cowen has written some interesting stuff about this “just give money” approach and the problem mentioned by Casey, that beggars and others who are visibly asking for money are not always the ones who need it most. I remembered his solution as “just wire cash to random individuals in poor countries,” but there’s actually a bit more of a selection process:


  7. sometimes I think I don’t have enough money to help every single person that ask me for some in one day. I would be broke in an hour, especially in San Francisco or other tourist city… It is very sad,..

  8. There are too many people on earth.

    Give toward the best, not the rest.

  9. As a world traveler and a man accosted more than once in America’s streets by bums, “homeless” and criminals who want my money, even when I have nothing to give – I say give them nothing.

    The WORST thing you can do is hand some kids a coin or two. They bring their friends back and you DO become a mark.

    Don’t dress like a tourist. Don’t make it obvious you’re there as a tourist. Go about your business as unobtrusively as possible.

    Do you know why? Because little boys and girls who take your coins tell the big boys who will come for you later when you’re in a secluded location.

    YOU can NOT help them all. Help them in other ways, but don’t as a tourist try to feed them all. You can’t. Not unless you’re a saint with the ability to make wine and fish….

  10. I enjoyed this post and the following discussions. I especially liked and appreciated Ruf’s response to Casey.

    I’ve heard that mantra before, “Who knows what they do with the money?” That’s right. Both directions. You DONT know if they are spending it on drugs or not. You DONT know that they aren’t going to turn around and hand it to someone living under a bridge.

    I am a Christian, so I believe my job is to give willingly and with a glad heart. If someone asks me for money, and I have it in my pocket, I give them a portion in consideration for what I’m using the rest for (like if I was on my way to buy groceries). Twice I’ve seen someone homeless on the road and pulled over and given them what was in my pocket. Once it was $50 I just took out of the bank. My daughter asked me to give it all. I did.

    Once we bought fanny packs at Goodwill and filled them up with new toiletries from the dollar store, and handed them out to the next homeless people we saw.

    I don’t care what they do with their items, because they are each their own person with their own minds and own situations. I can’t judge EVERY SINGLE ONE and determine, as a privileged person, what they are deserving of. I give them what I can because *I* want to be that type of person. After all, the giving isn’t about ME, which keeping tallies and judgments of what they are going to do with the items is what it would be.

    One woman begged me to meet her at a nearby Wendy’s after she ate with the money I gave her. I left my kids bowling with friends, and I went to Wendys. There she was, eating a big meal. When she saw me, she rustled through her white garbage bag and pulled out her penny collection. “Here,” she said. “I have a blue penny I found. I want you to have it. Thank you so much.” And there it was, a blue penny. I still have it.

  11. Qualtinger

    If I gave a Euro to every panhandler I meet on the street that would be about 5 Euros a day, 150 a month. Can´t do it, and can´t afford to give a fuck anymore. Sometimes I buy the homeless newspaper from a seller and give them 10 Euros instead of 2. They are always extremely happy about it and I feel much better giving my money to them than to someone who can´t even be bothered to sell newspapers.

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