The ethics of giving to beggars: an expat’s dilemna

Another despatch from my Jakarta-based friend Kevin…

I’ve been thinking recently about the ethics of giving to beggars.

A couple of days ago I was walking past an old woman sitting on the bridge outside a bus station, holding a plastic cup. So I reached into my pocket where I thought I had a 200 Rupiah coin and a 2000 Rupiah note, and was very generously going to place it in the plastic cup. Except that when I started to put it in, I was horrified to see it was a blue 50,000 Rupiah note, so I quickly pulled back and left just the 200 Rupiah coin (that’s 2c to you). Fortunately she was sitting on the ground, and I was mobile, so able to quickly walk away and hide my embarrassment, and presumably her scorn.

Shantytown, Pasar Ikan, Jakarta

Shantytown, Pasar Ikan, Jakarta

What is a measured response to beggars? People here would very rarely give more than 1000 Rupiah and beggars usually don’t acknowledge the donation, which is a necessary routine to observe Zakat, a Muslim’s religious obligation to give alms. Many local people say the beggars are rounded up by by Fagin-type characters who give them food and board if they sit around all day and beg.

During Ramadan there was a bit of debate about the official announcement that 2.5% of annual income was the expected amount to be donated. The government actually maintains a fund people can put the money into – not very convincing with all the waste and corruption that goes on here.

Some Muslim scholars say it’s a motivation which must come from within, and government should butt out. Another argument against giving is that it results in a greater flow of rural people into the cities, creating more social problems. The two large Muslim organisations have their own social welfare arms at the local level, and if people are without support they can approach them and get sorted out, just as they do in the villages, so it may be better for donors to give to them. But only a hard hearted person could consistently ignore the poverty on the street.

On my way to work, I used to walk past a beggar who had a big smile but no hands, and I would just hurry past. (Yes, the black humour of “alms for the poor” did cross my mind.) I never gave but always got the big smile, as though he understood my awkwardness about how to give him money. One day I forced myself to look him in the eye and smile back, and put something in the plastic bag in front of him. Our eye contact that day was a deep connection for me: he seemed to have a serene and understanding look. Without a second thought I still walk past other beggars, who don’t pull the heartstrings so much, so I think the giving was mainly for me, not for him. However, if it wasn’t a reciprocal benefit, there probably wouldn’t be much giving anywhere in the world.

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One thought on “The ethics of giving to beggars: an expat’s dilemna

  1. Thank you so much for writing about the ethics of giving. I think we all want to give when we see poverty or distress, but like you said, we don’t really understand all the feelings. We are embarrassed, sad, awkward, worried, all at one time. And we don’t know how to just open our hearts and give sometimes because of the politics and “shoulds”. But you are right – when we give, we receive.

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