Myths About Poverty. Myth #3 – Teach a Man to Fish and He’ll Eat for a Lifetime

When I first started to engage seriously with global poverty I was taken with this proverb:

[quote]Give a man a fish
and he’ll eat for a day.
Teach a man to fish
and he’ll eat for a lifetime.[/quote]

I think it captivated me because it held out the promise of sustainable solutions to poverty. If only I could help poor communities develop their skills then they would be able to claw their way out of poverty.

I now find myself very uncomfortable with the proverb, for it assumes that the problem lies with the poor person (he doesn’t know how to fish) and that the solution is me (he needs me to teach him). But what if the hungry man already knows how to fish, and the reason he is hungry is  that his government sold the rights to his fishing grounds to international fishing fleets? Armed with their super-trawlers these international fleets take out of the water in a single day more fish than the hungry man and his entire village take out in a lifetime. The hungry fisherman’s nets get cut and the fish become scarce.

Sound far-fetched? It’s exactly what happened in Somalia when the government collapsed in 1991, except the international fishing fleets didn’t bother negotiating licenses. They just entered Somali waters illegally. It’s precisely what is happening in the Pacific today.

So I want to rewrite the Proverb.

[quote]Give a man a fish
and he’ll eat for a day.
Give him access to the fishing grounds
and he’ll eat for a lifetime.[/quote]

This points me to the reality that poverty is entwined with power. People become poor and remain poor because their assets are stolen by the powerful and they are denied opportunity to improve their well-being. Given there are sufficient resources in the world to enable the flourishing of every human being, one has to ask why three billion of the earth’s inhabitants don’t have enough. It’s not because they’re lazy. It’s because we have established social, political and economic systems that over-reward some and under-reward others. For example

  • in Cambodia land-grabbing is a serious problem. As land in the capital city, Phnom Penh, has become more valuable developers have made corrupt deals with government authorities to buy up the land of the less powerful. These groups are then forced into marginal areas with few services;
  • in Nepal  leprosy is still untreated in many rural areas. With villagers unaware that the disease can be medically cured, lepers are shunned. I met a 68 year old woman who had been living in a humpy in the bush outside her village for over two years after she contracted leprosy;
  • in Indonesia workers  making sports shoes for Nike are paid wages so low that they can’t afford basic expenses;
  • every year multinational companies take $650 billion in profits out of developing countries via illegal tax schemes, costing those countries around $180 billion in tax revenues.

From the household level to the village, the nation and the international level power is abused, keeping people locked into poverty. Resolving poverty means confronting power and those who misuse it, including myself.

To leave the proverb as I have put it is however a bit lopsided. The Industrial Revolution unleashed an explosion in knowledge and technology that often bypasses the poor. So there is great opportunity created by them. So here’s my final version of the proverb:

[quote]Give a man a fish
and he’ll eat for a day.
If he doesn’t know how to fish help him learn;
if he doesn’t have access to the fishing ground work with him to regain his rights.
Do this and he’ll eat for a lifetime.[/quote]


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