How should we deal with beggars in developing countries?

A lot of people have told me not to give to beggars under any circumstance. I’ve heard that they are liars, they spend your money on drugs and alcohol, giving them money discourages them from trying to get a job and that once you give to one beggar, you should be prepared for more to come. 

I won’t give money to the beggars who are visibly drunk or high, and I don’t normally give to beggars (like on the train here) who drag a blind or crippled person behind them while they ask for money.

Here are two personal experiences that made me think more about how to deal with beggars in Cape Town. 



Yesterday a man came up to me who looked like he was in his early thirties. Speaking very good english and looking clean, he introduced himself as Jonathan and shook my hand.  He explained that he was out of work and staying at a shelter with his girlfriend and baby. He asked for 5 Rand (about 60 cents) so that he could buy some food for them. I heard his story, but in the end I told him I couldn’t give him any money. He gave me this look like he couldn’t believe how selfish I was. “Really, you can’t help another guy out who is going through such a hard time in life?”  As I walked away I felt awful that I chose not to give him money but I tried to justify it in my head , telling myself that my decision will encourage him to get a job and that he may have just been lying to me in an effort to get money for something else. Despite my effort to convince myself I did the right thing I had this terrible pit in my stomach as I walked into the grocery store.

Then, just now a man came and rang my doorbell. I went to the door and he asked if I could spare any food. He said that he was from Darfur, Sudan and had snuck onto a boat to get to Cape Town. Now he had nowhere to stay and no money. I went to the fridge and pulled out four or five pieces of bread and some juice. Afraid of the rumor about flocking beggars, I gave it to him and said I’ll give you this but you can’t come back here asking for more, you have to go out and find your way. He said he understood that we were students and we didn’t have a lot of money to give out so he wouldn’t be back. I wished him good luck and he went on down the street, eating the bread and washing it down with juice as he walked. 

Now I’m sitting on the patio wondering if I did the right thing today, yesterday, or if I failed twice to make the right decision. Was Jonathan telling the truth yesterday and the other man lying today? I don’t know but what I should have done I think was ask him to tell me more about Sudan. Its an interesting story to learn about and if he was telling me the truth, I had a man who had lived in Darfur at my front door. I could’ve learned more about his circumstances and then decided whether or not to give him food. 

Part of me thinks that I’m over-thinking the whole issue, but since I’m here working to give poor women an opportunity to earn an income, I doesn’t seem right to ignore the poor beggars I pass on my way to work. I feel like at least they deserve the respect of a second thought, but thinking more about it I haven’t really come up with a good answer

What do you think? Do you give to beggars? Would love to hear some stories or get some advice.


How should we deal with beggars in developing countries?

9 thoughts on “How should we deal with beggars in developing countries?

  1. mom says:

    ouch.. that is a tough one. I like to give to anyone that asks cuz i feel like nobody would be asking unless they really had to. That could happen to any of us. I like reading this over and over.

  2. Biz says:

    My philosophy is to give things rather than money. I’ve had friends tell me they’ve received a negative response when they’ve done that, but I’ve only ever received sincere gratitude. Sure, it costs money, but I figure I have more than they do. Presumably, if they only wanted your money and you tried to buy them food, they’d walk away.

    1. I agree, I think its definitely smart to give things rather than money. Even still, its always an internal dilemma for me when a person begs for money or food. There’s the dependency factor that may or may not be real, and then there’s always the thought that I would do the same thing if I was in a tough position; I would ask for help! Thanks for commenting Biz!

  3. Katie says:

    Hey you! I loved this blog so much. I definitely feel like this is something we constantly struggle with but you did the right thing. I like your idea about getting more information especially if it means you can learn something from their story. You are such an incredible person and I love you for that!! Proud of you.

  4. Student says:

    I have experienced Jonathan before, in the Rosebank, Rondebosch and Claremont areas. He always gives the same story. The shelter, girlfriend, baby etc. He has been doing this for at least 5 years now, so the ‘baby’ is probably a child by this stage. There is another guy in Rondebosch that always asks for loose change, a spare 50c etc. He sits all day doing nothing. This is my sixth year in Cape Town and he has been sitting around and begging for all that time. Recently I have been harassed by a tall guy with rotten teeth (probably due to meth), who waits outside takeaways to ask people for money. Refusing to give him anything leads to tactics aimed at making you feel very guilty. This guy sometimes sells small plants in a box. Then there is the guy near Obz Square who always has a long story to tell, and gives numerous tales about why he does not work. I have been sympathetic towards all these people, and have often purchased food for them. I did make the mistake of giving them some coins on ocassions too. Their panhandling has now become an annoying habit. I don’t help them anymore and get sweared at for it. I think the problem with handing out stuff to these people is that it becomes a habit for them to expect it. They then act as though you owe them something.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I guess you have learned from experience that it is best not to give handouts to people begging on the street. I’m sure seeing the same faces everyday for a long time as you have makes that decision a little easier.

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