Travellers, Beggars, and the Ethics of Pity


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Street Beggar 2
Photo credit:  vinylmeister

By Jenni O’Connor

The old woman calls from her wheelchair and reaches an arthritic hand towards me. I see her everyday.

“One quetzal?”, she pleads.

She has no teeth and her skin is leathery from sitting on the corner, day after day. Children with runny noses encircle her, giggling, their eyes full of curiosity at what I will do. I wonder for a moment what put her in that wheelchair. Is she a victim of the violence that wracked this area just a few decades ago? Is her affliction simply old age? Pity might lead me to smile kindly and shake my head “no” or drop a quetzal or two in her hand and walk away, grateful for my own fortune. Instead, empathy gets the best of me and I kneel down, ask her how she is doing, and hold her hand for a few minutes.

When I walk away, she is ten quetzales richer.

One of the most hotly debated topics for those who travel is whether or not to give money to those who beg. On one side, it is argued that if we do give, we create the expectation that all foreigners have money to burn and should therefore be targeted. It is also argued that when we give we reinforce “bad behaviour” and teach the poor that begging is more profitable than working, thereby contributing to a vicious circle of poverty. Perhaps these notions are true… sometimes.

The other side argues that not giving is akin to not caring; that walking away is at best, cold and, at worst, downright inhumane. Perhaps these notions are also true… sometimes.

It seems to me that the real issue is not whether we drop a few coins in a cup. There is a bigger discussion to be had. How do we view the poor? How do we interact with someone who seems poor? Is it the money (or lack thereof) or the intention that actually matters? What does it mean to be human?

In my experience, these questions and their answers all come back  whether you choose to pity the poor or empathize with an individual who is suffering from poverty.

There is a difference and it’s a big one.

Pity is a great divider. It implies that the one who pities “has” and the one who is pitied “has not”. Pity thrives on the notion that anyone who is poor is miserable, and would give anything to be “normal”; it survives on the illusion that if the poor only had that one missing piece (money, God, dignity, a house, education, food, a job, etc.) that they would be just like you and me.

Pity breaks solutions to poverty down into sound bites and groups people together who have nothing else in common for political, religious, and egotistical gain. It feels good to assuage our pity. It is easy. We give to a charity, tell our kids not to waste their food, and remind ourselves to thank our lucky stars for everything we have. Pity makes us believe that we are caring; that we have done good just taking a moment to “feel bad” for poor people and recognizing how easy our lives really are. Pity allows us to dis-engage because it fools us into believing that we are different from “those people”.

Unfortunately, pity is also what drives both sides of the popular debate on whether to give to beggars or not.

On the one hand it is what drives the notion that those who are poor and beg are exhibiting “bad behaviour”, like children in need of correction. Pity drives the notion that every beggar is a scam artist or a drunk because it allows us to see them as a group, not as individuals. On the other hand, it is that same pity that leads people to drop a few quetzales into a cup, shake their head in disdain at fellow travelers who did not do the same, and walk off to dinner to talk about their fury over those other travelers, confident that they did a good job.

Pity is not well utilized in either case.

In fact, I am willing to stand on my soapbox and admit that I do not think pity is ever well utilized.

In contrast, empathy resists division and relies on connection. It demands that we identify with some piece of another’s experience. Empathy requires that we not only see “the poor” but also recognize each and every one of them as human beings with preferences, bad habits, dreams, difficulties, histories, and potential. You may never know what it feels like to send your four year old to the dump to collect anything that looks edible, but empathy requires that you recognize and identify with the human feeling of desperation that that parent might be experiencing.

Empathy illuminates the fact that people living in poverty are already just like you and me. And when that fact is illuminated, things get uncomfortable…

I realized the difference between pity and empathy as I sat with a little girl along the Ganges several years ago. She was “lucky” to go to a school that charged no fees, that fed her lunch everyday, barely taught her anything, and was run by an NGO. She came home that day after school and plopped down next to me, her whole body communicating dejection.

She told me that the teachers at her school had received a shipment of clothing, books, school supplies, and toys for the students. As had happened before, the people who ran the school handed out the best items to friends, family, and teachers before giving the cast-aways to the kids. When this child had been brave enough to finally complain, her headmistress told her with contempt that she was ungrateful, “low caste”, and that she should be “happy with what she gets”. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and the burden of being poor in her chest and then she cried, “Why can I not like some things and not others just because I am poor? Why can I not ever complain? Why can I not say that I like blue and not red? Just because I think something is not right does not mean that I am ungrateful!” I realized that such restrictions are never placed on children who “have”, only children (and people) who “have not”.

This what has been done to “the poor”. They’ve been grouped into one large mass and now they are required to be almost saintly if they want help. It is easy to pity “the poor” and then get angry if any of them voice distaste with what they are given. But it is much harder to look at a 10-year old child and not empathize with her feelings at being asked to have no human emotion, to have no preference because of her social status.

You see, when we turn “the poor” into one mass group, we forget to recognize the individual that stands right in front of us. When we see the individual and empathize with them as human beings, suddenly sub-par treatment and band-aid fixes disguised as “support” seem… well… improper.

Those who are struggling in poverty do not need your pity. They need you to see them as individual human beings. To truly do this, we must strive to empathize with them on a basic level. It is this shift in perception and not some silly fight over whether to drop a few coins in a cup that might ultimately make a difference.

About the Author: Jenni O’Connor

Jenni O’Connor is a travel writer, photographer, and youth travel guide. Her blog is called and you can also find her on Facebook
and Twitter.


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