I have given money to beggars overseas countless times. That one-legged boy in front of the cathedral in Mexico City? I couldn’t fix his condition, but I could assuage my First World guilt by dropping some cash.

I’ve shared my relative wealth with panhandlers without a care — until I read a devastating, thought-provoking piece at the online magazine Slate. I encourage anyone who travels to read the story, titled “Keep the change: Giving money to child beggars is the least generous thing a tourist can do,” by Jillian Keenan.

“In India, roughly 60,000 children disappear each year, according to official statistics. … Many of these children are kidnapped and forced to work as beggars for organized, mafia-like criminal groups. According to UNICEF, Human Rights Watch and the U.S. State Department, these children aren’t allowed to keep their earnings or go to school, and are often starved so that they will look gaunt and cry.” Sometimes, the story continues, the children are maimed to elicit more sympathy and, hence, more money.

The passage reminded me of what I’d seen in the celebrated 2008 film “Slumdog Millionaire.” A case of art mimicking reality, a reality found in India and beyond.

So how can we express our caring, that admirable traveler’s impulse to better the world we’ve dropped into? By giving to a nongovernmental organization that understands the cultural landscape and how charitable funds can fix problems in a sustainable way.

After a trip to Tanzania, I turned over my annual United Way gift to an African relief organization. Now I just hope that offset any harm I did by donating to kids on the street.


Send your questions or tips to travel editor Kerri Westenberg at travel@startribune.com, and follow her on twitter @kerriwestenberg.