I’m going to India in a couple of weeks, and I’m troubled by the children who beg for money. Do I give them money or food or neither? If I give money, exploitative adults may take it. My family regularly contributes to Indian charities, but that is small consolation in these heartbreaking situations. What do I do? D.S., MINNESOTA
Your desire to help a child in distress is commendable, whichever of those options you choose. The spectacle of a suffering child is so harrowing, our inability to relieve that suffering so demoralizing, that even experts differ about how best to respond. Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago who has devoted much work to third-world poverty, told me: “My Indian activist friends have different views about giving anything to beggars. Some do it occasionally, some make a policy of not doing it.”
It can be argued that giving money to beggars sustains a culture of begging and, in the most horrifying cases, motivates criminals to force children to beg and even to maim those children to make them more poignant and profitable beggars. But it is poverty itself, not ad hoc generosity, that perpetuates begging. The real, albeit daunting, solution is to lift these children — these nations — out of poverty. That is the approach Nussbaum herself takes, as your family does, by steadily contributing to organizations with the expertise and commitment to take on this challenge. “I think that Unicef is probably the best choice,” she says, “since it has excellent programs in India.” But there are many groups doing admirable work.
update: D.S. has returned from India, where she responded “on a case-by-case basis.” She sometimes gave money to a child whose parents were present and seemed by their dress to be rural migrants, newly arrived in the city and struggling to find work. More often she gave food, particularly to children she feared might be exploited by adults who would steal her donated money.