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Blog: Practicing what you preach

  • Story Highlights
  • Cassie is experiencing a surprising number of beggars on the streets
  • As a foreigner she feeld she is targeted over the local Cambodians
  • She finds it hard to say no to beggars, but can't say yes to everyone
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By Cassie Phillips
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BATTAMBANG, Cambodia (CNN) -- Cassie Phillips is in Battambang, Cambodia, where she will be working with the NGO Homeland.

"I live in a place where it is normal and almost expected for children and adults to approach you with outstretched hands."

Homeland is a Cambodian organization that works with local underprivileged children to give them some of the advantages they may have missed out on in their early life.

Cassie will be meeting and helping children from the region who have suffered from a range of afflictions. Keep up with her experiences in her blogs and video diaries.

October 2, 2007
Within my first hour in Cambodia, I identified a challenge that I am still struggling with -- beggars.

In the past I've rarely given money to people begging on the streets. I've always thought the poor in the United States have alternatives to begging. However, the widespread prevalence and context of begging in Cambodia forces me to reconsider my beliefs and actions.

Never before have people sought me out to beg like they do in Cambodia. As a foreigner, people assume I have money.

I live in a place where it is normal and almost expected for children and adults to approach you with outstretched hands. Some will ask for money while others mime putting food in their mouths. While begging has become commonplace for me, I still feel very conflicted about my role.

On the one hand I can give money. However, I'm not sure where the money will end up. Furthermore, I don't necessarily have the budget to sustain all the beggars I encounter. I recognize the urgency of hunger and the need for cash. However, I'm bothered by a lack of resolution to any long term problem and ultimate perpetuation of the beggar's circumstance.

On the other hand I could give food. I should make a habit of carrying crackers or something with me. Of course, there's always the problem that if you give one child something, you have to give every child something, as I learned in Siem Reap. After buying one little boy a sandwich, it seemed two more girls appeared at the next corner asking for something as well. In my experience it isn't possible to say yes to everyone.

To console my conflicted conscience, I often reason that the work I do everyday, dealing with orphans and vulnerable children, somehow absolves me from any obligation to beggars. Even as I write that, I know it is a copout. After all, the same kids who beg from me on the street could easily come to live at Homeland next month. Why should I treat them differently if they are living on the street or living at Homeland?

At the moment, I am very unresolved in my stance. This has led to inaction, which makes me equally discontent. As I sort through these contradictions, I look to the practices of others. In observing people's everyday practices, I catch glimpses of what working with orphans and vulnerable children looks like off the clock.

Among Cambodians, I've seen a variety of responses. Usually, if I'm in the vicinity, as the foreigner, a beggar will concentrate his or her energies on me instead of everyone else. Sometimes it seems beggars do not even bother inquiring to other Cambodians. Part of this is because one's neighbor isn't much better off. At other times, I do see fellow Cambodians dig into their pockets and give away a few hundred riel (about 5 cents).

Among foreigners, there seems to be a wide spectrum of responses. Some are surprisingly and unnecessarily stingy, refusing to even acknowledge the presence of a beggar. Others are exceedingly generous with their dollars.

I have a friend who will be in mid-bite and, without hesitation, offer whatever he is eating to someone on the street. The funny thing is, many people are not interested in what he is eating. Perhaps they do not like the type of food? Perhaps they would prefer not to eat someone's seconds? Either way, in his act of generosity people often turn him down allowing him to continue to munch away.

As idealistic as it sounds, I would much prefer imparting a skill or some lasting mechanism of social mobility to those I encounter in lieu of petty cash. Unfortunately, I don't know of any aside from cooperatively practicing English with any and every person who seeks me out.

In a country where 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, perhaps the best we can do is take what we have and share, be it cash, food or information. Somehow, that never works out to be enough. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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