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Give a Man a Fish vs. Teach a Man to Fish

by Globetrooper Todd | 6 Responses
Teach a man to Fish

It’s easy to castigate global travellers for their pursuit of self-satisfaction. Cynical types suggest that time is better spent on responsibilities at home. And altruistic types suggest that time is better spent on philanthropic causes and initiatives.

But global travel can contribute at least as much to society as the suggested alternatives, even if the glossy brochureware suggests otherwise.

There are generally two ways that a philanthropic Globetrooper can have a positive impact. They can either ‘give a man a fish’ or they can ‘teach a man to fish’. (Note that ‘man’ is short for ‘human’ in this context.) The idea of giving vs. teaching comes from the following Chinese proverb:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Metaphorically, giving a man a fish refers to donating goods to support survival. The goods may include food, water, money, or even infrastructure. On the other hand, teaching a man to fish refers to imparting wisdom, demonstrating a skill, or empowering someone to survive without depending on subsequent donations.

Teaching may seem the best option, but it isn’t best in every situation. In the most dire situations, there’s neither the time nor latent effort to learn a skill. Sometimes, situations are so urgent and so difficult to manage, a short-term solution is the only viable option. The Darfur Conflict is a good example.

But aside from the most dire situations, it’s generally thought that helping someone to become self-sufficient is preferred over making them dependent on your donations. It seems obvious, but it’s worth remembering as you travel the globe looking for ways to help people in crisis or need.

It’s also worth remembering that ‘giving a man a fish’ can have a more negative impact than doing nothing at all. Apart from the dependencies it creates, it may support other unfavourable and unethical practices. For example, it may support cartels that profit from abusing children. Some of these groups harm children in the most grotesque ways so they’ll warrant sympathy from wealthy tourists. One must consider that ceasing donations to these children, while may seem cruel, will make the practice less viable.

I’ve put together a small table to give practical examples (open to your comments though):

Giving’ Acts Somewhere in Between ‘Teaching’ Acts
Give a child a pen Donate to a school Teach at a school
Give a street vendor baksheesh Donate a piece of cooking equipment Teach manufacturing efficiencies
Give a business a charitable donation Give a business an interest-free loan Give a business an interest-bearing loan

A great example of ‘teaching a man to fish’ is microfinance. This is the practice of giving small loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries. The borrower uses the funds to build, improve and maintain a self-sustaining business. They must pay back the loan, with interest, to the lender.

At first, it may seem more charitable to donate to these entrepreneurs, or at least provide an interest-free loan. But charging them interest makes them more self-sufficient. It forces them to build efficiencies into their business and become competitive on a global scale. And apart from the finance benefits of this, it’s also emotionally rewarding to know you’re a profitable business in the true sense.

So next time you’re faced by an opportunity to make a positive impact, consider whether you’re giving or teaching. There’s no doubt that giving is much easier, but when faced with the possibility that giving may make things even worse, the effort to teach may seem less burdensome. Just some food for thought for your next trip.

Posted in Adventure Travel | April 19th, 2010

6 Responses to Give a Man a Fish vs. Teach a Man to Fish

  1. There is also a concept in development of ‘valuing the local’. Start by appreciating the local people, knowledge, products and culture.
    It is a concerning assumption we think we have something better to impart. Who said the man wanted to fish anyway? And who said you know how to fish those waters to teach her anything?
    My comment on the suggested table is ask the person what they need.
    “”What can I do to help you?””

    Listen in the right places with a very open heart… You never know what you might just hear.

    Happy travelling!

  2. Hey Laura, thanks for the feedback.

    I think it’s crazy to assume we (people from wealthier countries) have nothing to offer people in need (after all we consume more than we need to survive). But I 100% agree that we don’t all necessarily have wisdom or teachings to impart on others. And that’s the point I neglected to make.

    I was trying to say there are better ways to make a positive impact than giving money to someone with their hand out. I.e. maybe I have no wisdom to impart, and maybe I can’t teach a local community how to build infrastructure, but as long as I consume more than I need to survive, I can at least fund someone to teach a community to build infrastructure. And that’s the clincher (and the point I should have made clearer).

    As an aside, I think it’s a romantic idea asking “”What can I do to help?”” But I am (rightly or wrongly) a proponent of “”a little less diplomacy, a little more action please.”” I think locals often don’t have all the answers. This isn’t a racist or discriminatory notion, it’s just the way (I think) problem solving works.

    But, with that said, I fully recognise your last point about listening with more than your ears. Because I honestly believe if you just listen with your ears, you’ll mostly hear ‘give me a fish’. That may sound arrogant too, but it’s largely my experience.


  3. ‘Give a man a fish you feed him for a day, give him a job and he can buy all the fish he wants from the market’ would probably be a more apt observation in the modern world!

    • Great point. But recently, walking around the poorer areas of Peru, I’ve realised that many of these people in poverty trying to make ends meet are infinitely more resourceful and innovative than most of us will ever be. A typical “job” in a Western country might provide all the fish you need, but it will rarely give you the skills to make a difference in this world. Anyway, just a thought I’ve recently had after seeing the ingenuity of individuals in developing countries. Sure there’s ingenuity in Western countries, but it’s held by a very small minority. Most people couldn’t even feed themselves if on their own. Maybe that’s a good sign of a developing country, but it still seems odd to me. :)

  4. I tanks you to help me in this porogram

  5. I am a school teacher that is getting ready to start a unit on hunger. I thought it would be good to center on the concept of teaching a man to fish. That is how I came across your website. I want my students to understand global hunger but eventually point them towards home to find solutions to hunger in our community. If you have any suggestions, I would love to hear them.

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