In 2009, my good friend and I were getting ready for the PEPY ride, a bike ride across Cambodia to raise money for local development projects in the country.
We were fortunate enough to meet past riders who did the trip. One of the important tips they gave us was, “There will be many children who come up to you and beg for money. I know it is hard to say no, but that is why you are doing the PEPY ride so you can invest in long term solutions like education. When tourists give them money, their parents will send their kids to beg on the streets instead of sending them to school. It feeds the problem.“
I’m really glad he told us that beforehand so I kept running that in my head.
When my friend and I landed, we spend two days in Siem Reap before we joined the rest of the group for the bike ride. Our first night out, sure enough, there was a young girl who came up to us and gestured with her hands that she was hungry. Of all of our activities and the many people we met in Cambodia during our trip, this girl has been stuck in my head ever since we first saw her.
We said no to her but then I thought, “I won’t give her money, but what’s the worst that can happen if I just buy a meal for her and she eats it in front of me? Or will she give the food to an adult she is working for?“
After a minute of following us, the girl left. I decided, “Ok, if I see her again on our way back, I will buy her a meal.“ After we had a huge meal, we walked back to our guesthouse. I was keeping my eye out for her, but we never passed her again. She has been in my memory ever since. I often thought, “I should have just bought her a meal.“
Three years later, as I am back in Cambodia now and reading more articles on Responsible Tourism and other related topics, I am glad I did not end up perpetuating the system.
The article, “Street Children, Free Meals & Lessons Learned“ shows how giving free meals to street kids often keeps them there, especially in poorer countries. Feeding them fuels the cycle of poverty when we should really be collaborating to get them out of the cycle so they can be self‐sufficient.
Fortunately, there are a variety of social enterprises in Cambodia that are investing in people and contributing to long term solutions. We are proud to support businesses such as Soria Moria, a hotel we ate at recently, that enables disadvantaged youth to gain life skills and an education in addition to giving their employees to move up within the business among other programs.
Instead of giving money to a child on the street, I feel much better putting my dollars towards a healthier future with a greater impact for more people.