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Why tourists should be buying from children on the streets

Why tourists should be buying from children on the streets

On a breezy Tuesday night on the riverside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I met up with a Cambodian friend for dinner. As we sat at our street-side table enjoying an elaborate and ridiculously cheap meal, a small, dirty girl carrying a fistful of long-stemmed roses walked up to me, reached out her hand palm-up, and looked up at me with her best sad face.

What is the true cost of buying things like flowers from children in poor countries?

I immediately said my token, “No thank you, I’m sorry,” and averted my eyes. To my astonishment, however, my Cambodian friend pulled 500 riel (USD $0.13) out of his pocket, picked out a rose, and sent the little girl on her way.

As an aid worker, I was enraged. “How can you support that lifestyle?” I gasped. “Don’t you know the conditions they live under? You just allowed that little girl’s enslavement!” He just rolled his eyes, shrugged a little, and said, “Well, maybe she needs it to go to school.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. Instead, I had a flashback to a political economy class that I took during my undergraduate studies, when my professor told me whether or not I voted in the next election really didn’t matter (shout-out to Professor Jasper LiCalzi at The College of Idaho).

According to political analyst Kenneth Shepsle, the best motivating factor to get people to vote is to make the act personally, symbolically meaningful. Why do you vote, if you vote at all? Most people choose to vote for the symbolism, but few people vote for the actual effects of their vote. A rational person knows that their single vote won’t change the election, even in a more democratic country. Instead, people want to vote for the symbolism.

I always immediately want to refute Shepsle’s point by saying, “But if everyone thought that their vote didn’t matter, then no one would vote at all!” Unfortunately, that’s probably part of the reason why only about 60% of Americans voted in the last presidential election. In Cambodia, many people do not vote because they know that the outcome will be the same no matter what. They are focused on the effects of the act of voting, not the symbolism. Maybe if the symbol was more important, more people would vote.

I keep comparing this idea with the issue of buying things from kids. Most foreigners I know refuse to buy things from children for the mere symbolism of supporting child labour, but maybe, unlike voting, the effects are actually more important.

Cambodian children meeting tourists. (Gloria Cheng.)

For those of you that have already lived or traveled in countries like Cambodia, you may have encountered kids in tattered clothes, walking the streets at night, carrying knick-knacks in overloaded baskets. A simple walk leads to encounters with eight-year-olds selling books, bracelets, or flowers. Lounging on the beach is inevitably mixed with kids trying to paint your nails, thread your hair, sell you fruit, etc.

Even the simple act of stopping at a stoplight cannot be enjoyed without children peddling decorative, fragrant jasmine flowers for 13 cents each. I’ve seen a seven-year-old girl beaten up by a 17-year-old boy for trying to sell books inside his restaurant. A five-year-old jasmine flower seller stole 500 riel right out of my pocket while I was sitting on my moto at a stoplight. I’ve had long conversations with 12-year-old girls with no parents as they braided my hair and tried to convince me to give them three dollars. A young boy once asked me to give him eight dollars in exchange for a bottle of water so he could pay for a month’s worth of schooling. Persistent, entrepreneurial kids are selling stuff everywhere.

The first time I came to a poor country, I read some books beforehand that talked about horrible things, like adults taking in orphans and employing them as slave-peddlers, taking all of the money for themselves, or wealthy or middle class parents who refuse to send their children to school and employ them instead.

Similar stuff to what you may have seen in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. After reading about all of the problems associated with child labour, I stopped buying things from kids for the symbolism, refusing to support these horrible adults’ acts.

But my friend’s comment got me to start thinking about the effects of my imposing morality. Even if I don’t buy, and continue to theoretically oppose child labor, it still continues and the kid remains sad and hungry. If I buy, maybe they’ll have some food to eat, maybe to go to school. Then again, maybe it will go to their alcoholic father.

As Shepsle and my professor recognised, the symbolic act of voting only affects the citizen and their romantic, patriotic feelings about participating in democracy. One unused ballot doesn’t determine whether or not the candidate of choice gets elected. But children peddlers are real and raw. Their face is in your face, their bony, dirty hands clutching huge baskets that are far too heavy for them to carry.

So now, sometimes, I buy stuff from kids. Maybe by the end of my time in Cambodia  I’ll have two wrists full of bracelets, and I can think about each bracelet, each child, and hope that I lightened the load of their burdensome baskets. Maybe I can even help send one of them to school.

I do not claim to know the solution, but the right answer is much grayer than many of us recognise. I do think it’s important that we think about each situation on a case-by-case basis, using our best judgment. What is most important is that we think about it, instead of immediately imposing our aid worker ideals on irrelevant situations. Here are some pros and cons of buying stuff from kids to mull over:

To buy:

  • Pro: The kid smiles and probably even gets excited.
  • Con: The happiness, though perhaps genuine, is fleeting.
  • Pro: The kid has some money, maybe to go to school, maybe to eat. Education and food are good things.
  • Con: Maybe not. You’ll never know where the money goes.
  • Pro: It creates a positive interaction between you and another person that would not have happened otherwise.
  • Con: You still don’t know where the money is going, a factor which may be dependent on whether or not the interaction can count as positive.

…or not to buy:

  • Pro: You’re symbolically telling the kid that you do not promote his work activities.
  • Con: The kid keeps working anyway, and so do all of the other kids. Your high-falutin message goes unheeded.
  • Pro: You save money. You can’t rescue all of the street kids by buying all of the bracelets in Cambodia.
  • Con: But maybe you can feed one? Also, you miss out on buying some nice-smelling flowers or pretty bracelets, which you may have wanted anyway.
  • Pro: It’s easier to forget about the kid if you avoid eye contact.
  • Con: You have a negative interaction with the child, or pass up on having any interaction at all.

What do you think? Do you buy stuff from kids on the streets? Let us know in the comments.


Update 22nd October

DevEconHealth responds to this post with a thoughtful and challenging post about the economics of buying from children. You can read it here.


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Alison is a U.S. attorney with a diverse background working in human rights issues in Southeast Asia, West Africa and Central America. Her repertoire includes land tenure, legal empowerment and aid, indigent defense and anti-corruption. She is currently in Miami adjudicating refugee and asylum claims and spending lots of time on the beach.

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19 thoughts on “Why tourists should be buying from children on the streets

  1. Miles

    I totally agree with you that it’s better to buy flowers, bracelets etc from street children. It’s often easy to use the argument that you do not know where the money is going or that you are encouraging the children not to go to school. And this argument justify you to distance yourself from their hardship and enjoy a drinks in the bar without feeling guilty. Simply an easy way out.
    By refusing to buy from the children is not going to encourage them to run to their local school and sign up!!
    ….but forces them only to walk more miles carrying those heavy baskets, and more hungry.
    Yes, we should absolutely by from the children, and if they approach you while you are having your coffe….then it takes so little to buy them a cake or a sandwich. Moneywise it costs us peanuts, …and who can then argue they don’t know where their money is going.

  2. Thanks for this! As a resident in Cambodia since 1994 (and a frequent visitor before that), I agree. I give money to many people on the street (children, the disabled, the elderly, etc.). My not giving wouldn’t make much difference, but my giving might be helpful.

    Years ago I was having dinner at a restaurant with a very well educated Khmer friend who had studied abroad and was working in a highly technical medical profession. I was surprised to see him signal a child selling flowers to come to our table so he could buy some roses. “For your wife or mistress,” I joked. He smiled and said when he was a child, he had supported himself by selling flowers at restaurants in Phnom Penh.

  3. A very insightful and heartfelt article, which I feel really encapsulates a lot of the reasons I hear for giving money. That said, I think it really misses the reasons why we say to “not buy/give” to/from children. As this is a bit complicated, I have given a full reasoning and response on my blog. Basically, there are a lot of both health and economic reasons why one should NEVER buy or give money directly to children.

    To Buy or Not to Buy

    1. One of the beggars I know in Phnom Penh is a young girl who carries an infant around the market all day and collects money from all sorts of people who assume she is caring for a sibling. In fact, the infant is the child of a vendor working in the market. The young girl’s mother is also a vendor working in the market. Hence, you have a carefully balanced economic structure in which the two women are working, the children are both safe (as they are inside the market all day) and the infant is getting good care. Of course the girl should be in school, but the family can’t afford that and the other three people in this case would be thrown into even greater hardship is she wasn’t there.

      As an NGO worker with 45 years experience in development work, of course I know there are thugs and gangsters who buy and sell children, etc., just as there are NGO workers who make a very good living by doing all sorts of nonsense here, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support the good work some NGOs are doing or help poor, vulnerable people who are really trying to improve their lives.

      “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” ~Voltaire

    2. (Comment duplicated on DevEconHealth blog)

      I agree with your position, DevEcon, except in the case of the voter theory. Unless I’ve understood you wrong, Alison’s point was the reverse: that people choose NOT to buy from kids as a symbolic act, just as people choose TO vote as a symbolic act. In both cases, if I alone commit these “symbolic” acts, there’s no effect on the outcome. If everyone took the same action as me, the net effect would be positive in both cases: in one, a political party or leader is elected who represents my views; in the other, no one buys from children anymore, and the incentive is removed, leading children to stop selling things on the street. Both of these are optimal.

      But in the case of the kids, everybody else’s actions never change – not enough people vote for my party for them to ever get in. Day after day, year after year, decade after decade, kids are still selling stuff and adults are still buying from them. All those kids will still be out there tomorrow, whether *I* buy from them today or not. So if I happen to know this one kid over here, and I know he really does use the money he earns to go to school or to support his orphaned younger siblings, I’m helping him out by buying a bracelet from him.

      But most kids AREN’T using their money to go to school, most kids ARE being exploited and controlled by adults, and most people (tourists, expats, and locals alike) don’t know each kid well enough to know who’s who. We all make our own decisions about how to support people we know personally, but for those we don’t know, better to play it safe and stick with directing that support through an NGO.

  4. […] I came across (HT @devthoughtRO ) this fresh and insightful article by Alison Rabe at WhyDev. In reading it, I found a lot of the common and very well articulated […]

  5. Just to echo Andrew’s thoughts below, I’m impressed with the way that you’ve handled this topic Alison. There’s certainly no simple solutions or easy answers here, and as much as we talk about addressing structural problems (which I’m not dismissing), we run the risk of ignoring the humanity of each and every person who we encounter. If we can take one point away from this piece, I reckon it is that we cannot afford to do that, no matter how much we chose to act “on principle”.

    It’s fine to believe in a principle that you think addresses the issue, but if we lose our ability to empathise with each person then we’ve lost both the point and the plot. It’s interesting to see the perspective of other commenters, the bulk of whom work in aid and development (some of this is an assumption, some of this I know for fact ;)). I wonder if the comments would be so black and white if this piece was posted on a site targeting the general public, rather than those in the humanitarian sphere.

    I don’t believe that (as one commenter has said) “Get involved in their work if you want to help kids!” is a realistic solution for the 99.5% of people who live outside our aid and development bubble. For those who won’t take this advice on board, this kind of view runs the risk of being dismissed as sanctimonious. Unfortunately, ordinary people who don’t work in aid and development want answers, or at least want complexity addressed, and I reckon this piece has done this well.

    Finally, to Alison’s defence, the title was not her own, so if you feel that it doesn’t accurately reflect the piece, you can point the finger at the WhyDev editing team, myself included..

    1. I really hope Allison doesn’t feel the need to be defended. The article has sparked a range of excellent sharing on a really important and under-discussed topic. That’s a huge success. On the issue of engagement, I wanted to say that I agree that it’s critical to engage with the children (and all people) as human beings. At the Qalandia checkpoint, I’ve had long conversations with the Palestinian kids who sell things so they know how I feel about buying, but also so they know that I respect them and am willing to listen to the issues they face.

    2. Well said! I agree.

      It should also be noted that Cambodian people give money to beggars. It is a form of social security and is connected to the Buddhist concept of “making merit.” If tourists and NGO workers stopped supporting the poor, it wouldn’t make much of a difference, though a greater burden would be passed to the Cambodian people.

  6. A thought provoking and very open-minded post, I thought. The title may be a tad misleading, since your words hardly say that giving this money is any sort of permanent solution. But I applaud your open mind and especially the statement that development on this level is not just right and wrong: there is an internal moral spectrum here to be dealt with.

    Just because NGOs say: don’t do this, does not mean it would be an undoing of their work. Development is tricky and too often we hear “This is right, and this is wrong.” It’s hard to evaluate a systemic issue on a granular, individual mindset. But, you have some valid points… maybe that money goes to school. Maybe it goes to pay for a sick relative. I really like this article, it seems to breathe a little bit of humanity back into the very strict field of aid and development. That’s not to say I agree with it all 😛

  7. Anna

    I agree with comments that child labour must be addressed at the structural level. However, being approached by a child selling something is a face-to-face encounter between individuals. I don’t get the sense that Alison is concluding that ‘case-by-case’ equals The Solution. What I read is someone grappling with a complex problem and the desire within alleged ideals. My complicity when I buy and when I don’t. I identified with those emotions. I have not been consistent in not buying, but in every case the decisions I made seemed flawed in some way. Flatly refusing to buy from the child can lead to an antagonising dynamic, or to turning blinders on to the human beings around you.

    1. The “blinders” can be a real problem. If this was Alison’s intention, then the problem is the headline which makes a pretty bold statement.

  8. Totally disagree with this article.

    Of course an individual decision to not give does not send a message, unless you make a point of buying from adults instead. If all tourists are educated (such as I witnessed a tour guide explain in Sa Pa, Viet Nam) to buy from adults, it reduces the incentive of removing children from school, it improves the opportunity for the adults to build their business with dignity and you get a nice souvenir. The effect of multiple people making this decision is felt.

    One vote doesn’t win an election but campaigning publically might sway enough people to do so. Likewise, one person giving to one child makes virtually no difference to the problem of child begging (or for that matter to the problems the child faces), but promoting supporting child begging publically has much more potential to do harm than your individual spending decision.

  9. What alternative do these children have? We can make the decision to buy or not to buy; they, often do not have the luxury to sell or not to sell. How do you determine if these childern are forced to sell or if they are exploited. Perhaps, they sell because that puts food on the their (hopefully their family’s) table. I buy, most of the time. Perhaps, to help these children and because it makes me feel less guily or better or happy…especially if I compare my children who have a father and mother; they go to school and do not need to sell on the street. Yes, I buy! because, perhaps, it makes a difference.

  10. irina

    Not convinced by the “case-by-case” argument. “You don’t know for sure that this is harmful. It MIGHT do good. Therefore, you should”? Does this justify using the services of a prostitute because you never know, MAYBE she is using the money to pay her way through college? As one of the commentators already pointed out, the recommendation of NGOs that work directly with kids is NOT to support these activities, irrespective of the fact that sometimes the money benefits the child. So let’s not undo the important work that these organizations do to promote child welfare in the long-term. Get involved in their work if you want to help kids!

  11. Brecht

    totally disagree. Child Labour isn’t solved case by case. So how reasonable the one purchase from a single kid may be. As long as people buy from kids child labour is business and people will use them for it.

    ok, there is a possible, small, temporary effect of single purchase. but in the end all those singel purchases keep a business alive.

  12. I agree with Norah, it is easy and more gratifying to think about individual impacts, but the problem of children being economic commodities is a structural one. Working on a structural level is not very sexy, but I think it is really important to think beyond this one child. Of course it is messy and complicated and we all have to negotiate what we feel is right at any given point in time, but I personally tend to shy away from reinforcing a child’s worth as an economic commodity.

  13. Thanks for addressing this important topic, Alison. However, I think the flaw in your analysis is that you’re looking at the individual as the unit of analysis — how one aid worker’s actions will affect one child worker’s life. That’s why you come to the conclusion that the decision should be made case by case. But problems like child labor are not ones that can be solved individually. We need to work together, in movements. When I visited Cambodia last year, there was literature in my hotel room placed by a local organization asking us not to buy from children. I complied, not because my individual compliance would make a difference, but because my individual contribution to a group effort would definitely make a difference.

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