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

By Lloyd C | Updated April 19th, 2010

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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.)Β 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’ ActsSomewhere in Between‘Teaching’ Acts
Give a child a penDonate to a schoolTeach at a school
Give a street vendor baksheeshDonate a piece of cooking equipmentTeach manufacturing efficiencies
Give a business a charitable donationGive a business an interest-free loanGive 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.