To Give or Not To Give

Its coming up to Christmas, and whilst I am not Christian, it does make me think about some fundamental things like kindness, generosity and most importantly respect.  I like to believe that I practise these principles in my everyday life, however traveling through India recently, I have certainly found myself challenged and internally conflicted in this regard, particularly when it comes to the issue of begging.

On every street corner I am confronted with people in need.  Small children, people with leprosy, physical disabilities, all with their hand out asking me for money.  On the face of it I have two choices here, to give or not to give, but I don’t find it that easy. This is a complicated issue.

I can’t give to everyone, the sheer mass of the poverty in India make this impossible. Everyday I would be asked for money no less than 20 times.

So if I am to give, how do I choose who is worthy of this rupee and who is not.  It can be so random and its difficult to know what each person’s circumstances truly are by a cursory look at their conditions on the street. Its like playing god on a minute level and I personally find this quite confronting.

If I do give, how do I know that the money goes to them?

The film Slumdog Millionaire highlighted several issues in India, one being the existence of “gangs” who deliberately maim people for the purpose of making them professional beggars.  Whilst it is heartbreaking to think of someone being physically harmed and then living a life of slavery, giving money to one of those gangs only serves to perpetuate the problem.  So how do you know that the person you are giving to is the true recipient of the money?

Does giving prevent people from learning productive skills?

An intellectual argument I guess, but a very valid one nonetheless, if someone learns that they will receive money by holding out their hand and harassing people who walk past (yes on many occasions I have felt harassed by people asking me for money), then where is the incentive to learn other skills that will enable them to earn an income.  Its like that old saying “give someone a fish and they will eat for a day, teach them to fish and they will eat for a lifetime”.

Its a simple argument against giving, but not that simple to execute.  Without access to education and opportunity, I understand that it is not always easy for people to learn skills other than begging.  This is a complicated issue, tied up in all the other social issues (like lack of clean water and sanitation) that makes India such a challenging place to live in.

One solution I have heard offered frequently is to pick a cause and donate to that instead.  This is definitely a valid choice and one that I have been considering more as I settle into my life here, I would like to find a way to give back (not just monetarily) and try to help others less fortunate than myself. I am not quite sure how I will do this yet, but I have no doubt I will in time.

However this solution doesn’t take away the feeling that I get in my heart when I walk past a small, malnourished child who is asking me for money for chappatis. It is relentless, and I find myself feeling like a worse person every time I refuse or walk away.  I think this is one of the few things in India I will never be able to get used to.

So what do you do? Do you give or not give?