Giving Money: My (possibly quite twisted) Code of Ethics

Most people I know give coins or small notes to those who beg in the street or sell goods on buses. I know the latter are technically salesmen, but considering they often tell sad stories or receive cash from people who don’t want their goods, I’m including them here.

I give money too. Life isn’t fair and that’s increasingly obvious the longer you live in Latin America. I don’t believe in looking a starving man in the eye and telling him, probably untruthfully, that I’m going to give my quid to a charity that will tackle the cause of his hunger. I appreciate the work those charities do but a) I know I’m too disorganised and b) well, he’s hungry now.

But I am very capable of grumpiness, prejudice and making random, emotion-based decisions, which has somehow led me to create a complex Code of Ethics that dictates whether or not I hand over my cash. The whole thing is probably very unfair, hence why I’m sharing:

I do give money if…

1) A bus seller has engaging patter

A man entered my bus today when I was in no mood to hand over money. But when he said: “Look, I know everybody here has a sad story about love, poverty, their family and their health and well… long pause… I wish I was different, but that’s life…” I found myself reaching for my wallet for the honesty of it all. I have nothing against emotional blackmail either. That’s surely all Apple is doing when it pretends owning an iPhone5 somehow makes you cooler.

2) If the bus driver is an asshole

One day a bus driver was rude to me and stole my 50 pesos change. He then proceeded to berate an elderly man who entered the bus to beg. I handed over every coin I had, because everyone knows nothing brightens your day more than a good dose of passive aggression. It didn’t do the old man any harm either.

3) If the person asking happens to live near me

There’s a homeless man who has, by all accounts, lived in my street for 14 years and has never been known to cause anyone any harm. Some days I give him coins, some days I don’t, but he gives me a friendly wave every day anyway. I know he is a crack addict but I still give him money. While that might be unpalatable for some, I’m just not best placed to judge the problems of someone who has subsequently lived at the mercy of the elements for a decade-and-a-half. Poor sod.

4) If it’s raining

Bogotá is horrible when it rains. If you’re swimming through that to beg or sell pencils, well, you deserve to achieve something.

5) If the person is attractive

I told you I was twisted. But I’ve given money to both men and women before on the basis that, beneath the dirt and air of frustrated shame, they are attractive. Given the supposedly scientific studies that claim being attractive increases your chances in life, I wonder how different life might have been had fate showed them another hand.

I don’t give money if…

1) The person is the third person to get on my bus

They say the third hiker will always be bitten by a snake; the first person wakes it, the second person disturbs it and the, er, third person dies. I like to think there is something philosophical about the fact that by the third person on a single bus journey I’ve completely run out of empathy. But possibly there’s not.

2) They show me an open wound

Perhaps some readers will hate this post on the basis that rogue evils like ourselves encourage and perpetuate the begging that ruins their day (I don’t know what the alternative is though? Turning up your iPod and hoping the offender dies quietly in a corner?) But I draw the line at encouraging someone to show me an open wound. I know it should probably make me more sympathetic.

3) The person calls me a gringa

Ha! Told you it was arbitrary. I hate being called a gringa quite possibly because the word relates to the United States and I was born and raised on another continent entirely. Call a Venetian a Martian and you wouldn’t expect them to part with any cash either, would you?

So there you have it. Apologies to those who find it morally abhorrent to give money away in a random fashion but, to the rest of you, what’s your system? Do you even have one?

Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.


  1. Diego

    I never give money at all. I live in Lisbon, there are beggars, but Portuguese, in my opinion, don´t tend to give any money either. There is a guy who begs and frequents one of the cafés I take breakfast in, I pay him his café late and toast, dunno why, he never asked me to, but I do.

  2. Jorge

    I understand why being called a gringo in Colombia when you are not originally from the US is most unwelcome. I feel the same when I am called Mexican/Puerto Rican/spanish the US because of my name or Indian/Pakistiani because of my appearance. In lukewarm defense of my fellow colombians, though, most colombians apply “gringo” liberally to include any foreign born blond or Western European/North American-looking person whose first language is not spanish.

    In fact, this reminded me of a conversation with other colombians living in the US where we came to the conclusion that for most colombians all the people in the world can be (mis)categorized as gringos (as defined above), “turcos” (any middle eastern/north african looking person), “chinos” (any east asian looking person) or “hindus” (any south asian); we were unable to reach a conclusion on whether most colombians acknowledged the existence of sub-saharan Africa (or Choco during non-national beauty pageant times).

  3. AvaApollo

    I give money to the bums who live near me too! It gets a little awkward if you always ignore the neighborhood bums. I like to encourage them not to rummage through my trash or pee in my alley way…

    1. bananaskinflipflops

      I also secretly hope that, considering they miss nothing in the street, if something really bad happened to me they might at least knock on my door and tell someone. It’s true what they say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch!

  4. PaulBFowler

    I tend to give money to most. After all, what’s 200 pesos? Obviously if they’re rude/abusive I don’t, but if I’ve got change I’ll try to help out. It annoys me when people have the attitude that ‘they’re just going to spend it on drugs’. As far as I’m concerned, I’m probably just going to spend it on alcohol, and many other people are just going to spend it on a Macbook they don’t need. We can live in hope they’ll spend it on food.

    Worse, though, are the people that say ‘they purposefully live like that cos they make more money’, or ‘honestly, they earn more money than you or me’. I hear that far too much here in Bogotá, and often it just shows how disconnected the rich are from the poor; how they justify their situation to themselves. It’s understandable I guess, a way of coping with it.

    Even if they did earn more than me, the dude that spends 12 hours a day getting on buses to ask for money works a lot harder than I do, just cos my parents could afford to give me an education. I wouldn’t even resent it.

    Rant over.

    1. PaulBFowler

      P.S. That’s not to say I don’t have my own twisted ethics! I definitely understand what you mean. I also understand that, as you say, makes me quite hypocritical to base these things on emotional responses, or to even have a system to judge, but at least we’re giving something!

      1. bananaskinflipflops

        I completely agree with you about drugs – I know if I lived on the street I would probably get addicted to something to get me through the day – I have a very nice life and still manage to indulge in red wine and chocolate without any excuse! I would prefer they spent it on food but, then again, no-one tells me how to spend my money! I also think the people on the buses work bloody hard and the “more money than you or me thing” fits in with my views when people say how lucky Brits are on benefits “Oh they get a free house and money to live on” Really? If their life is so fecking great, why don’t you do a swap? (Rant over x 2)

  5. Brad

    I notice that people who beg or sell are usually tailoring their pitch to women since they’re more generous than men. I’m a sucker for encouraging anything creative so I usually give to those who sing, rap, play an instrument or recite poetry.

  6. Ceri

    To be fair, I like your reasons and find them completely understandable. I try to give money when I can but, at the moment, I’m struggling with my money situation so badly that a week before payday I usually have nothing left (that’s no exaggeration) so it’s hard for me to just give 5 or 10 pesos away to every person I see.

    I think my reasons for when I *do* give money are actually very similar to you. A friend of mine gives money to everyone and anyone who asks and when I asked him why he does it when the story he’s heard is so obviously made-up and phony, he said there was a “Catholic guilt” that ran high in this country and that people always give others the benefit of the doubt and find it hard to say no. Guess I’m glad I’m a heartless atheist then. :S

  7. elpaisaingles

    I only give money to one guy in my area, he begs and also cleans shoes. He has openly told me that he is a crack addict, so I have told him that if he cleans my shoes well, I pay him well, we now have a date every Friday night, I now have the shiniest shoes in Chapinero and he has money to do with as he wants.

  8. Annika i Colombia

    I think we all have twisted systems. Atheist as I am, I find it really annoying to get religion in my face all the time, hence my rule “reference to god (jesus, etc.) – no money”. Also on the same line: sexist jokes or stories – no money either. Basically everyone else gets money, although those two rules eliminate quite a few.

  9. June O'Hara

    I left a comment before, but for some reason it didn’t show up. I found your blog through StumbleUpon and am impressed. I love your outlook and gift with language. You have yourself a reader. Hope this message goes through!

  10. Matt

    Remember that I’m colombia many beggars are actually part of a large cartel-esque organization and that the money is kicked upstairs and you could be inadvertently funding a form of terrorism. I literally never give money but often try to take every scrap of leftovers or will buy extra food to give.

    Ps, I hate being called a gringo and I’m FROM the US.

    1. Matt Rekoske

      Cliffs: Gringo isn’t an offensive term, and while it does have strong connotations with the US, it’s not incorrect when used to designate a foreigner from any other country. Plus when terms like “negrito” and “gordito” are used as terms of endearment, it’s a bit much to get upset over “gringo”.

  11. Raul

    Well, i don’t give a single penny if i am eating (any place: restaurant or cafeteria); if they show me wounds or medical stuff; when i have seen the same person with the same story, for example, i just arrive by bus and in the terminal some people robbed me…; on the other hand, i give when they sell something, specially food, peanuts, candy…

  12. Abel Wood

    If there is a shop nearby I ask if they are hungry, and offer to buy them something. Then they get food they hopefully actually need and cannot buy alcohol and drugs with; Which may contribute to their problems.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s