Teach A Man To Fish?

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Jun 19, 2008, 3:51:11 PM6/19/08
to Mennonite Poverty Forum
Commentary on the famous proverb by Pam Wilson of Operation Mercy.
What do you think of her analysis?

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
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
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
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

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
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

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

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

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
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
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
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
--Pam Wilson
Operation Mercy
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,
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

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