Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The begging question: to give or not to give?

The begging question: to give or not to give?

The begging question: to give or not to give?

Despite the vast amounts of aid pouring into the country, reports show Cambodia is slipping deeper into poverty. According to a recent report by the World Bank, under-five infant mortality has increased by 20 percent since 1990 and illiteracy rates amongst women are also growing.

Five-year-old Man Ya, second from left, begs on the riverfront every day with her brothers and sisters. "I live at home with my parents and my 4 siblings. I don't go to school. My parents stay at home and every day between 9 am and 11 pm my siblings and I walk up and down the river to ask for money. My sister gets very heavy."

The streets of Phnom Penh are filling up with the poor, the hungry and the ill as rural families flock to the capital seeking some way to subsist. The Urban Sector group reports that the numbers of homeless in Phnom Penh are increasing and squatter communities have grown from 502 in 2000 to 569 in 2003.

Those unable to find jobs are forced to take to the streets to ask for help. No diner on the river front or bargain-hunter in Psar Toul Tom Pong can avoid being asked for money by the ubiquitous poor and hungry. Whether it be exhausted mothers or their scrawny young, the disabled, the elderly, the sick or the dispossessed, there is an overwhelming display of desperation.

But should we give?

The Buddhist tradition promises good karma for the next life in exchange for good deeds in this one. But many officials who work with these needy groups say giving only promotes dependency, supports drug and alcohol abuse and makes their work to get the people off the streets more difficult.

The Post asked the experts: Should we give money to beggars?

Chea Vannath, Director, Centre for Social Development


"I think that the contribution from NGOs affects the target group only, not all the beggars."

Vannath points out there are very few jobs available. Seventy-five percent of students are unemployed and government figures show that 36 percent live below the poverty line.

"I feel that even though among the beggars, some might use the money for an improper purpose; I'd rather that than deprive anybody."

"I do not give any advice in general, [but] in terms of my own moral satisfaction, it's heart breaking to see the misery and suffering of people."

Kek Galabru, director, LICADHO

"No, don't give money, but you can give food."

Sao Sarin, aged 67, arrived from Svay Rieng two weeks ago. She now asks for money on the streets of Phnom Penh. "I had no job. I have no money and no food. I don't hope for money here. I just rely on my fate."

"Our policy is not to give because the people say, 'now we have money, we don't need to work'. We need to give encouragement to work. I think everybody would like to have a job to have some kind of honour."

Galabru says many Cambodians are homeless and existing NGOs are not able to support all those in need. She says there needs to be a national programme of the government to provide social assistance, but admits there are no easy answers.

"It's complex. I say: 'I don't give', but I give. You can see the children are hungry and sick. I prefer to give some rice."

H.E. Mu Sochua, Minister of Women's Affairs

"I don't think it's a case of yes or no. I recommend giving to NGOs instead."

"Begging is a way of coping and surviving. There are real reasons for many people to beg. But supporting beggars is, in the long run, not beneficial to children."

"The question is what is the alternative?"

Sochua says over three million people survive on less than 50 cents a day, which means they eat less than three meals a day. She praises the government shelters which provide stability including shelter, vocational training, education for children and medical care, but says they cannot take care of three million people.

"The government has to address the issue of poverty."

"I realize it's a very difficult issue. It's a moral issue. For me: yes, I have given and I continue to give [but] I select very, very carefully... I give to the centers and NGOs on a monthly basis. There are many of these local NGOs who are making a big difference."

Sebastian Marot, Director, Mith Samlanh/ Friends


"We don't recommend giving money to child beggars because basically you support the lifestyle and keep them on the streets."

"If you give them food, they keep the money [they collect] to buy things such as drugs. What is worse is that you allow them to live on the streets and stay on the streets."

Marot also discourages supporting flower girls, saying the money usually goes to an adult. "You're encouraging child labour."

He says there are plenty of organizations working to provide shelter for street families, but if the children make money, their parents will keep them on the streets.

"It makes it more difficult for us to encourage them to get off the streets."

"It's very difficult in our culture to just ignore the children. I understand the problem myself. But it's child abuse. Don't feed it."

Caroline Bakker, Head of Section, Children in Need of Special Protection, UNICEF


"It may not only create a cycle of dependency, but money given to child beggars may in fact never reach them. Rather, it may fuel a system of abuse, in which child exploiters are the ultimate beneficiaries."

Bakker says giving to disabled children could even fuel a system of mutilation of children.

She says children should be referred to organizations that will provide them with educational opportunities, food and being in a protective environment.

"UNICEF believes that giving food or money to child beggars [or street selling children] fails to provide the structural assistance that would enable these children to grow and develop in a protective environment."

Alison Rhodes, Country director, Cambodia Trust


"Our overall vision is for disabled people to be fully participating members of their communities and able to get a job. Begging is the complete opposite of our vision as it's a position of dependence."

Cambodia Trust provides free prosthetic limbs to amputees and helps them to find work. The organisation has employees in rural areas who identify disabled people and offer them limbs and Rhodes says most amputees do have a limb.

"The main problem is that sometimes they do make more money begging."

"My recommendation would be to ask them to go to an agency. I would say come to Cambodia Trust."

Old People
Bim Vy, Project Manager, HelpAge International

"No, but give food."

"We advise people to help old people who are vulnerable but help them make a sustainable living."

HelpAge has centres in Battambang where older people can form support networks and find ways to earn a living. But Vy does not know of any such support in Phnom Penh.

Despite this, he recommends people refrain from giving money to elderly beggars.

"Food is better than money"

"We cannot just provide them with money because they still remain in the same living conditions."


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