For those who are thinking about moving to the Philippines, especially those who have never visited before, one thing needs to sink in: The Philippines is a developing nation. Developing countries around the world share many of the same problems: low employment, endemic poverty, poor healthcare, geography (prevalence of natural disasters), and so on. The Philippines is no different.
One thing that is, perhaps, disconcerting to first time visitors is the number of people begging or panhandling. Very often appearing pathetic, it is sometimes difficult to say “no”… Problem is, those doing the begging know it.
So, how to deal with begging?
Well, the first thing to realize is that there is a distinction between beggars. Some are in truly desperate straits. Others, however, are part of organized syndicates that exist solely to part you from your money. Begging can be a business.
Now, with organized beggars, I don’t think that anyone would disagree that they are being exploited. These are usually the people working the streets, in traffic, going car to car, or often those hanging around outside fast food restaurants or churches. I NEVER give money or anything to kids in traffic. It is totally unsafe, and only encourages the behavior. Often, you will see the adults nearby on the side, with five or six kids milling about. If you give money to these people, they usully only keep a small portion of what they receive. It can be very hard to look at a grubby kid’s big brown eyes and say “no”. They have this sympathy look down to an art. If you must give to these beggars, food is the best option, rather than money. That is what I will usually do, depending on how needy they look, but never in traffic. For the kids selling sampaguita or similar, I’ll sometimes “buy”, usually giving the flowers to the taxi driver for his rear view mirrow.
In the States, I am usually less charitable to panhandlers. There are social services and support networks in the USA. Drugs and alcohol fuel panhandling there (and here, too), but there is always a way out in the US if the person accepts help that is offered. Here, it is far less cut and dry or obvious. This may sound harsh, but ever since I gave food to a panhandler in the States, and was cursed at, my sympathy levels have dwindled there. Travelling throughout the developing world also puts things into greater perspective.
It is inevitable that you will eventually encounter someone begging here who you just want to help. In my case, it is two groups for whom I am a sucker: Lolas or lolos, and those who appear to be truly ill, with little or no social support.
When we first moved here, I remember being outside of Robinsons Ortigas, and seeing a woman there holding a baby. She wasn’t bothering anyone, just sitting there, and a few people tossed coins on the folds of her skirt. The baby was suffering from hydroencephalitis, or something similar… His head was maybe four times the normal size, severely deformed. Quite simply, in the Philippines, children suffering from such diseases normally die (I think that one is is usually fatal anywhere), or receive little, if any, care. The look of sadness on her face was truly heartbreaking. This was no syndicate, or someone looking for a rich kano. It was someone who was truly desperate, who knew what was coming, and could do nothing. Rebecca and I bought her some formula and gave her a P500 note. It really is all we could do. Try and give her a little hope. That vision has stayed with me in my head since I moved here. Whenever I am frustrated or angry about something here, I think of her and tell myself, “Your problems are minor… stop your griping.”
Up in Ballesteros, there is an old lola who hangs around the palengke, offering blessings to strangers. Rebecca has known her for thirty years. The lola has always been somewhat unbalanced. Whenever we go to the palengke there, she always seems to find us, and we give her five pesos. Rebecca says that the woman has always been there, and some people think she is a bruja. In the Philippines, mental health services for the poor are rare, and practically unheard of in a small provincial town. She is one of the outcasts. The vendors there in the market have all known her for years, and are sympathetic, giving her rice and some vegetables to eat every day. When we see her and give her a coin, it is always the same reaction, spoken in Ybanag while she is grabbing my hand, “Oh, you handsome americano! You know I know Rebecca many years! She very lucky!” She’ll walk away cackling happily. Very pleasant outlook on life. Rebecca will usually also buy her a calabaza or mango.
In Tuguegarao, at the Jollibee at Tanza Junction, there is one kid who is always in the car park. He was born with one arm, and the hand on the end is more like a “claw”. I would guess that he is maybe 10 years old now. The restaurant guards sympathize with him, and let him help customers there as long as he behaves (He does). He is always smiling. Whenever I am there, I buy him a piece of chicken and give him 50 pesos. The fact that he is always so upbeat… always helpful. Calls me ”Sir” (NOT “Joe”) and Rebecca “Ma’am”. This, despite his obvious hardship. I may be a sucker, but for some reason, with this kid, I don’t mind.
Whether we are in Manila, or on the highway, or in the province, there is one group to whom we always give something: Native Aeta, or other Igorots who we see walking on the side of the road. They are easy to identify, normally wearing “native” clothing and sticking together in groups. In Manila, they usually come looking for work, and finding none here, resort to begging as a last resort. We’ve bought bus tickets for a couple in order to go back home. These groups usually speak little, if any, Tagalog, but usually understand Ilocano, Ybanag, or Itawis, so Rebecca can communicate with them. She has a soft spot for them. She knows the reason they come to the city, and she knows that very often the best place for them is back home (Most are totally unprepared for urban life). This sympathy goes back years, when some Aeta nursed Rebecca’s mother back to health after she caught dengue in the mountains years ago. Her mama stayed with the Aeta for around six weeks, and they never asked her for a single centavo. Since that time, Rebecca and her family always try and help Aeta whenever we see them.
So, I gave the above examples to show what and when I personally give. Really, if you want to help, a donation to the Red Cross, a church, or Bahay Kalinga will be much more useful and beneficial. Or will a food donation. Everyone has their own limits and beliefs. However, when you live here, this is an issue you will face, like it or not, and you need to decide how you will deal with it.
John Miele is a Citizen of the World, having spent time in many locations around the globe. Currently, he finds himself in Manila, but travels throughout the Philippines. John joined the Live in the Philippines Web Magazine in mid-2008.