The Thinker: A Sense of Misgiving About Seasonal Beggars
Just over a week into the holy month of Ramadan and major cities all across the country are already flooded with seasonal beggars. In response, the government has announced that it endorses all efforts to take beggars off the streets, including the move by the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) to declare begging haram, or forbidden under Islam.
Allow me to focus on what I believe to be one of the main reasons — certainly not the only one — why we have the problem of begging, and especially seasonal begging, in the first place: It’s us and our perverse sense of charity.
Let’s make one thing clear: Begging is a job. Beggars may be officially referred to as unemployed, but by all economic definitions, they are service providers. Begging requires capital, time and hard labor. If you don’t believe me, try spending eight to 10 hours a day on the street in the baking sun, inhaling toxic fumes and soliciting potential “clients.” Begging also provides a service; beggars supply us with a means to delude ourselves into believing that we’re helping the poor, assuaging our sense of guilt for not helping enough and aiding us in securing a nice spot in heaven. Giving during Ramadan is said to earn double its normal reward; but this perception, as we’ll see, promotes behaviors with unintended consequences.
Individuals choose jobs based on their personal cost-benefit analysis. Beggars choose begging because it provides them with the highest return per time invested. The higher the return, the more attractive begging as a job becomes.
A number of studies indicate that begging can generate an income of Rp 100,000 per day, quite a respectable figure. That income can increase dramatically during Ramadan, when many people believe their alms are more valuable than during the rest of the year. By comparison, a car mechanic earns about Rp 50,000 for an average day of work. Even if a person has other employable skills, begging might still be a more lucrative job.
If that were all there was to it, there should be no problem. If begging is a legitimate job, just let the beggars beg. But there are at least two serious consequences of seasonal begging. First, seasonal beggars crowd out the urban poorest, who unlike the seasonal beggars have absolutely no alternative other than begging.
Second, there is the use of children, either as beggars or as props, which deprives them of time for education and exposes them to hazardous conditions. People’s tendency to give more alms to children and baby-carrying beggars is certainly not helping. Your alms during Ramadan, even if they do increase your chances of going to heaven, may deprive the poorest of the poor and endanger the children here on earth.
I’m not making a case against giving. Rather, I’m making a case against giving incorrectly. It’s almost always better to channel your alms through respectable charity organizations than to give the same amount of money directly to beggars — at least if your intention is to really help the poor.
Charity organizations can channel alms more effectively than individual alms-givers. The alms that these organizations manage are sufficient enough to fund well-planned sustainable programs, both short and long term. Most of these organizations do more than simply help the poor survive day to day; they also have an eye on the future, providing financial assistance for education and even capital to start small businesses.
If you think that giving directly to beggars means that they then keep all the money, without having to pay an organizational middle man, think again. As in any other underground economic sector, seasonal beggars are organized. And they have to pay fees to the “organizers.”
Beggars typically keep a mere 30 percent of what they collect. An accountable charity organization would spend more of your alms on its beneficiaries; and it would show you a financial report to prove it. Give directly to beggars and they likely receive less.
Perhaps the best test is your own conscience. The next time you feel the urge to give to street beggars instead of a respectable charity organization, ask yourself: “Am I doing this for them, or am I doing this to feel good about myself and boost my chances of securing a comfy place in the afterlife?”
Then again, if the MUI and the government push forward with their respective plans, we might not have the opportunity to ask that question at all.
Rivandra Royono is the executive director of the Association for Critical Thinking and a consultant for the World Bank in Jakarta.