A couple of weeks ago, I was having brunch at a popular expat beach spot with a researcher friend, another Australian. As we sat chatting with our feet in the sand, men carrying wooden poles strung with fruit wound their way through tables, offering tightly bagged passionfruit and spiky fresh pineapples to brunch-goers.
They’re a familiar sight at this spot, and often come followed by young boys, who sell toy wooden crocodiles and caps branded with Timor-Leste flags.
Though I always suspect I’m getting ripped off, I often buy a bag of passionfruit or avocados from one of the tiu ai leban, and spend some time chatting to the boys, whose wares I never want. They recognise me now — one of them also sells on the street in Lecidere, where I often go for lunch — and as I arrived that day to meet my friend he yelled out Sofia, Sofia! and waved from his seat in the shade.
“Hey, alin,” I replied, in Tetun, meeting his high five. “How are you?”
“I’m hungry,” he said, proffering his crocodile pile.
“Have you eaten today?” I waved my hand no at the toys. I didn’t want one.
“No, not yet.”
“I don’t have money to buy rice.”
“How much is it?”
I paused for a second.
“Mana Sofia, give me 50c?” he asked.
“No,” I replied, hesitantly. Oftentimes in Australia I’ve given coins to buskers and beggars, but here in Timor-Leste I’m not so sure.
I don’t know what I’m funding, enabling or teaching by giving 50c. Is he ripping me off? Maybe he has already eaten today. If his parents learn he can get money without selling stuff, will they take him out of school to earn a wage on the streets? If I give it now, he’ll just ask for more. One bowl of rice won’t cure malnutrition. He looks pretty healthy, anyway.
“Mana Sofia,” he repeated.
And I realised it was fifty cents and I was about to spend nine dollars on a breakfast sandwich. Stop thinking about it so much, I told myself.
I handed over the money, received his grin of thanks, and sat in the sand to wait for my friend.
Over Turkish toasties and fresh orange juice we tried to untangle the ethics of giving money to kids like my crocodile friend. She was polite and respectful, but seemed to disagree with my decision to hand over the money. We discussed dependency and patterns; perceptions of foreigners and the white saviour complex I’d just acted out; other experiences we’d had in other countries; and the role of investing in, and effectively voting for, longer-term and higher-impact strategies for creating change.
Sure enough, as I left the beach the boy grinned goodbye and a friend of his called out, “mana Sofia, I’m hungry!”
I felt hot and embarrassed and unsure.
But I reflected on it more on the way home, turning the lesson from First Dog on the Moon’s 2012 Walkly Award-winning cartoon over in my head.
“Such a terrible tragedy, but there is only so much one person can do,” concluded a self-aggradising dog on the shore, having done precisely nothing but ruminate over the problem as another, crying for help, drowned in the ocean.
Of course there’s a risk I’ll get ripped off. Of course this means my mate and his friends will now pry more 50c pieces out of me — they’re not stupid. Of course he might lie next time and request money for rice with a full belly of food. And sure, there’s of course issue in the problematic performance of the benevolent bloated foreigner sweeping in to Fix All The Problems and Save The Timorese, but if that stopped me from trying, why the hell did I come here?
A week later. I’m in the carpark of the supermarket near my house. A young girl comes up to me as I enter.
“Sister,” she says, in English. “Can I have a dollar?”
“No, sorry,” I reply, in Tetun, and slip into the shop.
She follows me.
“Sister,” she repeats, in Tetun this time. “One dollar, please. I’m hungry.”
“No, I’m sorry, I can’t help,” I say. “Perhaps another day.”
She trails me as I walk the supermarket, repeating her request. I say no a couple more times, feeling hot and unsure, and then pause as she throws herself dramatically onto her knees and wails sister!
“Sister,” I say, trying to be gentle. “Please.”
She walks to the freezer, extracts a small icy pole, and presents it to me.
“15c,” she says, pouting.
The number’s in Bahasa and I don’t immediately understand.
“Quinze?” I ask, one of the two Portuguese numbers I know. She nods. Shit, it’s cheap as.
Wearily, I nod my head and hand over three 5c pieces. She takes her icy pole to the counter and exits the shop. When I leave ten minutes later, she’s happily sucking it on the side of the street. She grins when she sees me.
“Byeeeee, sister!” she calls out.
I smile back.
What would you do?
If you found yourself in one of these situations, would you give the money?
When you pass a person sleeping rough on the street in your city, do you drop coins? If you don’t, for the fair reason of wanting to fund change in a different way, do your actions match your virtues? Do you donate to the homeless charity or stump up to the soup drive?
English homeless charity Thames Reach actively discourages people from donating to rough sleepers in London, arguing it only funds drug spending. The writer Dave Hill endorsed this approach in a Guardian op-ed, adding that he’s also stopped donating to homeless people because he’s sick of being pestered and fielding tall tales. He admits he doesn’t feel proud, saying no, but that he wants to help in the best way.
The University of Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog considers the best or most effective way of helping people. It first states that people in higher-income countries like Australia and England are donating to people whose quality of live far outstrips that of a “starving child in Africa”, and then opines that giving should be most effective, and that giving money to beggars is wasteful. It concludes:
If our aim is to benefit ourselves, then giving money to beggars is suboptimal. If our aim is to benefit others, then giving money to beggars is also suboptimal. Either way, giving money to beggars is wasteful.
In seeking to help others, we should not merely give to those who are geographically close to us and whose appearance elicits our sympathy. Rather, we should give to those who are the worst off, who can be helped the most with each dollar that we give, and who are the least responsible for the situation that they’re in. To achieve this, we should (i) consciously decide how much of our money we are willing to spend on helping others, (ii) find the most efficient charity, (iii) donate money to that charity, and (iv) say no the next time a beggar asks if we can spare a dime.
There’s a 300-comment-long Reddit thread that contains arguments against donating like “they’re looking to score drugs” and “I’d rather give to an organisation that helps people” and “hate to stereotype but you might get scammed”, and a well-written HuffPost piece that encourages more deliberate, conscious giving than just dropping coins into the first Styrofoam cup you see.
But then there’s the nagging feeling in your stomach when you’re looking into the eyes of a wily twelve-year-old with a handful of wooden crocodiles and a cheeky grin and all your intellectualising crashes around your shoulders like a breaking wave and 50c is nothing to you so why not risk getting scammed.
And hearing sister, sister in your ear as your load up your shopping basket with overpriced yoghurt and imported fruit and both of you knowing right now in this split second you’re not the one in the more powerful position and the only thing you’re saving her from is the mild inconvenience of asking the next gormless shopper for a 15c icy pole.
And a blistering piece from the New Statesman that starts: give your cash directly and unconditionally to homeless people.
Don’t just buy them a sandwich from Pret. They’re not four. They have the right to spend their money as they choose – and it is their money, once given. Don’t just give to people performing, singing, or accompanied by a cute dog. Buskers deserve a wage too, of course. But homeless people are not your dancing monkey and they shouldn’t have to perform to earn your pity.
Many street beggars are addicts, yes. Do addicts not deserve food? Wouldn’t you want to drink if you were in their position? Don’t you get drunk every weekend to cope with work stress anyway? Who are you to tell them what to do with their bodies?…The average life expectancy of a homeless man in London is 47. For women, it is 43. This is lower than the general life expectancy of any nation on the planet. These lives will be improved by systemic, not loose, change.In the absence of an adequate government response, charitable giving and hostels remain lifesavers to many thousands of people. But big homelessness charities are already receiving millions yearly, while those deemed impossible to help die outside. When I speak to rough sleepers, it is local communities, squatters and grassroots organisations like the London-wide Streets Kitchen which they credit with keeping them alive.
Of course, circumstances are different in Timor-Leste, and you can’t quite apply English or Australian thinking to what life is like here in Dili (for what it’s worth, I’ve seen just one person sleeping rough since I’ve lived here, because I suspect tighter broad family networks act as the social security system and take rough sleepers in).
But it doesn’t mean I’m allowed to do nothing. To throw up my hands and say I’m not from here I don’t understand the circumstances and I’d hate to accidentally perpetuate some ill I don’t understand and sit smug in my brunch chair with my pressed Turkish toastie as the cartoon dog glub-glubs out in the ocean.
It’s a knotty, tricky situation; something requiring time and thought and energy. But not just that. It also needs a decision, not just inaction or avoidance or flapping round in circles.
I had lunch in Lecidere today with a friend who discretely slipped out to give some change to my crocodile friend. On my way back to the office, I got a mana Sofia, one dollar again. I rounded on him.
“Didn’t she just give you some?” I asked, using our mutual friend’s name.
“Yes,” he replied, quick and honest. “But I need more for the microlet.”
What do you do?