Should you be buying from children on the streets?

Should you be buying from children on the streets?


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Cambodian children meeting tourists, Gloria Cheng

This guest post by Alison Rabe was originally published in WhyDev, a blog for individuals passionate about development, aid, and other global issues.

On a breezy Tuesday night on the riverside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I met up with a Cambodian friend for dinner. As we sat at our street-side table enjoying an elaborate and ridiculously cheap meal, a small, dirty girl carrying a fistful of long-stemmed roses walked up to me, reached out her hand palm-up, and looked up at me with her best sad face.

What is the true cost of buying things like flowers from children in poor countries?

I immediately said my token, “No thank you, I’m sorry,” and averted my eyes. To my astonishment, however, my Cambodian friend pulled 500 riel (USD $0.13) out of his pocket, picked out a rose, and sent the little girl on her way.

As an aid worker, I was enraged. “How can you support that lifestyle?” I gasped. “Don’t you know the conditions they live under? You just allowed that little girl’s enslavement!” He just rolled his eyes, shrugged a little, and said, “Well, maybe she needs it to go to school.”

Most foreigners I know refuse to buy things from children for the mere symbolism of supporting child labor, but maybe the effects are actually more important.

For those of you that have already lived or traveled in countries like Cambodia, you may have encountered kids in tattered clothes, walking the streets at night, carrying knick-knacks in overloaded baskets. A simple walk leads to encounters with eight-year-olds selling books, bracelets, or flowers. Lounging on the beach is inevitably mixed with kids trying to paint your nails, thread your hair, sell you fruit, etc.


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I’ve had long conversations with 12-year-old girls with no parents as they braided my hair and tried to convince me to give them three dollars. A young boy once asked me to give him eight dollars in exchange for a bottle of water so he could pay for a month’s worth of schooling. Persistent, entrepreneurial kids are selling stuff everywhere.

My friend’s comment got me to start thinking about the effects of my imposing morality. Even if I don’t buy, and continue to theoretically oppose child labor, it still continues and the kid remains sad and hungry. If I buy, maybe they’ll have some food to eat, maybe to go to school. Then again, maybe it will go to their alcoholic father.

I do not claim to know the solution, but the right answer is much grayer than many of us recognize. I do think it’s important that we think about each situation on a case-by-case basis, using our best judgment. What is most important is that we think about it, instead of immediately imposing our aid worker ideals on irrelevant situations. Here are some pros and cons of buying stuff from kids to mull over:

To buy:

Pro: The kid smiles and probably even gets excited.

Con: The happiness, though perhaps genuine, is fleeting.

Pro: The kid has some money, maybe to go to school, maybe to eat. Education and food are good things.

Con: Maybe not. You’ll never know where the money goes.

Pro: It creates a positive interaction between you and another person that would not have happened otherwise.

Con: You still don’t know where the money is going, a factor which may be dependent on whether or not the interaction can count as positive.

…or not to buy:

Pro: You’re symbolically telling the kid that you do not promote his work activities.

Con: The kid keeps working anyway, and so do all of the other kids. Your high-falutin message goes unheeded.

Pro: You save money. You can’t rescue all of the street kids by buying all of the bracelets in Cambodia.

Con: But maybe you can feed one? Also, you miss out on buying some nice-smelling flowers or pretty bracelets, which you may have wanted anyway.

Pro: It’s easier to forget about the kid if you avoid eye contact.

Con: You have a negative interaction with the child, or pass up on having any interaction at all.

What do you think? Should you buy stuff from kids on the streets? Let us know in the comments.

Alison is conducting a research fellowship grant in rural Northeastern Cambodia. She is working with various NGOs and indigenous villages on community land rights. Whenever the rain lets up in the evenings, Alison runs around the lake near her house. If it doesn’t, she runs and takes a shower at the same time, or stays in and practices the guitar. You can also check out her blog


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