A group of young kids far away on the beach in Madagascar. They are all sitting in a row and behind them is a forest.
Kids on the beach in Madagascar

How to deal with begging in Africa as a tourist

Table of Contents

Introduction

When we use the term ‘begging in Africa’, it’s important to clarify that we are referring to people asking specifically tourists for money and gifts, not asking other local people. This article aims to cover the least damaging way to react to this in order not to contribute to a ‘begging culture’, harm local economies long-term and create further problems for local people. A lot of the points we make here can be applied to places outside of the African continent too, but we find this advice to be particularly helpful for tourists travelling through Africa.

As responsible travellers, our first priority is always to do what is best for the local people and the local economy. As tourists begin to travel to more far-flung destinations where the wealth gap between visitors and locals is often substantial, it’s not surprising at all that local people will start to want more than they have and ask for it from those they perceive to be better off than them.

It is natural that when you see someone who seems ‘worse off’ than you to want to help them. We also often hear people saying that you should give money to people begging in Africa because ‘it’s so little to us’. This is unfortunately an accidentally damaging mindset. Over time, it can lead to a ‘begging culture’, specifically one where local people associate tourists with wealth. Additionally, a currency that is not worth a lot to us can still hold a lot of value elsewhere, and we could be contributing much more than necessary and creating an economic inbalance.

The term ‘begging culture’ is one you will often hear nowadays when travelling around Africa and in fact in many developing countries outside of the Africa continent too. Contributing to a begging culture is a mistake that’s all too easy for tourists to make, especially when travelling to poorer communities. It can negatively impact future tourists and locals in the area, so it’s really important to understand how to avoid contributing to it and understand how it works.

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A local bar with a sign that says 'Seuri bar'.
Staying in locally-owned hotels and guesthouses can be really helpful for local economy

What is begging culture?

Of course we all know what ‘begging’ means, but the idea of a ‘begging culture’ refers specifically to the idea of a group of people relying on begging for income. It is linked to tourists who are perceived to be much wealthier than locals in the area, and so it is usually a group, or multiple groups of people who will rely heavily on the generosity of tourists and foreign travellers to give them money or gifts. Often, the people begging are children and they specifically look for foreigners, rather than other locals.

Sometimes they ask for money, but ‘begging culture’ can also apply to those asking for food, water, clothes or other gifts. Those asking are not necessarily homeless, in fact they are often not, but rather they beg as a result of it becoming part of their culture or local livelihood. This is a very complex issue, as it normally occurs in countries where there is a clear wealth disparity between tourists and locals.

When we are speaking about begging culture in this article, we’re not referring to homeless people asking for money from other locals from their country. Of course that’s a bit of a different scenario and should be dealt with however the country as a whole sees best. As tourists, we wouldn’t claim any expertise there or try to get involved in that decision-making process.

Colourful candles on a shelf in the shape of safari animals like giraffes and rhinos,
Supporting small local businesses helps give people alternative options to begging

How does it happen?

Actually, the instigators are not usually the locals, but often well-meaning tourists, who want to help local communities and may begin to give small gifts or money out of the goodness of their heart. As word spreads, and especially if this happens more than once, locals within the community may begin to associate tourists with wealth and gift-giving.

The next step may be that certain individuals within the community need help with something specific and think to ask a tourist, who helps, and then word spreads again. This can then lead to tourists becoming the ‘go-to’ means of assistance in such poorer communities, thus the problem is perpetuated.

The intention is often really innocent, and it may be that the culture in these communities is to help those in need, so it seems natural to these individuals that those who have more would give what they can to help people who need it.

Why does it matter?

Initially, a begging culture may not be a problem, especially not for the first tourist who decides to give something away. Undoubtedly they will do it with the absolute best intentions and feel great about helping someone worse off than themselves. Unfortunately, it can create a wealth of issues, both for those tourists who come after them, and for the locals themselves.

The problem for tourists

The first, and perhaps most obvious, repercussion, is the problem this creates for the next tourists to follow those who give the gifts. Firstly, it is more likely that locals will ask them for gifts or money, and the same thing will happen to those who come after that. It may not be a possibility for these tourists to give gifts, particularly if they are travelling in a different style (long-term budget travellers, for example) or come from a different background from the people before them.

If the locals are not aware of this (and have associated tourists with money), they can become very persistent, or crowd round in large numbers. This can be really overwhelming too! Even in small numbers, it can be really uncomfortable, especially for tourists from cultures where it is not common to have people asking for money, and does not create a good feeling for visitors.

A street vendor in Zanzibar selling meat on kebabs in a market stall. He is wearing a chef's hat and apron
Street markets in Zanzibar

The problem for local communities

By proxy, this can give a community or even a whole country in some cases a bad reputation. Imagine that a tourist visits an area where locals are persistently asking for money, they feel uncomfortable, come home and tell their own friends and family/write a blog about it/post to social media etc. This can lead to unfair consequences for these communities, one of which may be tourists who are inclined to be rude or fearful because they have heard ‘bad things’. Worse still, people may avoid an area altogether out of fear, meaning that some impoverished communities never get the help they sorely need, which would come through tourism income.

Additionally, a long-term begging culture could deter locals from finding more sustainable ways to generate income for themselves. This is problematic because, let’s say tourism suddenly vanishes in the area for some reason, they could suddenly be in a position where they have no viable means of making money. We all saw how quickly this can happen during COVID and it’s by no means limited to a pandemic. Flash in the pan travel trends, civil unrest, natural disasters and other unforeseen circumstances can all cause this to happen.

The Bigger Problem at Hand

A further issue is that often tourists do not know the local community well and could end up giving to the wrong people. As well-meaning as the tourists may be, it is entirely possible that either they could be donating somewhere they will have very little impact or worse still, to someone who will not use the money positively.

Basically they could be accidentally paying into something they don’t actually want to pay for. This does also apply on a less sinister and non-monetary level too. For example, if you give food to children, you don’t know what else they have eaten that day, and could be giving them something which is bad for their health, or something they’re allergic too. Allergies to a lot of Western foods are not commonly known in many poorer local communities abroad, as they are just not commonly eaten.

Without having more information, you could inadvertently create a bigger problem by not donating in the right place.

Effects of a begging culture over time

Over time, contributing to begging culture can create a wealth disparity in the area. By giving only to those who are brave enough/well-placed enough to ask for money, you cannot be certain that your money will be dispersed evenly around the area or country you are visiting and this, again, can create further issues within the community. It’s important to ensure there’s an even distribution and you cannot possibly know, especially as a first-time visitor, if you have done that or not by giving to random people.

A group of young kids far away on the beach in Madagascar. They are all sitting in a row and behind them is a forest.
Villages near Tsingy de Bemaraha in Madagascar

So how can you avoid contributing to begging culture?

It’s important to find out what the expected/culturally acceptable way to refuse is, so as not to offend or end up in a situation where you might be in danger or feel uncomfortable. You can do this in a few ways:

  1. Check with a local guide – this is the clearest way usually
  2. Try to find out online beforehand through blogs or guides. The information, especially for remote places, isn’t always accessible but it’s out there sometimes!
  3. Watch locals and see how they react in the same situation. They may not be asked if they do not look like tourists, but occasionally you’ll see an example you can use

If in doubt, we usually find the clearest way to signal you have nothing to give is either to ignore it completely or give a firm no and walk away. It will usually give quite mixed signals to apologise or engage in conversation, or to stick around in the same place. Of course we have not been everywhere and we have visited places where there are different expectations, but this is the best catch-all we can give. It’s still best to check with local guides first.

If people are asking persistently for money and you are starting to feel overwhelmed, try to step away. If there is a shop or café nearby, this can be a good place to shake hangers-on, or if you have a tour guide, you can ask them to intervene. Getting angry or shouting will not help the situation and if anything, is more likely to widen the tourist-local divide.

A point of view photo showing someone's bare legs in a hammock on a balcony
Always stay local

What can you do to help when you see people begging in Africa?

To clarify, we are absolutely not suggesting that you don’t give back and help communities like this. It’s really important to ensure your money or gift goes to the right place, and helps the people who need it most.

There are a few things you can do luckily that do still give back to local communities without encouraging begging culture!

  1. Invest in local economies – this is the best way to ensure money is distributed evenly throughout an area. Please see this post here for more ideas on how to do this. One of our favourite ways to do this (which will also give you access to a tour guide) is to use a local walking tour, through someone like Guru Walk. Additionally, booking locally-owned accommodation and guest houses is a great way to invest in locals.
  2. If you’re taking a tour, speak to your tour leader. They will usually be well-placed to help you find a great cause. Where possible ask them to help you donate your gift anonymously, wherever it can be most beneficial. This may be to a village leader of a local community, or a community member with an impactful village project. You can always give them some suggestions of how you’d love to see your donation used to help them help you.
  3. If you aren’t on a tour, try to research local charity projects, either through speaking to locals or online. Most places will have projects of this nature, or if not, there may be a local school, where your donations would be helpful, but you are not singling out an individual.
  4. If you don’t want to give anything physical or you can’t afford to, you can still interact with locals and this is a great way to meet new people and engage with different cultures. For example, you can play a game with kids, such as noughts and crosses, hopscotch or football. These are all great, fun games for kids that don’t require many props.
A square dish full of white beans in tomato sauce next to a bowl of white rice
Local food in Madagascar

When this does not apply

To be clear, we are not talking about:

  • Volunteers giving gifts to children – this is different, you work with the children, you know their needs and they will also know you as more than just ‘a tourist’.
  • Giving gifts to friends or people you know when travelling, this is obviously not begging
  • Donating to charity or community projects where donations can be used by many people
  • Situations of real urgency. For example, if we come across children asking for water, it’s rare that we won’t buy them a bottle or give what we have, or if someone needs medical supplies.
  • Situations where you can help, but someone is not asking. We came across someone, for example, walking down a street in Burundi with one shoe on because his other shoe had broken – we had a spare pair of flip flops so of course we were very happy to give these to him, and don’t see how this could be harmful. We gave them to our friend, who was Burundian, to give them to him.

It’s nuanced, but here we’re specifically talking about encounters with strangers who ask for things, and even then, we are not saying don’t donate – it’s just important to consider how and to whom you give, so as not to cause more harm than good.

Begging in Africa is a huge and controversial topic. We discussed it at length with many locals when we were travelling around Africa, especially when we were travelling with local guides, who are often actively working to eradicate it for the good of local communities. As compassionate people, it’s really hard not to give into it and to be honest, we have definitely done this ourselves sometimes. Empowering local communities to make money without needing to beg is hugely important and something we would love to help put in place.

If you liked this post or have any questions, please do leave us a comment and connect!

Sources (besides our lived experience):

Kashgar article on responsible givingnote: this article mentions paying for photographs and suggests giving something instead of money. Would take this on a case by case basis – obviously this is not appropriate in places where everybody else is paying for photographs.
Uncornered Market – Should you give to children when travelling?

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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