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Can travellers transform a beggar’s life with a generous gift?

Give small amounts as you pass by makes you feel good but is rarely enough to make any significant or lasting difference. Dmitry Kalinovsky/Shutterstock

Travelling almost always involves confronting experiences with abject poverty. As you step out of the pampered cocoons of hotels, restaurants and airline cabins and see destitute people sleeping on streets in all weather and imploring you for money, it is only the most hardened or indifferent whose holiday post-mortems don’t wrestle with dilemmas of the right thing to do.

Having just spent a month in France and Spain, I’m personally raw from daily encounters with an apparently large increase in beggars, many from the Middle East and Africa. The desire to give some quick relief to a person whose daily existence is wretched is what motivates many of us to scatter a spontaneous or planned amount each day, to buy them food and drink or leave them unwanted shoes and clothing before we leave. This produces a mutual but passing feel-good experience but is rarely enough to make any significant or lasting difference.

The arguments about the structural and socially determined causes of global and national poverty and homelessness needing correspondingly structural solutions are unassailable. But try telling that to the ragged and hungry person in front of you as you self-righteously decline to give them dollar or two.

Prominent international charities like World Vision and Oxfam have long sought to attract donors on the basis of personalising the donor’s relationship to a named child or a specific project. The idea that your money is going, not into some amorphous pool, but to actually help educate a named child or purchase a goat, a school desk or the building of a village well plainly resonates with many thousands of donors.

But many are highly cynical about the overheads that are necessary to enable the operation of all major charities. Scandalous examples of prominent individuals setting up charitable trusts where tiny fractions of the amounts raised go to the actual projects have not helped.

I was on the board of the NSW Cancer Council for a decade and was quickly educated about the charity fund raising principle that you need to spend to earn. I was once initially outraged about a pitch from a company that used personable backpackers to sign up donors via street intercepts when told that we would get precisely nothing from each donor for the first year. The recruitment company would trouser it all. But then I was impressed by looking at the data provided about the long-term stream of money from continuing donors, and how this compared with the rates obtained by other donor recruitment strategies.

Selecting an ethical, established and transparent charity that inhabits your personal values and with a track record of delivering goods and services is clearly a sensible strategy.

But are there ways that travellers can do more than offer token relief to those in need when the opportunity arises while travelling? Are there sensible ways of directly benefiting people or projects abroad with no overhead or administrative costs? There are many pitfalls.

My step daughter worked as a legal rights educator in Cambodia for two years. When we visited, she strongly advised us against giving money to children who were begging. The money gave their families incentives to keep them out of school, so the rewards of begging always came at a far larger price. She was also full of stories from other aid workers about exploitative “charities” set up to milk bleeding heart tourists, with much of the money contributing to the lifestyles of those behind the scenes.

Many visiting Southeast Asia will have seen children and limbless, blind, burnt or otherwise badly disabled people begging on crowded footpaths. Often, these people are exploited Cambodian and Burmese refugees, who are organised by criminal groups who take the money in return for shelter and corrupted protection from deportation.

Discussing all these concerns with a lawyer friend in Paris, she told me that when working in Phnom Penh, she had daily dealings with a cyclo driver. He rented his cyclo and had no opportunity to ever buy his own, as he was perpetually servicing an old gambling debt. Through trusted local colleagues, she determined that the combined size of the debt and the cost of a reasonable used cyclo was some $900.

So before she left, she bought out the debt and paid for a cyclo. When she returned a year later, she could find no trace of her beneficiary. She will never know if her generosity had its planned outcome, or whether he fell into further problems. But we rarely know the long-term outcomes that apply to those who benefit from any form of charitable aid, whether it be international or local.

Recent data from the National Australia Bank on Australians’ donations to charities show great variability across postcodes. In New South Wales for example, affluent suburbs such as Mosman, Hunters Hull and Vaucluse top the list with average per person annual donations of around A$200 to A$300. But it is inner western suburbs such as Petersham, Croydon and Stanmore which lead when it comes to donations as a proportion of total income (at around 0.26%).

Many of us think little of regularly spending far more than this on extra or new appliances, clothes, furniture, restaurants or concert tickets. I’m moving toward the idea of building into all future holidays an extra expense component: planning to carefully select a person, family or project where a large direct gift might transform their situation.

Let’s hear from readers about examples of what you have done in this regard. Tell us about how you decide what to do, where you might have learned a lesson and where you know that what you intended worked out.

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