A woman wearing a large sun hat pulled her small speed boat up to the side of the longboat we were on. She stared at me, pointed at her child, and out with monotony, “one dollar.” Her words were echoed with the same monotony by her two children in the boat, a moaning, almost crying sound, one they did not truly understand but were simply parroting as their mother had told them to do. One child in that boat, a toddler of two or three years, had a carpet python draped around his neck, and he was what my dollar was supposed to buy. On the other side of our boat, another woman did the same with her young child, while nursing a baby in her arms, both children completely saturated by the spray of their ill-working speed boat as they, and tens of others, chased after the boats in search of white-man’s money.
This is what happens when tourists give to beggars.
I watched Channa stare blankly past a young boy who had made his way off his mother’s boat and onto the floating pontoon where we stopped for drinks. She couldn’t tell him to go away, that is not her job and she could not betray her own people. However, at every stop and every new place, she warned our group about the particular child issues to be wary of as we moved around the country. At the Tonle Sap floating village, it was children with snakes. Around Angor Wat, children selling postcards and bracelets. Everywhere we go, there are children being used as pawns by their parents to earn income with their small eyes, torn clothes and longing looks. Education in the country was sparse, and there is a lack of teachers, but it is free and accessible so long as the children attend. If they work hard, they can progress to the next level, but they need to be present and learning in order to do this, not on the streets droning out, “one dollar.”
I was terse one day, through the Angkor complex and responded to a girl that she should go to school, and even then she had been taught the words, “no money school.” I am not heartless in continuing to walk on, I just know that no amount of money will help her for the future, it will only continue to develop the expectation that foreigners come with pocketfuls of money and are ready to give it all to the children on the streets. I have slowly seen Westerners agree with these ideas, but Channa said that this cycle of giving has to be broken more widely around the world before these conditions will change. These children are so innocent, and are only doing what their parents have told them. I am sure that no parent would want this for their child, and would want for education, so it is up to us to make this process less effective. It is their desperation that lead them to this kind of money-making, and it will take desperation again to move them away.
We see a stark contrast from these high-volume tourist areas to the lesser-worn areas in the villages where we have cycled or stayed. The children run along the streets, running, jumping and calling out, “hello!” They wave furiously, grinning and showing off their precious teeth, hoping for a wave, smile or “hello” in return. In the village, they come to play for the sheer pleasure of playing and watching the preview screens of cameras. They do not have any more expectations of tourists, and we all come away happier, digging deeper within our pockets to support local community organizations, stores and products run by adults who have been educated, re-skilled and are able to take pride in their work. Even when we talked of replacing a flattened, tired volleyball in Chambok village, we were told the money and the request would go to the chief who would allocate the resources accordingly, keeping our contributions quiet and keeping away those expectations. This is what sustainable tourism is all about.
If you really want to support someone, to get them off the street, do not give money. Your loose change only helps to soothe your own guilt while the receiver is reinforced in their ineffective ways. So long as tourists continue to give to beggars, touts and child sellers, they will continue to miss education, walk the streets all night, and will stay in their poverty-stricken stasis without a sustainable income for the future. If you really want to help, really want to give, then source a non-government organization or foundation that promotes sustainable, self-sufficient strategies to break the poverty cycle. For each child’s eyes that you give in to, another five will miss school as their parents continue to think there are ore lucrative ways to make money on the streets. Yes, these people are struggling, but no amount of money that you can give will provide immediate relief. The key is education, support, training and employment. Help an organization to achieve that.
During my time in Cambodia, I have made contributions to the Landmine Museum in Siem Reap, an organization supporting the clearing of landmines in villages across Cambodia, and to the Friends ‘n’ Stuff outlet of the Mith Samlanh Organisation educating street youths in hospitality, running training restaurants and finding employment for them after completing diplomas in food handling and services. There are many other worthy organizations, including the Tabitha project and countless others. There is always a way to find someone who you can help, just remember, no amount of spare change will help a child on the street.