I was very lucky to take part in an excellent Harvest assembly at Godstowe School in High Wycombe today. Just the right mixture of creativity, lovely music, laughing, praying and stopping for a moment to think about our wonderful world and what we enjoy.
In their preparation, pupils had been considering this saying (you probably know it);
If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day,
If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.
It’s neat. The first use we have of the phrase is mid to late nineteenth century, in a short story called ‘Mrs. Dymond’ by Anne Isabella Ritchie, daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray. Here’s how she used the idea back then;
“He certainly doesn’t practise his precepts, but I suppose the patron meant that if you give a man a fish he is hungry again in an hour; if you teach him to catch a fish you do him a good turn.”
Although the original setting has nothing to do with international aid, which is the context most of us know this saying in, you can hear and see exactly why the phrase became a popular and thoughtful antidote to the handout mentality. Giving one man one fish might feel compassionate and look caring but is the smallest of sticking plasters if the man is living in poverty. ‘Teaching him to fish’ on the other hand, enables him to care for himself, and by suggestion, his family, for a life-time, and again by suggestion, restores his dignity.
These are good things to say, important things to repeat. Handouts are good in emergencies (ask anyone who goes to a Foodbank). But they’re an unreliable and demeaning way of life. Better is the language of empowerment – teaching, enabling ,making things possible, clearing away obstacles. Handouts are sometimes essential in the short term, for instance in disaster relief, but human beings have a short attention span and we tend to move on to the next disaster, the new crisis. If we’ve created a dependency culture, then everything goes wrong when the fish/handouts dry up.
But I wasn’t entirely sure about the phrase as I heard it again this morning, especially when it’s applied to international aid. It’s been niggling me all day.
* it’s patronising, isn’t it? I don’t think the biggest problem for most of the world’s poor is that they don’t know ‘how to fish’ – whether you apply that literally to fishing or use it more widely about food production and farming etc. It’s a bit naive to suggest that the essential problem is ignorance, let alone that we in more developed countries ‘know’ what they don’t!
* it’s simplistic, isn’t it? The choice is not between giving people a daily quota of fish or teaching them how to catch fish themselves, as though the latter would ensure that promised lifetime of food. What about pollution? What about changing weather patterns caused in part by the developed world’s overconsumption? What about war and civil war, ruining whole countries and driving people into fleeing as refugees? What about the crippling levels of international debt? What about the disgusting levels of corruption? The proverbial man hungry for fish is not fishing on a level playing field. Many of the obstacles that stand in the way of the poor are our fault, they’re our doing. Nice to think that we could send out a few educators, cut down the handouts, and all is well. But that seems hopelessly optimistic, and overlooks our duplicity in creating and sustaining the poverty in the first place. ‘The man’ no doubt knows how to fish, and would prefer us to clean up the river, stop selling arms to the people fighting outside his village, and cancel more of the debt that means his community can’t afford to build schools and hospitals.
* it’s too individual, isn’t it? ‘The man’ may well have a wife, children, parents, brothers and sisters. Solutions for them need to be on a community level, not individual. The best of aid works with partners based in communities, and would never consider one person in isolation.