“Yeah, that’s right – go to your bed and sleep!” yelled the girl in Bengali. “Please go,” I pleaded with her in Bengali. She just cackled and started repeating what I was saying in a mocking tone. “Please go! Please go! Please go!”.
The girl was a professional beggar. But more importantly – she was a sort of a pimp. Although she was probably no more than 15 years old, she was in charge of a lot of other younger professional beggars (ranging from 5 to 8 years old). She was called in as reinforcement because the younger beggars – small children – weren’t getting any money from me and my friend from Global Medic who was accompanying me while shopping for supplies.
What I have learned since coming to Bangladesh is that the honest-to-goodness truly poor people in this country are the ones that are the quietest. They struggle in silence – trying to earn a living anyway they can. My photoblog of the urban poor of Dhaka is a great example of this. A lot of them live on the streets but don’t ask for a penny. Even when I was taking photos right next to them – I wasn’t asked to give a dime. The ones who do ask, are almost always professional beggars.
Professional begging is entrenched in every city in Bangladesh – and crowds out any real “legitimate” beggar. If a boss sees someone on their street corner they don’t know – that person is in for some serious trouble (unless they give a cut). In many ways, professional begging in Bangladesh is a lot like prostitution. Most of a prostitute’s money goes to the pimp. The prostitute may in fact see little or no money. The same is true for professional beggars. Giving them money just gives money to the boss. Most bosses can live quite handsomely. While people like Mo (who I featured in episode three) earn about $2 a day – a boss can earn several times that in a day.
This is especially true for bosses who have beggars stationed near hotels that frequently cater to tourists. Which is why I avoided giving these little kids any money. They were not much older than 5 or 6 years old, but they had all the tell-tale signs of being trained as professional beggars. First, there is always a kid stationed to the entrance of the hotel – they take shifts. Each kid is offering the same thing: to sell you a newspaper. Except it wasn’t really a newspaper – just a single page of an old worn out newspaper. By offering to sell something, even if its worthless, it makes it technically harder for police to clamp down on professional begging.
Professional beggars also follow a pattern. First they try a quietly follow you and ask you to buy whatever they are holding. If you don’t give them anything – they become louder and make it clear they won’t stop following. They then suggest that, if you give them some cash, they’ll leave you to your own business. If you still don’t give them any money – they call their friends. I had only been out with my friend shopping for supplies for an hour when we had assembled a small entourage of beggars. After it was clear we weren’t going to give anything – they called in the boss.
This 15 year old girl may not have even been the top boss . She had come in as a last resort to try and ratchet up the pressure. This is when the heckling started. “Yeah, go to your bed and sleep!” she would yell sarcastically as we made the last few steps to the hotel. The implication being that while we had a bed to sleep on – they didn’t. If professional beggars can’t appeal to your charity, they will try and appeal to your guilt. I turned once more – for like the 15th time – and pleaded for them to leave. This is when they started mocking and yelling at us. No longer was this about selling something or paying to not be harassed – this was about making things as hard as possible so that next time we won’t be so stubborn. Hotel security actually had to hold them back.
Clearly she got her point across more than I had thought – here I am at 3:30 am and unable to sleep, just thinking about those professional beggars….
So why didn’t I just toss them some money and be done with it? The world needs more charitable people – but if poverty is to be eliminated, it’s also going to need people who want to work to earn a living. If professional begging is ever going to be eliminated – than people with money must learn to honor the value of honest work. Rich people – both foreigners and rich locals – should stop supporting professional beggars even if they are only paying these beggars in order to stop being harassed.
Instead, we should support the locals that are industriousness enough to try and earn a living. Which is exactly what this friend and I did. We decided to go to the smallest hole-in-the-wall store to buy some biscuits. The store clerk probably over-charged us because we were foreigners – but we didn’t care. We also bought some sandals for 45 taka. Now anyone familiar with stores here will know that was gross overpricing. I didn’t haggle and instead – gave him 50 taka and told the clerk to keep the change. He was so ecstatic, he went to tell a neighbor about this as soon as we left the store.
A professional beggar such as those kids, probably would not have stopped bothering us unless we gave 100 taka or more. What kind of message would I have sent if I haggled with a hard working shopkeeper to save a few bucks, while at the same time giving so much to some kids trained to professionally beg for their boss?
(Disclaimer: Tagging along with Global Medic and Muslim Aid in no way implies support or endorsement of The Uncultured Project, me, or my views. The views expressed are my own and do not reflect Global Medic, The David McAntony Gibson Foundation, Muslim Aid, or any other NGO or charity. I am not under the employment or contract of any of these organizations.)