Scarcely a week goes by without someone saying, “Give people fish and you feed them for a day; teach them how to fish and you feed them for life.”
It’s a handy slogan, credited to Chinese philosopher Guan Zhong. For some 2,500 years, it has neatly expressed a core truth about giving help that lasts. Guan Zhong understood how short-term handouts relate to long-term impact.
Christians can relate to the image. The disciples caught fish; Jesus employed fish in powerful metaphors that endure.
Like many a good phrase, however, it has been overused. It also glosses over the complexity of today’s poverty.
Maybe it’s time for an update.
Are fishing lessons what the poor need most? Chances are, they already know how to fish, maybe better than we do, but they lack other necessities to make it happen. Besides, not everyone fishes the way we do. Using bamboo baskets to catch red snapper off the coast of Haiti is different than angling for trout in Manitoba. Before we head out to teach, we have to be sure we actually possess the skills our students need.
Maybe what they really need is better equipment. But how to get it? The banks probably won’t lend them money to buy it because the poor may not have collateral or credit history. 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.
So now they have the right fishing tackle. Can they gather by the river?
“Whoever owns the pond decides who gets the fish,” says African-American minister and civil rights activist John Perkins. No matter how well people can fish, they’ll 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. Maybe the help they need has less to do with imparting a skill than pressing for larger issues of justice.
Let’s say the poor have managed to arrange a spot on the river but a factory upstream (perhaps owned by corporations in which our pensions are invested) is dumping effluent that contaminates the river. Poisoned fish can’t be sold or fed to the family. To really help the poor we may have to help them achieve better environmental standards. Or, at the very least, urge corporations who do business there to behave themselves and not make messes that keep people poor.
Okay, let’s assume our fisherfolk have overcome all these obstacles. They know how to fish. They’ve obtained credit at a decent price to buy fishing equipment. They’ve gained access to the river. The water is clean and the fish are edible.
But when they bring in the fish they discover they can’t sell their catch. Why? The export market has collapsed because rich countries have imposed duties on imported fish, or have subsidized their own producers so heavily that they can dump their product on the rest of the world. Maybe the best way to help is to improve trade laws to give poor countries an equal footing.
Meanwhile, well-meaning North Americans have sent a shipload of second-grade canned fish, which relief agencies are giving away on street corners. Now even the local people won’t buy their product. Why pay for something that others are handing out for nothing?
Guan Zhong had it right – for his day. But today’s poverty is far more complex.
So are the solutions. We have to get beyond glib slogans, heartfelt as they may be, if we want to make a difference.