The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, November 04, 2013


Charity – or feeding thugs?
The first time I gave money to a beggar was also the last.
She was a pitiful sight, maybe three years old and hunched into the corner of the ugly overpass that links Jl Gubernur Suryo with the forecourt of Surabaya’s Tunjungan Plaza shopping mall.
She huddled on a piece of dirty cloth and just looked, a classic image of despair.  The tin in her lap was empty, and it was empty again a few moments after I’d dropped in coins.
An athletic young man sitting on the mall steps with his mates had seen the offering.  He sprinted up the stairs, took the money, and then dashed back to his vantage point, proving the warning given by locals:  Beggars are farmed by the unscrupulous – it’s a racket.
If so then the solution to the problem facing Jakarta Governor Jokowi and all other big city leaders is easy – turn off the supply. Then, under the ruthless law of the market, demand stops.
This tactic is being tried in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, a pioneer nation is supplying welfare from the cradle to the grave under the principle that none should need.  The fortunate rich get taxed and the unfortunate poor get benefits.
But even in Lambton Quay, the city’s main street of prestige shops and hotels, pedestrians steer past beggars hunkered under old coats, squatting on the sidewalk.
Proving that creative minds can exist in a bureaucracy, the arrest-and-rehabilitate approach being tried in Indonesia (never a success in countries with an abundance of  human rights lawyers),  was abandoned in favor of an Alternative Giving Fund. 
Posters urged well-wishers to stop helping individual beggars, but instead give to a fund that registered charities can access and distribute to applicants.
Donation boxes were installed near popular hobo hangouts, and a smartphone app distributed for those unable to move fingers off keyboards and into wallets.
Great idea?  The campaign cost almost NZ $40,000 (Rp 376 million) to set up.  In its first six weeks only $1,000 (Rp 9.4 million) had been raised. The beggars remained, though fewer.
An enterprising journalist wondering whether scrounging was a paying prospect disguised himself as a down-and-out and sat behind a scrawled message of misery- NO MONEY - NO HOPE. 
This took some courage as Australasian culture has devised a special slander for the English term ‘loafer’: Bludger, with a plosive B. The Indonesian word pemalas doesn’t carry the same connotations of contempt.
Nonetheless, within four hours he’d netted NZ $126.20 (Rp 1.2 million), plus enough food and drink for the day.
The basic weekly unemployment benefit for a single adult with no dependents is NZ $206 (RP 1.9 million). That’s almost Rp 8 million a month which many Indonesians would consider a handsome wage – but in costly NZ it’s the bare minimum for survival – hence the begging.
That’s the reasoning used by mendicants. The hard-hearted claim there’s work for the willing if only they’d stop smoking and boozing, have a shower and think positive.
The panhandling reporter also got advice from religious folk - who Kiwis call ‘the God Squad’, recommending their brand of faith. But reading the Holy Books for ideas isn’t helpful
The Koran urges believers to give charity so they will be rewarded, which suggests that the needy will be forever present. It’s even more depressingly explicit in the Bible, which quotes Jesus saying: ‘For ye have the poor always with you’.
Many governments, including Indonesia’s, are more optimistic. They’ve signed up to the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of eliminating extreme poverty and hunger by 2015, so clearly believe in the power of administrative action. We pray.
Since my Surabaya experience I’ve learned that though there are vile adults who exploit kids, there are also abandoned children who survive only through charity.  Separating the two is the tricky part, requiring vast resources and deep wisdom.
Maybe it’s easier just to clear the conscience by tossing a few coins in the kids’ tins, even when knowing they’ll be stolen by the thugs.  At least some of it will be used for food – the beggars have to be kept alive to keep the evil business going.  Duncan Graham

First published in The Sunday Post, 3 November 2013)

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