Commentary on the famous proverb by Pam Wilson of Operation Mercy:
Teaching fishing and other myths
"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day….
Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
On an international scale, this poignant proverb has moved hearts, opened wallets and enjoyed widespread popularity in relief and development literature. It correctly identifies the temporal quality of much aid work and demonstrates the need for development beyond the limits of most projects in relief situations. However, this little proverb carries with it inherent assumptions that need to be examined more closely:1
1. It assumes that education is the solution to the problem.
On 17th August 1999, tens of thousands of people lost their lives in Western Turkey as the result of a devastating earthquake. The devastation was not caused so much by the physical impact as it was by poor building construction in the earthquake area. The fact that San Francisco suffered an earthquake of a similar magnitude during the same time period and without loss of life was a painful contrast. Once the initial stage of relief ended, development organisations and foreign governments rushed to provide seminars and training on how to build earthquake proof buildings. These were poorly attended and met with lethargy and even scorn. Why? Turkish contractors know how to build earthquake-proof
buildings. A glance at the provincial building code in the earthquake region reveals a set of rules and regulations equal to that of California's strict codes. The problem is not lack of education - the problem is one of corruption. Profit has became a stronger value than safety.
2. It assumes that it is the outsider who knows the solution to the problem.
Servants in Asia is an organisation born out of a dream that the gospel could truly become good news to the poor. They are brutally honest in their report of their medical work in Manila, Philippines: "The poor asked us to stop our mercy ministries. They argued that much of what we
were doing for them was in fact causing relational and communal breakdown. In other words, the social effect of all our programmes was proving harmful. Our individual approach to health care, in choosing one person over another, was creating jealousy and misunderstandings in the community. Our top down approach was alienating the poor. They did not feel an active part of the health care in the community. They were simply beneficiaries of the process, not managers of the process. They had little to do with its implementation. This demeaned their spirit. So in healing some aspects of the body we made their spirits sick." (Nicholls&Wood 1996:183)
3. It assumes that the man can't live in his environment.
Obviously in this proverb, the fishing teacher has observed a body of water that houses fish and with it the possibility of fishing. By deciding that the man must be taught fishing, the fishing teacher has made the assumption that the man has been unwilling to adapt to his environment.
A similar situation happened in Kenya, where the Masai love to tell the story of Lord Delamare. While visiting in Kenya, he observed the rich grasslands north of Nakuru but couldn't understand why the Masai didn't graze their cattle there. Deciding to kindly provide an example, rather than patronisingly teach them, he spent a significant sum importing English cattle and turning them loose on those grasslands. It was only then that he discovered that the grass in that part of the Rift Valley lacks a key nutrient that results in poor milk production, resulting in the death of most of the calves. This, of course, was something that every Masai boy knew but was never asked. (Myers 1999:144)
4. It assumes that the supply of fish is sustainable.
There was a time in South America when nearly every family grew its own food. If a family went hungry, it was usually due to laziness or carelessness or possibly social evils such as alcoholism. But with the arrival of Western capitalism, the lure of possible wealth has drawn many of these families into growing cash crops such as coffee, cocoa or tea. When the international price of their crop goes down, these people go hungry. Much starvation in parts of the nonwestern world today is due to this phenomenon. Even though this example comes courtesy of multinational corporations, aid workers can produce the same result by the introduction of non-sustainable forms of economic projects.
5. It assumes that those who will be taught fishing (probably already the most poor and
disadvantaged of society) will have fishing rights.
As we have seen in the earthquake example above, corruption is likely a stronger force in a society than justice. And in an even more general sense, powerlessness is a key root of poverty. In urban situations in particular, the poor suffer not so much for lack of cash or goods but from marginalisation and economic exploitation. Because there is only a finite amount of wealth in any country, the powerful can monopolize a majority of it only by denying it to the poor. (Linthicum 1991:37) Development workers cannot assume that providing skills to the disadvantaged opens a door to economic freedom.
6. It assumes that the new fishers have enough economic power to be able to sell their surplus fish.
After all, man does not live by fish alone. Clothing, housing and utility bills, medical costs and other nonperishable goods and services must be obtained, even by those in the most rural of environments. Before teaching fishing, has a market for fish been analysed? If a fisher cannot sell, trade or barter for the other services and goods that he requires, skill in fishing is only a partial solution to his economic problems.
7. It assumes that the environmental condition of the lake will remain constant.
For fishers to keep fishing, there need to be fish! A community whose survival strategy is dependent on a body of water to provide fish in the quanitites to which they have become accustomed is threatened when that body of water can no longer endure the demands placed on it. And when survival is threatened, people generally compromise their values to ensure their survival. One example of this is child prostitution. It is not a value for most parents to sell their daughters into prostitution. However, "when their very survival is threatened, they succumb to this practice as a way of navigating through the moral dilemmas which with survival confronts them." (Bradshaw 1998:68) Shortsighted development work moving into a situation such as this can pinpoint child prostitution as a community value that needs to be changed when the "value" can actually be the effect of the compromising of survival strategies or of poor development work in the first place.
8. It assumes that their traditions allow them to fish..
AIDS workers are learning in many cultures the power of tradition within a society. Is the continent of Africa dying of the AIDS virus because of immorality? Yes and no. In reality, in many places they are dying because of tradition. For example, the people in the Rakai district in northern Uganda believe that a woman is married to a clan, rather than to one man. Therefore, a bride in this culture has sexual intercourse with all of her husband's brothers before she appears in public as a married woman. Development workers who try to discourage this practice have been accused of imperialism and the attempted destruction of the Rakai culture. Unnecessarily so because everyone between the ages of 15 and 50 in the Rakai culture is now dead. Tradition has also preserved famine, discouraged well and dam building and encouraged the starvation of infants in many cultures around the world. Tradition and culture are powerful forces that must be considered before the implementation of any development programme.
9. It assumes that the male in the society is the one who provides food.
The story of the Yir Yoront is a classic example of Westerners ignoring the effect of gender and social hierarchy on culture. In the 1950's, a group of well-meaning Western missionaries introduced steel axes to the Yir Yoront, an Australian aboriginal society. As often happens, it was the powerless of the society - the women and the youth - who had made friends with the missionaries and so they were the initial beneficiaries of these choice tools. However, in Yir Yoront culture, it had not previously been the women and youth who were empowered. It was the elders who kept the stone axes for the communal use of the tribe. There were well-defined
social patterns defining the process of requesting the use of the ax. The authority structuring of the tribe was based on this tradition and this began to break down because of the good intentions of the missionaries. Not only was respect and social structuring affected, but the increased amount of free time resulted in an increase in promiscuity and alcoholism.
10. It assumes that participation is not an important goal.
"Without vision, the people perish." (Prov 29:18) The Hebrew word 'para' translated here as 'perish' means also to be set at naught, to be refused, to be uncovered. And without participation, training and development is hollow, short-lived and lacking in sustainability. What kind of participation? Certainly there is the kind of participation that involves listening to someone present their plan and syllabus for Fishing 101. Real participation, in contrast, begins within a community identifying its own needs, analyzing its own risks and resources and running their own programmes.
International Relief Coordinator
1Many thanks to Bruce Bradshaw of World Vision and Starbucks for good conversation on this topic, accompanied by good coffee. Much of this article is an augmentation of Bruce's ideas.
Bradshaw, Bruce. "Empowering Communities to Enhance Survival Strategies." Taken from Sexually
Exploited Children: Working to Protect and Heal. Monrovia, CA: MARC, 1998.
Linthicum, Robert. Empowering the Poor. Monrovia, CA: MARC, 1991
Myers, Bryant. Walking With the Poor. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999
Nicholls, Bruce J. and Wood, Beulah R. Sharing Good News with the Poor. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker
Book House and Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster Press, 1996