When Do You Give to Beggars?

This is one of the biggest questions and challenges for people traveling to the developing world and, perhaps even moreso, for those living as western expats in countries with extensive poverty because we confront it on a daily basis.

The hard part is that most of these people really are poor and what amounts to pocket change to us could mean the only meal of the day to them. We want to help, feel guilty if we don’t, and realize we are perpetuating a bad situation if we do. On a more basic level, nobody likes to say “no” to someone in need.

Begging is Different Here

I find it particularly complicated here in Uganda. My wife and I lived in India back in 1993 – 1994, before the big dot-com boom and the rise of the middle class. The poverty was much more extreme than it is here in Uganda, but there was a stronger stigma against begging. It was clear who was going to ask you for money, and it was usually people on the street with horrible deformities or who were clearly on the edge of survival. It was a last resort or, for the children, they may have been forced into a “begging gang.”

That same stigma doesn’t exist here. I regularly get asked for money by people with jobs (albeit low-paid ones), or people who just happen to be walking by and see a mzungu – a human money-dispenser.

I think there are two main reasons that it is more acceptable to ask for money here. One results from a positive social structure, one stems from the good-intentions but bad-execution of the aid industry.

On the positive side, families are set up to help each other here. If you need school fees or money for medicine, you can ask any relative, no matter how distant, for that money. If they have it, they are obligated to give it to you. This is an important safety net that also makes it very difficult for anybody to save enough money to start a business or buy a house. Regardless, it is ok and expected to ask for money when you need it.

A less positive reason is the pervasiveness of hand-out aid. People here are used to getting free stuff from foreigners. I think this has created the expectation that you should get something from any mzungu you come across.

Giving to a beggar does not solve the systemic problem that caused that person to be begging in the first place. At the same time, they really might be in dire straights and need to buy some food. Only you can decide what is right for you at any given moment.

My 5 Rules for Giving to Beggars

Over time I have developed a number of unbreakable rules that I break on a regular basis:

  1. I don’t give money to kids who are begging. I don’t want families to think it is better to send their kids out to beg than to send them to school. I also don’t want to support “begging gangs” where kids are forced to beg and then bring their earnings back to a leader.


  1. I don’t give money to people with jobs. I heavily tip people who do a service for me, like the security guards where I park my car, but even someone who is making very little is better off than someone who isn’t making anything at all.


  1. Mothers with babies. Ok, if I am going to give money to someone begging on the street, it will probably be a mother with a baby, even if she just borrowed the baby to improve her chances. I am the sucker that makes that trick work.


  1. I will give money to adults with serious injuries that make it hard for them to work. NOT kids with injuries – I don’t want parents to decide their kids will bring in more money if they have injuries and thus incentivise them to harm their children.


  1. I don’t give money in front of my home or hotels where I am staying. Once you are seen as someone who will give money, it will be expected from you every time you walk through your door.

I Break My Own Rules

I broke number 5 just this morning. A man was waiting for me at my gate after I dropped my son off at school. He had a note saying that his daughter just died and he needed money to transport the body to his village. I gave him 10,000 shillings.

I am about 95% certain that this same guy came up to me about a year ago with the same note and the same story. I even said “are you sure you didn’t already try this last year?” He swore he hadn’t. I don’t believe him.

So why did I give him the money? I don’t know. Rules are meant to be broken. I hate saying no. He looked sad. And maybe, just maybe, he was telling the truth and it was some other guy who came to me last year to get money to transport his daughter to the village. Lots of people die here.

It’s not easy. It’s never easy. If it was easy to say no, it would be the death of compassion.

I think one of the best solutions might be to count the number of people who ask you for money each day/month/trip, figure out how much you would be likely to give each one, and donate that amount to an organization that is doing good work to get people off the streets and into jobs. Or hire the person to carry your bags to your car.

It’s not fair that some of us have so much more than so many others. We don’t need to level the playing field – we need to switch sports.

  • What are your thoughts around giving money to beggars?
  • How do you decide when to do it and when not to?

I’d love to see your thoughts in the comments.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala

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About Mark D. Jordahl

Mark Jordahl is a writer, trip leader and naturalist who has lived much of the last 7 years in Uganda and currently calls Colorado home.
This entry was posted in Personal Observations, Poverty, Society, Tourism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to When Do You Give to Beggars?

  1. Charlotte says:

    Mark, I like your unbreakable rules that you frequently break!
    Since I’m a a full-time volunteer in Uganda, I don’t feel any obligation to give money out on the streets too. If I drive past those kids at the traffic lights, I’ll give them an apple or a biscuit if I have them, but never money. When I was younger I often used to give a few coins here and there. One day an old tramp came upto me and gently tried to sweet talk me. “Sorry I don’t have any money on me” I said, truthfully. He turned, spat at me and cursed me at the top of his voice for several minutes as everyone in the train station stared at me. I wanted the earth to swallow me up! he didn’t know how generous I usually was! You can’t please everyone, nor can you feed everyone.

    • Mark D. Jordahl says:

      Wow- that experience in the train station sounds horrible! Ultimately, whatever anyone decides about whether or not to give money, we always have the right to say no. Thanks for your thoughts, Charlotte!

  2. Elisabeth says:

    I found this a very thought provoking article and one that just hit the button as I am facing a very painful decision about a request for money just now. I also never give money to children for precisely the reasons you outline, though I absolutely hate the experience. I do pay school fees because I cannot bear the prospect of children’s futures being blighted. However, I cannot give to everybody, which is the situation I am faced with just now. I understand about the mothers with babies, and I would give in to this too. I too am a full-time volunteer and the whole point of my placement is to improve the futures of all the children in Uganda. I know that I cannot help everyone but I find the individual cases very very difficult. I was so glad to read of someone else who feels like this too and breaks his own rules.

    • Mark D. Jordahl says:

      Thanks for your comment, Elisabeth. I think school fees are a great way to contribute when it goes through a program that makes sure the money is actually going to a school. I had a participant on a trip once who met a young man who convinced her he wanted to go to a vocational training program. I warned her against sending money directly to him. After two more “asks” for additional fees – totalling a few thousand dollars – she found out that he wasn’t actually in the program.

      It is so hard when you are looking directly at a human being who is asking for help. It sounds like you have done a pretty good job of figuring out where to put your resources!

  3. Thanks Mark for this.
    Your description of the inner conflicting emotions I feel in this situation is spot on, and your comment, “If it was easy to say no, it would be the death of compassion,” gets to the heart of it , doesn’t it. I think I/we feel compassion, and then we ponder what is best. I never give to those kids at the stoplight, they are careless in the traffic and I am worried for their safety, so I won’t reinforce it. Similar to you I lean towards giving to those who aren’t able to work: the sick and injured, the women, and the elderly. I had one regular at Mulago Hospital with a seizure disorder and he would find me whenever I was there ( he’d hang out by my car, but given I was there for months, then gone for months, he had a good surveillance system) and show me his Rx for anti-convulsants and ask me for 40,000 for the meds. His hands shook like an alcoholic and I have no idea whether he had seizures, but I gave it to him every time. I also gave to the kids who live at the parking lot at Mulago who were the ones that kept the Pajero washed. I regularly gave to patients who needed medicines they could not afford. I felt as their doctor my role had to go beyond diagnosis and prescription to insuring they could get what they needed.
    There was one man who wanted money to bury his wife, like you said, who I was sure had already buried his wife several times so I finally refused. It became dark comedy where he would find me every day and describe how the body was rotting and smelly but I held the line. I don’t know. As you suggest, ATM in Uganda means “Ask The Muzungo.”
    I’d often tell myself,”Heck, I am giving every day just by being here and doing the work I do, so don’t bug me when I am driving to the gym.” Then I’d think how my gym fee could itself support a family. Ram Das used to talk about sitting in his hot tub in northern California pondering the pain of the poor. There is such a dissonance between our lives and theirs. I remember once Phoebe (a Ugandan friend who was able to visit America) saying it is unbelievable to her that these two worlds exist in parallel. Right now I am thinking of the hundreds of thousands if not millions in Japan in severe pain and stress from the earthquake and Tsunami. Their horror at the radiation exposure must touch their national legacy of horror of the atomic bombs they received from us. So right now I want to give there. What a world. Thanks for what you are doing and raising this discussion.

    • Mark D. Jordahl says:

      Isn’t it interesting how there always seem to be a few people who come into our lives who we continually support even when we are sure they are lying to us? And once you start its hard to stop. I figure there must be some karmic connection or some deeper reason that we feel compelled to give to them, and that we should just trust our instincts.

      And Japan…Libya…Bahrain…Ivory Coast…what’s happening to the world right now?!?

      Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  4. Sarah says:

    This was something I was very conflicted about when I spent 4 months in Uganda last year. The first time I saw a child begging I gave her money of course. The missionaries I was staying with told me that it isn’t helpful to give money to children because many of them are “owned” by “pimps” and they don’t get to keep any of the money. It is the job of their pimp to keep them thin and hungry and in rags to attract sympathy and make money. After that I started carrying high calorie fruit leather and protein bars and would give one of those out to begging children when I had one on hand. I would open it first and tell them to take a bite so that they would most likely eat it and not give it to the pimp. I did give disabled people money. It was on a case by case basis I guess.
    It is hard to live in America where pretty much everyone has so much and then go to a place like Uganda and not give everything you have away.

    • Mark D. Jordahl says:

      The idea of opening the package with them there and having them start eating it in front of you is a great suggestion. I also often wonder if they will be forced to hand over the food, but this is a good solution to that. And you are so right that it’s hard not to just give everything away. It’s hard to walk the balance between being generous and not perpetuating dependency.

      • Sarah says:

        So true about not perpetuating dependency. Their nation is so used to hand outs and foreign aid. I think the welfare system in the US has proven that handouts don’t always help people to better themselves, they often lead to several generations down the line becoming dependent on welfare. But of course it is hard to to give to the children.

  5. francesjbauer says:

    I spent 6 months in Uganda in 2007 and returned for two more in 2008. I had numbers of Ugandans contact me after I came home and two still keep in touch and ask periodically for help with health issues, school fees and the like. It is very hard to say No although there are times when I wonder about the truth of the story. However, both live in the north where there has been considerable conflict in recent years, followed no by drought and climate change and an influx of refugees from South Sudan. Skyrocketing food prices, plus no real jobs! One is a farmer, but he injured his back a few years ago and is periodically limited.

    The problem as so many have said is the global disparity between rich and poor. We from the developed world are seen as rich, and we are rich in comparison. But there are rich people in Uganda and other African countries, too – often as a result of corruption. This is not a problem we can solve. African countries must solve it for themselves. But families with children to be fed and educated can’t wait….


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