Feed them for how long?

Here's an old story that could be updated

by Wally Kroeker
(Reprinted from The Marketplace magazine, Sept/Oct 1994)
(Video by Steve Sugrim)

You've heard it many times in different versions, the time-worn slogan of the ancient phi­losopher K'uan-Tzu:

"Give people fish and you feed them for a day; teach them how to fish and you feed them for life."

K'uan-Tzu (551-479 BC) was a wise man. He understood how short-term handouts relate to long­term impact. If he were around today he would doubtless have im­portant insights on issues like sus­tainable development.

His most famous line, however, has become overused. People utter it, thinking they are saying some­thing profound about poverty, when in fact they haven't begun to grasp the deeper implications. Respond­ing to poverty in today's world is complex, and catchy slogans that oversimplify a problem can do more harm than good. Maybe it's time for some revision.

Listen to Mother Teresa of Cal­cutta: "I have been asked many times if, rather than giving a fish to the hungry, we should not give them a fishing pole so that they can catch the fish themselves. My God! Many times they do not even have the strength to hold the fishing pole, so we have to give them fish today to help them recuperate enough strength to be able to catch fish tomorrow."

Let's say, for the sake of discus­sion, that the poor do have the strength required. What then? Are fishing lessons their most pressing need?

Do we know how to fish?

A basic notion seems to be that we in the affluent world know how to fish and the poor folks out there don't. Alleviating poverty, then, is simply a matter of education, right? "We'll teach them how to be as clever as we are, and then every­thing will be fine."

But does every country fish the way we do? Using bamboo baskets to catch red snapper off the coast of Haiti may be different than an­gling for lake trout with 10-pound test line in northern Saskatchewan. Before we make plans to go out and teach, we have to be sure we actu­ally possess the skill they need.

Furthermore, the poor likely know how to fish, and may be better at it than we are. Maybe there are other factors that keep them poor.

Can they buy equipment?

Knowing how to fish is one thing. Doing it is another. Usually some kind of equipment is needed, like a pole or a net or a basket. For those who are really poor, getting the necessary equipment may be a problem. The banks probably won't lend them any money because they have no credit history or collateral. There's always the local loan shark but who wants to pay 250 percent interest? Perhaps what they need is affordable credit so they can purchase the items on their own.

Can they gather by the river?

John Perkins, an African-Ameri­can minister who founded Voice of Calvary Ministries, is normally soft-spoken and gentle. But he "loses it" when he hears about feed­ing the poor for life.

"It's a lie," he says. "Whoever owns the pond decides who gets the fish."

No matter how well they can fish, the poor will stay poor if they can't get access to the water. In order to feed themselves for life, they may need help getting fishing rights. That complicates things. It might mean that giving the help they need will have nothing to do with knowing how to fish. It might mean pressing for some larger is­sues of economic justice among those who own the resources in Low Income Countries.

"Giving people a fish reduces the vulnerability of the hungry, at least for awhile," writes veteran devel­opment worker Jerry Aakerin Part­ners with the Poor. ''Teaching peo­ple how to fish helps some people take more control of their lives; helping people to protect their fish­ing rights is equipping them to live with dignity and with more equity and security about their futures."

Trolling for mercury

Maybe the poor have arranged to get access to the river but when they get there they find that a fac­tory upstream is dumping effluent into the water that contaminates the fish. Poisoned fish can't be sold or fed to the family.

Once again, a larger issue of jus­tice and politics intrudes. To really help the poor we may have to help them lobby for better environmen­tal standards. At the very least, we can urge North American compa­nies who do business in Low In­come Countries to behave them­selves and not make messes that keep people poor.

Fair trade laws

Let's assume our fisherfolk have overcome all the obstacles men­tioned thus far. They know how to fish. They've obtained credit at a fair price to buy fishing equipment. They've gained access to the river. The water is clean and the fish are edible.

But when they start bringing in the fish they discover they can't sell their catch. The export market has collapsed and the local market is glutted because the rich coun­tries have imposed duties on im­ported fish.

Meanwhile, "helpful" North Americans have sent a shipload of second-grade tuna which relief agencies are giving away on street corners. Now even the local people won't buy their fish. After all, why pay for a local product when the relief agency is handing out tins of it for nothing.

Perhaps what concerned North Americans should do, among other things, is improve trade laws to give poor countries an equal footing.

K'uan-Tzu had it right… in his day. But today the causes of pov­erty are far more complex.

So are the solutions.

Which means we have to get be­yond glib slogans if we want to make a difference.