Monday, April 12, 2010

Crutches for Beggars

I don't like beggars. I don't like seeing them and I don't like dealing with them. In fact, my life would be a whole lot better without them. In economic terms, I'd say that their presence decreases my overall welfare. And, if you live in a big city, I bet you feel the same way.

I don't dislike beggars because I think they're the scum of the earth. Rather, I hate seeing the human race in that sort of condition. Beggars, and poverty for that matter, are something I want to see eradicated not just for their sake, but for mine too.

Interacting with beggars is tough, and I don't know if I've gotten any better at it. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, I was almost mugged by them. Ten hands would be grabbing my arms as I walked through the more commercial Gulshan area. Eventually, I started walking around that area altogether. In Mozambique, they are more resigned - and maybe because they have resigned to their situation. They will ask you for money, but only if you make eye contact and only if you walk close enough. It's almost as if they are calculating whether or not the potential payoff is worth the effort. As a personal rule, if you're an able-bodied individual (especially if you're a male), don't bother asking me for money. I also rule out children.

I work in the only real office building in Nampula, the Girassol building which houses USAID, TechnoServe, and most of the other development organizations in the city. It is also home to some nice tech shops and one of the fanciest hotels in the city. Thus, it's a prime spot for beggars. Every day I walk past them in my khakis, button-down shirt, and laptop in stow. I usually do this while trying not to look at him (we'll use "him" for brevity's sake), and every time I feel guilty. Generally, when I am confronted by a beggar, I try to acknowledge him, even if I don't offer anything. I don't know if this makes any difference to him, but maybe it does.

The kind of interaction I have in Nampula is different than most I've had with beggars elsewhere. Here it isn't a one-time thing where I can just blow them off and never see them again. I see them every day. What is my responsibility, as someone on a fellowship to research poverty? Should I give more or less than another foreigner here for a different reason? Should I take time to talk to them? Do they even want to talk to me?

Recently I was sitting in a company truck with a couple colleagues and potential partner who operates a yogurt factory. An old man who was missing his hands limped over to my window and asked for money, in more of a sad mumble than actual words. I didn't give him anything. He went around to the other side of the truck. The factory owner handed him some change. I don't know if he did that out of personal nature or in an effort to show off, but it made feel like crap regardless.

Sometimes I wonder what's the point of giving them money. I think to myself that the few coins I offer up will never change their lives. Maybe this is because I'm an all-or-nothing guy. I want to find a solution to problems, not a crutch. But it also might be because I know how hard it is to help even the moderately poor and able-bodied, much less the maimed and mired. Grameen Bank in Bangladesh has one partial solution (I don't think there's a such thing as a "full solution" when it comes to alleviation efforts) with the Struggling Members Program, which offers a $9 interest-free loan with payback to be decided by the beggar, and with coaching to come from another one of Grameen's less-poor microfinance members. I'm a little skeptical, but Grameen says it has graduated over 10% of its members.

My flatmate and colleague Andrew tried to help the young man who you see in the picture sitting outside our office building. Andrew went to the market with him and purchased a cart (or the parts needed, I can't remember) for him to get around on. Andrew said he's never seen him on it, and when he asked the young man about it, he said that he leaves it at home so his begging is still effective. Who knows the validity of his claim, but sometimes, maybe all we can hope to offer is a crutch.


  1. I suppose that if beggars think of begging as their profession -something that will always be there to provide their subsistence- then refusing to give to them might be you doing your part to refuse to legitimize such a profession? Unfortunately, unless everyone jumped on your bandwagon, there will always be people like the yogurt factory manager who do give and continue to encourage begging as a profession.

  2. I know that building! I remember arriving on the bus from Alto Molocue having no clue if I was actually in Nampula because apparently the residents didn't know if they were either. Then, I rode a little tchapa and some guy graciously took me to that building. I ended up staying at the Hotel Milenio for a much appreciated respite, where I ran into Jake Walter's wife.

    Are you staying with Andrew who I met at TechnoServe? I remember he was going up to Nampula as well. If so, say hey to him for me! By the way, tonight's the Ingram Roast--I'm pretty sure it's going to be better than the one we put on for your class!

  3. Hi Thomas! Long time no speak. Hope all is well.

    Just to clarify, which is unnecessary but allows me to introduce 2 new characters in this dilema.. The guy pictured isn't the guy that I hooked up with a cart tire (these carts have different form but same function as a wheelchair), it was another one of the regulars around here who has legs that stop at about the knee joint. And he said he leaves it at home so that he can ride around his family's farm. Who knows if that's true, and I think Rob wrote that he leaves it home so his begging is effective because we were discussing this issue and speculating as to if riding around the farm is the real reason or not, and what the alternative reasons could be.

    Not that any of this changes the meaning of the blog post.

    The guy pictured in the post has a working cart which he rides to his begging spot every day. He arrives and promptly gets off the bike to beg while sitting on the sidewalk.

    Interestingly, there is a 3rd guy, Luis, who also uses a cart, but posts up at a spot around the corner. Every day around 7:30 I see him arrive. He puts flip flops on his hands (keeps them clean while crawling) and scoots off the cart, pushing it so as not to block the sidewalk. His spot is right in front of a busy store that sells cell phones, cell phone credit, and processes film to print pictures. So again, at 730, he arrives. He opens up the cardboard box he leaves at the storefront every night, sets up a kind of variety "store" of sweets and cigarettes, and sits in a plastic lawn chair selling until sundown. He has never asked me for money, but smiles and waves hello every time I pass.

    I wonder who struggles the least to live. And, more importantly, who is happiest?