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Children beg at a tourist bus in Udaipur, India, in 2013. Photo by FB-Dolczewski/imageBROKER/Alamy Stock Photo

‘Wherever we went, I saw need’

A frequent traveller can’t help but encounter extreme poverty. What’s the best way to make a difference while abroad?

By Tim Johnson

From the roadside, they call out. As we roll through tumbledown towns in southern Ethiopia, our Land Cruisers kicking up dust on the unpaved roads, it sounds like they’re saying “island” or maybe “my land.”

My guide clarifies: these kids — dozens and dozens of them, posted at every turn, some carrying stacks of firewood on their backs or plastic gasoline cans filled with water from the community well — are shouting out, “Highland! Highland!” It still doesn’t make sense, but he explains: they aren’t asking for money. They want our empty water bottles. Highland is the name of the country’s largest bottled-water brand.

Before thinking it through, I roll down my window and toss one toward them, watching with strange fascination and a rising sadness as three boys lunge at the plastic like linebackers fighting to recover a fumbled football in the end zone.

It’s an issue that’s faced any tourist in a developing country. Gifted with so much, how can we deny giving just a little to those around us — especially when those in need are right there, hands thrust forward in anticipation? Having travelled to more than 120 countries, I’ve encountered this quandary many times.

My guides, invariably, tell me not to give out cash on the street. Early in my career as a travel writer, on my first visit to India, I was shocked and almost overwhelmed at the poverty I saw around me. Wherever we went, I saw need. In Mumbai, a city where almost half the residents live in shantytowns, the window of my car became a gathering place for the city’s dispossessed. They made their best entreaties for a few rupees at traffic lights, sometimes selling beaded necklaces or peacock-feather fans or, in a couple of cases, displaying a sleepy cobra in a woven basket and promising to make it dance, for a little cash.

For the first few days, I was like a slot machine that always paid off, dispensing small rumpled bills to anyone who asked — which was seemingly everyone. My local guide eventually told me to stop, explaining that the funds are often funnelled to a central syndicate (read: mob) and encourage terrible practices. For example, I’d seen a number of young mothers with sleeping babies begging both on the street close to tourist attractions and at my window in the car. The infants, without exception, were always sleeping. My guide matter-of-factly explained that the babies are rented out by their real mothers, given to younger, more attractive women and drugged (so they’re placid), a ploy to elicit more money from tourists. The scheme extends to older kids too — as many as 60,000 children go missing every year in India, many of them kidnapped by the same crime syndicates, who starve or even dismember them to elicit bigger donations.

Globally, begging is big business and a major contributor to human trafficking. Experts have observed that straight-up handouts breed economic dependency, with kids kept out of school so they can contribute to the family’s income. Even well-intentioned substitutes, like giving school supplies to kids, often don’t work out the way we think, as these items are often resold and turned into cash.

And cash handouts fundamentally alter the way we relate to each other — the space for genuine connections, ones not mediated by money, is naturally reduced. During that first visit to India, as I walked the streets of Delhi and Mumbai, I felt as if I were wearing a T-shirt embroidered with a dollar sign. Everyone who approached me did so for one reason — to separate me from my money. Teenagers matched my stride on the sidewalk and asked me to cab with them to a bookstore so I could buy them stuff for school. A young woman drew me into an elaborate scam by asking me to buy food for her baby, then taking me to a store where, I later realized, the shopkeeper was an accomplice: the prices of everything, including baby food, had been inflated. Once I’d left, the items I’d purchased for her were placed back on the shelves and my rupees split between them. (When I commented on the high prices in the shop to a friend, he told me that it’s one of Mumbai’s oldest swindles.)

But I found inspiration in the least-expected place. With up to a million residents crammed into three square kilometres, Dharavi is Mumbai’s most notorious slum, a place depicted in the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. I visited as part of an organized tour led by someone from the community; tour groups were capped at five participants, and no photos were permitted. Meeting me at a train station, my guide led me across a foot bridge, into the belly of the beast.

I steeled myself, prepared to finish the tour depressed and dejected at the state of human affairs — but instead, against all odds, I felt heartened. I’d anticipated hardship, and I found it, but I also encountered industriousness. And community. And hope. Leading me down a series of back lanes, my guide explained that many of Dharavi’s men and women came to the big city from farms and small villages, searching for employment. They find it here. In contrast to the begging I’d seen everywhere else in this massive city, the people of this slum — men, women, whole families — simply went about their business, working jobs and pursuing their daily routines, too busy to bother with us.

Around one corner, I saw them breaking down old computers and sorting the parts for repurposing. Around another, people were burning out old steel barrels so they could be reused, billows of black smoke rising above the densely packed dwellings and workplaces. We passed through a neighbourhood where families made papadums and left them to finish baking in the sun. Many here slept where they worked, their employers trading free beds for the built-in benefit of the security their overnight presence provides. Everywhere, there was hammering and drilling and banging, a cacophony that stayed with me long afterward.

It was a real, working community. And while Dharavi certainly has many shortcomings and problems, real, working communities are the kinds of places that lift people out of poverty. Indeed, one approach is making macro change through a micro solution — lending money to small entrepreneurs in poor countries. In some cases, microloans as small as $200 have had dramatic impacts on families, especially when given to the woman of the house. Jobs, education, financing — it’s not surprising that these are the keys to success. And those of us visiting developing countries can find organizations on the ground that are making a discernible difference for the people we encounter along the way.

But what about all those outstretched hands? It’s a question I need to address, head-on, every time I return to a low-income country, where the need is undeniable. I now have some strategies. Sometimes, I shake the extended hand, smiling, and ask about the person’s day. Whenever I remember to bring them along, I give out those plastic Canadian flag pins, the ones you can get for free from your local member of Parliament. I’ve found that they’re universally popular, received as a treasured gift and unlikely to be resold.

And the next time I gave away a Highland water bottle, I didn’t toss it out the window. Instead, and on each occasion afterward, I connected with the individual by striking up a small conversation and cherishing the interaction — a mere moment in time, but one which neither of us would soon forget.

Tim Johnson is a Toronto-based travel writer.

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