Begging has been a feature of life for as long as there have been poor people with nothing, and more affluent people with money to give to them.

It is certainly a common sight on the streets of towns and cities around the world today.  

Its practitioners - often ignored, sometimes despised and abused, occasionally helped - are frequently the target of official disapproval or legal restriction of some kind, and are moved on, out of view, out of mind.

Yet they will always return, hoping and trusting in the charity of strangers. So what lies behind this phenomenon in the globalised 21st century, supposedly richer than all the centuries that preceded it but apparently no better at dividing wealth equitably between the haves and the have-nots?  

For most who do it, begging must surely be a matter of dire necessity rather than an occupation that a person would readily turn to - though, yes, for a few, it may also be a matter of choice.

But how do different cultures respond to their presence and their appeals for help? We sent Al Jazeera correspondent Barnaby Phillips and producer Karim Shah in search of answers. 


By Barnaby Phillips 

When it comes to beggars, I'm confused. If I walk past one on the streets of London, I feel both guilt and embarrassment.

Sometimes, I'm not proud to say, I feel a flash of irritation at beggars for making me uncomfortable in this way. Occasionally I stop and give one some money, but usually I hurry on by. I suspect most Londoners feel and behave in a similar way.

On the other hand, if I'm in a poorer country, for example on a work assignment, I'm much more likely to fish around in my pockets for some money and give it to a beggar. Perhaps my feelings of guilt in a developing country are stronger; often the fact that the beggar is a child makes it that much harder to walk on by.

In other words, my approach to beggars is inconsistent and ill-thought out. So I was intrigued when my editors at Al Jazeera asked me to make a half-hour film about beggars around the world. 

We decided to choose two very different countries - Sweden and the Philippines. We wanted to see how beggars perceive themselves in these countries, and to compare popular and official attitudes towards them.

We chose the Philippines, and its capital Manila, as an example of an Asian megacity, a place known to have large numbers of beggars on its streets amid glaring inequalities of wealth. Of course no two places are exactly alike, but we hoped it was representative of the kind of social problems and challenges we might have found in several other such countries. 

Sweden was a more intriguing choice. Until very recently, Sweden did not have a begging problem. That has changed in recent years as thousands of Roma people, mostly from Romania, have moved to Sweden and started to beg in cities and even small towns across the country.

People and Power investigates the growing global phenomenon of organised begging [AP Photo/Andrew Medichini]

For the Swedes, this has been a profoundly unsettling development. Swedes like to think, with some justification, that they belong to an open and tolerant society.

But if Sweden has usually dealt with the outside world under its own terms, for example through its generous aid budget, that is now changing. Today the world's problems are coming to Sweden, not just in the form of beggars, but, in an entirely separate development, with the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees from Syria and elsewhere. 

This is causing social tension in Sweden, and there is now a very active debate about whether begging should be made illegal. The right-wing Sweden Democrats Party has made this one of its main policy proposals, and it is rising in the polls. 

In the Philippines, by contrast, it is difficult to imagine begging becoming a major political issue. Not because the problem isn't shocking in Manila, but because popular attitudes towards beggars are so different to those in Sweden.

Beggars, a wealthy Filipino told me with a regretful shrug, "will always be there". One great irony is that begging in the Philippines is already illegal, but the law is rarely enforced. Only when Manila comes under the international spotlight, for example during a Papal visit or major summit, do the authorities embark on a frenzied attempt to remove beggars from the streets. Otherwise they are tolerated, and the presence of even young child beggars is apparently accepted as inevitable.  

In some ways, this was an easy film to make. I had worried that the Roma beggars in Sweden would be closed and suspicious. Often, they are accused of belonging to and being controlled by criminal gangs. In fact, they proved to be welcoming to our cameras, and eager to get their point of view across. In Manila, people living in great poverty and difficulty were extremely accommodating and gracious. 

So what did we discover? Well, please watch the film.

But one or two conclusions are obvious. We live in an age of migration. Unprecedented numbers of people are on the move, looking for a better life. Many of the beggars in Manila have travelled from the poorer provinces of the Philippines, just as the Roma in Sweden have travelled from one of the poorest to the richest countries in the European Union.

It is almost impossible to prevent these movements, whether we like it or not. We also live in an age of growing inequality. Just this month the aid organisation Oxfam released a report saying that the richest 62 billionaires own as much as the poorest 50 percent of the world's poorest population. Or, to put it another way, the richest 1 percent own more wealth than the remaining 99 percent of humanity.

It seems to me that this combination of increased migration and inequality makes the presence of beggars inevitable. In the short term we can seek to move them on or lock them up - and in the film you will see examples of both - but they will always come back. Get used to beggars, because until we deal with the very root causes of poverty and injustice, they are not going anywhere.  

That brings me back to my age-old conundrum; to give or not to give? I met some truly admirable people in Sweden and the Philippines who work with beggars to improve their lot. 

Their advice, invariably, was that giving in the street may assuage guilt (and the short-term hunger) of the immediate recipient, but it does little to alleviate the problem. If you really want to help beggars in your local community, find the organisations who are working with them day-in and day-out, offering training, education and so on, and give them your spare change. Poor people, be it in Manila or Malmo, need holistic solutions to structural problems, not passing acts of charity.  

Source: Al Jazeera